BELOVED (Not American History) Taught Me About the Horrors of Slavery
This is a guest post from Vanessa Willoughby. Vanessa is an editor and a writer. Her work has appeared on The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, Thought Catalog, and Literally, Darling. Follow her on Twitter @book_nerd212.
If the white students in my high school English class thought to have truly understood the complexities, the entire spectrum of poisons and tortured roots that constituted American slavery via the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, then I did not come to consciousness until I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In my suburban high school that could’ve been the backdrop for a John Hughes teen drama, the unapologetic, copied utilitarianism of the place, the muted colors and drab carpets and the bathrooms with the select stalls that never worked, students felt far removed from the racial lines in metropolitan cities. The institution of racism and its octopus legs, stretching across geographic lines and time and the ebbs and waves of history, was viewed as an unfortunate terror that happened to other people. Not in my backyard! Police brutality, systemic discrimination, the consequences of promoting a school-to-prison pipeline, existed on TV and movies. It existed in urban areas far removed from Connecticut. They were unaware of the fact that Connecticut boasted staggeringly large plantations, that the state’s slave population capped at around 5,000 in 1774, that the state’s wealth was not untouched by the racket of selling human souls.
In school, I’d been taught that To Kill a Mockingbird was a literary touchstone for white guilt. It was paraded as the book that captured the injustices inflicted upon black people and the black body without explicitly showing the strange fruit, swaying the breeze. It was regarded as literature with a capital l, the sort of colossal manifesto meant to illuminate the brutalities of American history. To show how far America had progressed, as though the psychological trauma of millions of humans in bondage was not substantial evidence. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in my freshman year. I was not impressed. Or rather, I didn’t fall in love with the story the way that mimicked the reactions of some of my white classmates. I did not need to see racism through the eyes of a young, Southern white child to know that sometimes people were hungry for the noose just because the color of your skin ignited white rage. It was a tale softened by the coddling of a childhood fairy tale, filtered to protect the innocence of white children. It did not teach me anything I didn’t already know, hadn’t already heard at the bus stop, whispered by boys who believed racism did not exist. Suburban Connecticut is not the South, with its tainted legacy of grand empires and cotton aristocracies and damsels in distress. But I was black and even if I wasn’t “black enough” for some people, I was not white, I was clearly the Other, and I had the big lips and the hair to prove it.
On the other hand, when I read Beloved, I was horrified. I had an indisputable, visceral reaction to the text, to the way that Morrison turned a ghost into a living wound, into red-hot vengeance, into the barbed edges of a mother’s fierce love. Morrison says, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” What was history but the regurgitation of sanitized facts, of memories cultivated by the victors, the colonizers and the rulers and the white people who had invaded nations and reclassified humanity by whips and lashes and hell hounds tearing through forests, by laws strengthened to impose segregation and disenfranchisement. In History class, everything about the history of black people and Africans and African-Americans was lumped into a convenient package. The dark parts of American history were quantifiable, they were marked by three big footnotes: the Civil War, post-slavery and the Reconstruction era, and the Civil Rights Movement. We learned about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as though they were the exceptions to the otherwise voiceless masses. We learned about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as though they were the last great prophets of a dynasty to be never seen again. They made sure to show the black and white photographs of people being beaten, tortured, hung from trees, Emmett Till’s casket with the face desecrated beyond recognition.
Beloved gave humanity to the shadows in my history books. They sprang to life like Athena from the head of Zeus. They had names and family trees and friends and lovers and reasons to live. In a recent profile with The New York Times, Rachel Kaadzi Ghanhsah points out that, “Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, “You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.” Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political.” I couldn’t fathom that the novel was partially inspired by a real tragedy, that a mother would view murder as the ultimate form of protection. It was not a sacrifice, it was furious, unconditional love. Morrison’s work lifted the shroud of polite academic discourse, barreling past whatever sanitary commentary my white English teacher provided. To Kill a Mockingbird left me cold, yet Beloved set me ablaze.