When my 11th grade A.P. American Literature class began reading “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, I couldn’t have been more excited; it represented the blend of American history and contemporary voices that I loved, and I had yet to read any of Morrison’s works. I don’t want to ruin the plot for anyone who has yet to read it, so let it suffice to say that the novel tells the story of Sethe, an enslaved woman who runs away with her children from a plantation and, upon facing capture and re-enslavement, is presented with an impossible choice. It’s one she makes and sticks to.
I immediately fell in love with Morrison’s writing. I had never read a book so simultaneously blunt and musical, sparse yet evocative. Yet my experience with the book, beyond my appreciation for Morrison’s talent, was shaped primarily by my shock at how Sethe’s action quickly became the most polarized topic among my grade class. I had never seen my classmates so animated over debating a person’s decision in a piece of literature, from any course. Either the mother’s choice was unequivocally wrong or it was justified, something that we could see ourselves making.
I argued at the time that we couldn’t know if we would have done the same thing; part of the brilliance of “Beloved” is how Morrison keeps us at a distance from her characters, a distance I couldn’t help but feel was deepened by the fact that the majority of my class, faculty and school was white; my peers and I had grown up learning about American slavery in neat, annual units. Though I had incredible history teachers in high school, I felt that my classmates and I had never been taught how to fully grasp the weight of that piece of our history.
Since then, “Beloved” has been my answer whenever people ask what my favorite book is. My reply to the follow-up question has been, from 11th grade until just this year, because it’s “the most visceral lesson in empathy a book has ever given me.” I’ve spent the past year reading and writing and talking about “Beloved” for my English thesis, and have decided it is more true to say that reading the book is a lesson in the limits of empathy. Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, no other book I have ever read has reckoned so viscerally with the limits of white access to and empathy for Black narratives, access to incomplete records of American slavery’s history, the troubled articulation of unspeakable trauma and the strive to recuperate stories that have been lost to history. Through language stripped down to only the most vital elements, moments of uninhibited love, of private intimacy, are rendered in heartbreakingly exquisite prose. The epilogue of “Beloved” may be the most beautiful and haunting piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.
“Beloved” is part of why I chose to major in English and history, and part of why I’m so invested in interdisciplinary work. In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison noted that in writing “Beloved,” her job had become figuring out “how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate.’” I think that learning how to reckon with this veil that reminds us of experiences or parts of our history we may never fully understand is of vital importance for us as creators and consumers of art, as students and teachers, as active participants of a world in which these issues are only escalating in urgency.
The first time I finished “Beloved,” I scribbled on the back page: “Reading this book feels like listening to a stethoscope pressed up against the heart of the nation.” A pretentious thing to say, perhaps, but it feels truer to me more so now than ever. My copy is heavy with fading penciled notes from high school, careful red underlining from this summer and eager highlighting from the past few weeks as I’ve tried for months to articulate what I feel to be true: For its lessons, for its warnings and its beauty, “Beloved” is one of the most important books of the past half century.