This essay contains a graphic description of violence.
For Black History Month I’ve been reading slave memoirs, including Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of His Life, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and the lesser-known but no less moving William Wells Brown, Narrative of a Fugitive Slave. Additionally, I have been revisiting the works of Toni Morrison, especially what is arguably her greatest novel, Beloved, a kind of literary reflection on the traumas of slavery.
Morrison died last summer at the age of 88. Among her many accolades, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Though it’s been over thirty years since its first publication in 1987, I’d like to offer a retrospective review of Beloved and suggest some ways that the novel still has a powerful voice, particularly in this tense moment in the social and political history of the U.S. In addition, I’d like to suggest that it contains a lesson for those who are part of historically Black congregations of the Episcopal Church.
Beloved tells the multi-generational story of a family who escaped from slavery in stages. Set in the period following the Civil War, the novel illustrates the ways in which the trauma of slavery lingers in the lives of those who are ostensibly free. This is symbolized in the tree-like scar that the protagonist Sethe has on her back, from a lashing received after an attempted escape. The psychological scars of slavery still enthrall at least as powerfully and vividly as the physical scars that remain.
While the book has been widely recognized as a powerful witness to African American experience, it has not met with universal acclaim. In fact, “Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery.” I am truly floored by this statement. Sensationalism, by definition, confirms already held sympathies and prejudices and tries to inflame and magnify them, but Morrison spins a story in which the sympathetic protagonist commits an unthinkably awful act, and the slaveholders are initially quite sympathetic. Morrison can do this because she is a consummate storyteller.
Morrison portrays Sweet Home, the plantation on which Sethe and her extended family live, and its masters, Mr. and Mrs. Garner, in a way that seems to minimize as much as possible the horror of owning persons. Mr. Garner wants the slaves to be “men.” He doesn’t treat them like “children.” In Mr. and Mrs. Garner, the slaves have “a boss who showed them how to shoot and listened to what they had to say. A mistress who made their soap and never raised her voice” (219). In certain ways, Morrison’s portrait of the Garners is in concord with the Confederate myth of the Old South being filled mostly with benevolent masters and contented slaves.
By contrast, we learn that the escaped Sethe kills her young daughter with a saw when her captor shows up to bring her and her children back into slavery. Morrison based the novel upon the factual event of a slave mother who murdered her own child in order to spare it from slavery. Like another great novel from the late 20th century, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the novel uses historical events to reflect on dark currents in the nation’s development to show how this history casts a shadow over our present existence. Morrison’s novel goes on to relate how, twenty years after this death, a young woman named Beloved, whom many believe to be the ghost of this child now grown, comes to haunt Sethe and her family.
In short, Beloved portrays slaveholders in a relatively sympathetic light and the protagonist — one of the slaves — killing her own child. And yet, our sympathy as readers is entirely reversed. The reader appreciates the dehumanizing agonies of slavery which Sethe and the other slave characters endure, whether by well-meaning, relatively kind hands or cruel ones. Rather than dismantling the Confederate myth by direct attack, Morrison introduces the horrors of slavery by a kind of psychological reversal, until the footing of the myth has been removed altogether.
Over time, the reader’s sympathies are turned against Mr. and Mrs. Garner and the Sweet Home plantation as Morrison reveals that the apparent dignity of the slaves relies strictly on terms the master alone can set. When Mr. Garner dies suddenly, this veneer of dignity disappears altogether. In other words, the humanity imputed to Sethe, Paul, and other enslaved characters on the plantation is not intrinsic but extrinsic, provisional, a determination of their white master, and subject to time and chance. As Morrison puts it toward the end of the novel, “Garner called and announced them men — but only on Sweet Home, and by his leave. Was he naming what he saw or creating what he did not? . . . Did a whiteman saying it make it so?” (220).
This brings up an important question for white Americans willing to reflect on current questions of racial equality and justice. Do current legal and constitutional remedies against racism and inequality merely impute a provisional humanity rather than support an intrinsic reality? This is an unsettling question. Does a Black individual get treated as fully human and fully equal to a white individual only as long as the white hegemony says so? It seems to me (and I not an expert on these matters) that the problem is one of autonomy. Is the place of the Black individual one of unequivocal autonomy and intrinsic dignity, or are this freedom and dignity only the determination of a white majority and subject to dissolution at the caprice of those in power? Un- and under-prosecuted police violence against young unarmed Black men would suggest it is the latter. This is problem that needs to be addressed with eyes wide open.
These considerations strike me as relevant today in the churches as well. I know there is a lamentable history of prejudice and segregation in the church that resulted in the formation of separate denominations (AME, AME Zion, etc.). But as much as we’ve come verbally to eschew such prejudice, how much is our welcome of diversity in name only, and in that sense too much like that of Mr. Garner at Sweet Home? Too often the attitude seems to be, “Welcome — as long as you abide by our terms and our cultural and social norms.” Part of the beauty of historically Black congregations in the Episcopal Church is that they created Black ecclesial communities that were run by the Black community and not under the terms of a “whiteman,” however benign he might be.
In our narrow sphere of the Episcopal Church, we have a remarkable heritage of historically Black congregations. As the denomination as a whole struggles with steep decline in membership and attendance, a portion of the congregations that are proposed to close or merge with another congregations are going to be historically Black. To my mind, these congregations represent the positive pride and autonomy of the Black community — congregations that were run by and for the Black community. Far from advocating for racial segregation in our churches, I am trying to recognize the beauty of the congregation led and governed by the Black community. As a part of our institutional legacy they should be preserved wherever possible.
Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.