“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t .love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And 0 my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! .. . From Beloved, by Toni Morrison FOLLOWING THE SKILLFUL, weaving way of Toni Morrison’s latest novel made me want to braid my hair. It’s not that I want to relive my own failed childish attempts to order the strands, or my mother’s quickbraiding thumb, palm and forefinger. but because I like the way memory feels under Morrison’s pen. Memories that are pliable and soft to the creator’s touch. See, remembering implies accuracy, objectivity; memories have to do with how circumstances and lives are molded, justified, stored and called up when necessary. So I braided my hair for the first time in 15 years and ravenously finished one of the most riveting pieces of fiction I can remember. Set in post-Reconstruction Cincinnati, Ohio, Beloved braids the lives and rememories of Sethe, an empty-eyed, fugitive slave woman “with milk enough” to feed everyone she loves. Having escaped across the river after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she tries to kill her children rather than have them taken back to the plantation. She succeeds in killing her year-old daughter, slitting the infant’s throat with a handsaw before the slavers can stop her, an act that also convinces her pursuers that she herself is too crazy to be a breeder. Sethe’s three other children survive their mother’s attempt to “put my babies Rosalind Alexander is a freelance writer who lives in Austin. 28 SEPTEMBER 25, 1.987. where they’d be safe” but thereafter live in fear of the she-monster who would birth them and then deprive them of breath. The spirit of the dead daughter, angered by its aborted life, retaliates and haunts “124,” the spare but sufficient name Morrison bestows upon Sethe’s two-story house. The baby ghost alienates neighbors and strangers by throwing dishes, shaking the walls, and casting a ghastly red light behind windows. Deprived of her mother’s milk and love before she was old enough to understand hunger, the daughter-ghost BELOVED By Toni Morrison Alfred A. Knopf, 1987 275 pages, $18.95 feeds instead on her mother’s pain in ways that are less the “normal” antics of disgruntled spirits. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, a self-taught, big-hearted minister and cobbler advises Sethe to “lay it all down, sword and shield,” then dies. Sethe’s sons walk away still afraid of their mother and she is left to scrape out a living cooking at a local restaurant and caring for Denver, a daughter born during Sethe’s escape. Paul D, a comrade from Sweet Home, as the plantation is ironically called, searches Sethe out, exorcises the poltergeist, and moves in. The slain baby retaliates again this time donning the flesh of a young woman with no past and no family. She calls herself Beloved, one of the two words Sethe heard at the child’s funeral and the only one she had engraved on her baby’s tombstone. Having thus identified the strands of these several lives, the novel begins a poignant examination of each hair in the braid. Founded on magic, the membrane permeability of “the other side,” the comfort and strength of color and trees and the evolution of slavery’s pain to something beyond empowerment, Beloved unfolds in a series of rumors, isolated bits of knowledge and thoughts: Simple: she was squatting in the garden and when she saw them coming and recognized school teacher’s hat, she heard wings. Little hummingbirds stuck their needle beaks right through her headcloth into her hair and beat their wings. And if she thought anything it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where they would be safe. Though related through a genre so well-used that it has been relegated primarily to scholars, Beloved fills a hole in the slave narrative tradition. The long-neglected narratives of female slaves have been ferreted out, reprinted, and reclaimed and dissected by feminist scholars, but few female fictionists have dared approach the atrocities peculiar to slave women. Although Beloved bears a slight circumstantial resemblance to Sherley Anne Williams’ critically acclaimed Dessa Rose \(Morrow & Co., how and why slave women routinely aborted fetuses, or killed their young rather than have them sold away has rarely if ever been successfully attempted in fiction. BLACK WOMEN TODAY remain disproportionately overrepresented in abortion statistics and among the nation’s population of unwed and teenage mothers. So, it would seem that some understanding of the not-so-different or distant sanity and survival tactics of our black mothers in slavery can provide evocative indeed healing references for a way beyond the current socio-economic enslavement of so many black women and their families. Morrison, who seems to understand the need for sensitive, constructive portrayals, delivers one of the most hope-filled lessons our reproductively abused foremothers have left us. Near the novel’s end, after Beloved has gone back to “the other side,” Sethe struggles with rememories of mother-love and pain: “She left me.” “Aw, girl. Don’t cry.” “She was my best thing. . . . “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” .. . “Me? Me?” So complex are Morrison’s characters, so knowing are her portrayals, that several significant questions students of black American life have long wrestled with are addressed in this one-slavewoman/many-slave-women tale. Must Slave Narrative Medea By Rosalind Alexander
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