Friday, March 9, 2007

Beloved - Part III

Continued from here and here

Beloved is not only Sethe's daughter come back to life and wanting vengeance, she is also the spirit of slavery, a spirit of only wants and needs. When Beloved is asked where she came from, she describes the horrors of a slave ship. (Morrison dedicates the book to those who died in the slave trade: 60 million and more). She wants Sethe, needs her, needs to devour her. She is mine, she says again and again.

Throughout, we are faced with the moral implications of what Sethe chose (based on the real case of a Margaret Garner who killed her child rather than send that child into slavery). Faced with it, Sethe is proud, proud to have the freedom to have made a decision about the welfare of her children, even if it meant an early trip to the grave for one of them. She refuses to be ashamed. Her very defiance fuels the spirit. Paul D expresses his disbelief:

This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began. Suddenly he saw what Stamp Paid wanted him to see: more important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed. It scared him.

“Your love is too thick.”

“Too thick?” she said…"Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”

“Yeah, it didn’t work, did it? Did it work?” he asked.

“It worked,” she said.

“How? Your boys gone you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard. How did it work?”

“They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got em.”

“Maybe there’s worse.”

“It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible.”

Slavery is worse than death. To live stripped of who you are is worse than death. When Paul D says in response, "You got two feet, Sethe, not four," we also know that the daily struggle as a slave was to remind one's self that one HAD two feet, not four.

I like to think of some whites I encounter as The Others (like in Lost). The Others live in a world where history doesn't matter (or at least the history of this country doesn't matter). The Others blindly believe that hard work will pay-off. The Others look at blacks and are baffled as to why so many of us live in poverty, while never questioning what systems were operative when their grandparents went to college and their parents owned their own businesses. The Others aren't responsible for anything, aren't accountable for anything, and insist that they alone are in charge of their life, ignoring that they may deny that for Those Who Are Not Others. The Others don't see that there have been only forty years of attempted racial repair in this country, compared to the four hundred years of white supremacy. And The Others do not ever think about what it might be like to NOT be an Other. They assume the experiences of Those Who Are Not Others are identical to their own. The Others do not know what it's like to live in shadow, to live life strictly on the terms of someone else because you happen to have the wrong ancestry.

This is in some ways also the story of Sethe - forced into an action that The Other would never understand. But she is free, so free that she is losing grip on herself. It's hard to describe how enraged I became reading this novel. I deliberately haven't actually written about the novel much, because I think it needs to confront you where you are, on its terms.

There is beautiful, evocative language in this novel. There are moments that remind me of the way MaMa talks, supernatural events that I think would be likely to happen out in the country. Dialogue that reminds me of my grandparents: in response to MaMa questioning PaPa if he knew how to fix a broken washing machine that he had taken apart, "what I know is that another man put it together."

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

But there is also hard, graphic language here. The horror of what is chronicled (and for those who are squeamish, I won't mention any more details). And the frightening thought that some crimes are so horrible, some events so evil, they remain in a place between life and death, waiting to strike out at the living.

The title, Beloved, is of course ironic. The book is about the journey of a people who are anything but beloved: treated as animals until they start to behave like animals, where the only freedom is to act on nothing but pure instinct, and they must fight for their dignity. It's about 400 years of being anything but beloved and the consequences of that. But it's also about being beloved to yourself. That in the darkness, it begins with you. As Paul D tells a woman who believes she has lost everything and who is in danger of losing herself: “You your best thing, Sethe."

There will be one last post on Beloved: an excerpt from the novel.

1 comment:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

It's true, isn't it? Many people who read what I write or have met me in person have absolutely no idea what my life has been like as a poor Mexican kid growing up in the countryside and the barrio. When I am hanging out with middle class white folks, of course I can mingle quite well; God put a good head on my shoulders and I have impeccable English. I have even been told that I am quite witty and clever.

But sometimes it can all seem so
false. Do they know what life is like, what poverty is like, what is means to worry about where you are going to stay and where your next meal is going to come from? Do they know what is like to be stopped by the police and being scared that you are going to be mistaken for someone who actually did a crime who happened to have your same skin color? I always wonder what people think when they see my name "Arturo Vasquez". What must they think? Yes, I came from a peasant family in Mexico. People have no idea, and if we obtain a certain level of education or facility in the English language, they will be willing to look past our Otherness.

But it is still not right. That does not make up for the history of poverty, suffering and violence. It's still not right.