I’ve been studying black literature earnestly this summer, reading old and new authors – James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead to name a few. I want to understand what is happening in African American culture. I guess, as a teacher of predominantly African American students I want to understand their history so I can tap into the pride of what it means to be an African American.
One particular work that stood out for me was “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. It is now a classic in the canon of American literature. Every now and then you read a book that changes you. A book that makes you think of the shimmering light in every creature on this earth; a work of art that beholds the calm of Mystery in its dark and murky sadness; a book that speaks to the past to address the present by allowing us to face that past with objectivity through its poignant reality; a book that points to the palpable pulse of God in our lives and how we disavow ourselves from it.
“Beloved” chronicles the story of Sethe, a former slave from Kentucky, living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The story focuses on the home of 124 and the ghost that lives, breaths and has its being with its inhabitants. One day after visiting a carnival, the ghost of her dead child “Beloved” takes human form and sits on her porch, waiting for her to take her in. Sethe does.
Everyone is changed as a result of this new arrival. The chaos of choices, the guilt that festers in old wounds all come out. Revelations come out in their struggle to reconcile with the choices made. The power of redemptive love to make or break us is laid bare in this work.
This book made me sit up and take note of pain in a thoughtful way. It left me stunned. Its poetry, its wild imagery reaching out to my imagination. The Faulknerian technique of voices telling the story as they saw it.
A definitive work of art of the American experience during slavery, if you want to understand the abject experience of slavery to Reconstruction, you need to read this book. If you want to know how wretched hurt can be passed from one generation to the next, and the sins of our mothers/fathers, you will see something here.
It is a story that exposes our collective wounds and forces us to examine the scabs that penetrate our history and make us who we are today. It speaks of the divisions that start within ourselves and lead to the collective conscience of our society. It exorcises the demons of resentment and purifies our hearts with mercy and care for one another.
Morrison’s work notes that there is hope in the poetry and power in our willingness to lay bare our feelings. If only we can listen intently with care and understanding to others, healing is possible.
Morrison, a practicing Catholic, knows her scripture well. The epigraph to the book comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans 9:25.
“I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
St. Paul is writing about the election of Israel. He demonstrates his anguish for the sinfulness he witnesses, but he recognizes that there are those who cannot bring themselves to participate in the truth of Christ as it was given through the law and tradition. Though it pains him to see the trouble they make for themselves, he recognizes that God is merciful and will render mercy unconditionally through His love.
It is this love that heals, “binds up the wounds of a nation” and recognizes a Holy Spirit that is pregnant in all humanity waiting to be birthed.
The suffering of our African American brothers and sisters is our collective ache. We see this in the call for recognizing the matter of the African American experience.
St. Paul’s anguish for unity in community is our labor pain. Jesus’ pain and suffering is ours as well. Our redemption comes at seeing the unconditional love of God – the salve that heals humanity’s wounds.
Our willingness to give voice to that which is “beloved” will make us beloved in the eyes of all we meet. No matter how disenfranchised or separate and apart we may feel, we are One. We are a collection of souls making good on an original promise of mercy through love.
We are all Beloved.