Beloved by Toni Morrison

morrison_beloved.jpgDespite the best efforts of my 12th grade English teacher, at 17 years of age I could not, or would not, appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and insight of works by a number of female African-American authors. Perhaps it was my teenage naïveté, or just plain stubborness, but I read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison's Beloved feeling rather defensive as a white male, as if the purpose of the texts was to paint as bad a picture of men, and especially white men, as possible.

Well that was pure stupid silliness, plain and simple. Embarrassing at best, but shameful seems more apt. Having re-read each of those books in the past several months, I can now see the pain, the repression, and the reaction that each book narrates. I can see the elements of the books that are universally human and the elements which are unique to African-American women in the South. More importantly, I can now appreciate and learn from those unique elements, and recognize the vital contribution that Hurston and Morrison have made.

Having just finished Beloved a few days ago, the power of the story lingers on in my thoughts. On the most universal level, it is a story about love and loss, the various ways to react to inexplicable tragedy, the power of family and community, and the shaping and re-shaping of self-concept.

Yet Morrison's story can not be separated from its time, the years immediately before, during, and after the Civil War. It can not be separated from its place, northern Kentucky and southern Ohio, the battleground between heaven and hell in the era of slavery. And it can not be separated from its characters, ex-slaves still traumatized by the power and proximity (in time and place) of their bondage.

Morrison's great triumph is in telling a story that touches the universal without sacrificing or short-changing a story unique to slaves. I believe Morrison has said that part of the purpose of the book was to give voice to those whose voice was taken away, or never recorded, and in this she has succeeded. In Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Denver, she has given three generations of African-American women a voice that is undoubtedly human, but undoubtedly their own.

The other aspect of Morrison's novel that gave me fits as a teenager, but now inspires admiration, is the challenging structure and style. While I might still rave about the spare simplicity of Raymond Carver's work, I am no longer allergic to literature that is challenging in its construction as well as its content. Morrison's use of flashbacks, alternating narrators and perspective, and stream of consciousness is not mere experiment or flash, it adds substantively to the work, makes it possible to convey feelings, visions, and the biases of multiple perspectives that could not be otherwise conveyed. Her structure, her style are indispensable to the success of the novel.

An essential book for readers of fiction.