Beloved by Toni Morrison often gets celebrated as one of the greatest American novels ever written. I never knew the book told a ghost story, so I decided to add it to my list for the Womxn of Color Reading Challenge . Toni Morrison does not disappoint. Much like Sula, Beloved tells a story of Black womanhood, revealing in haunting detail its many pains.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman who escaped from the Sweet Home plantation with her four children.
Themes of Beloved
The novel had several themes that I think indicate what we can learn when we center Black women:
- Race and Racism
- Femininity, Womanhood and Motherhood
Beloved is a historical novel. The eras depicted in it span from the right before the Civil War to a few years after it. Morrison also describes the geographic pathways slavery takes across the States. Sethe travels from Sweet Home Plantation in Kentucky to Cincinnati where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs lives as a free woman.
The multiple settings provide a complex landscape to see the nuanced approaches to Black labor in the slavery era. While Baby Suggs worked as a slaveowner in the South, in Cincinnati, she exchanged her labor for a house. Some Black men could find jobs for low pay doing industrial work.
I enjoy Toni Morrison’s novels because she makes Black womanhood the center of what she writes. In Beloved Morrison tells a story about Black motherhood, sisterhood, and love through Sethe’s relationships with other characters.
During slavery, Black women did not have the luxuries their labor afforded White women. For instance, Sethe was forced to give the milk her child needed to the slaveowner’s baby while her child cried in hunger.
Beloved comes filled with biblical references. I think these references help us see the Bible and spirituality in a more liberated manner than represented by the church.
For instance, Baby Suggs operated as a pastor for the free Black people who made Cincinnati their home. People would gather in the Clearing, a place in the forest, where she would urge them to seek healing through song, dance, and tears. Yet, Baby Suggs laments she cannot read like the preachers at church do. Still, she calls together people from her community to praise and worship. In moving testimony, Baby Suggs helps those who cannot read God, feel God instead.
Beloved‘s characters help reveal the dynamics of Black family in a slave society. When Halle asks Sethe to marry him, Sethe expresses disappointment that she can not have a wedding. While slaveowners permitted marriage between slaves,they did not recognize it as legal binding since slaves had no rights.
Nevertheless, Sethe made her own wedding dress for the unofficial ceremony. Later in the novel, Morrison depicts how Sethe and Halle maintained conventional gender roles within their home. Even when legal institutions do not recognize it, Black family life exists.
Race and Racism
Morrison does not hesitate to depict the violence meant to break Black men during slavery. Morris speaks through Paul D, Sethe’s lover and former occupant of Sweet Home, to describe having an iron bit placed in his mouth. This device is typically used on animals, which shows slaves received no better treatment than animals.
Continuing the Womxn of Color Reading Challenge
There are likely a number of other themes. Since I learned about literary theory, I browse for scholarly articles about my favorite novels and novelists. Some of what I researched covered what I’m interested in.
For now I am still reading through Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I have also started Women, Race, and Class another book by Angela Davis. I consider Beloved a perfect precursor to Davis’s book because it starts with a history of Black women and slavery. I instantly recognized the historical references that paralleled scenes in Beloved.
If you haven’t read any of the above, I recommend adding them to your reading list. If you’re interested in joining the challenge, click here for a list of 50 books on Black feminism to get you started.