“Tell me,” said Beloved, smiling a wide happy smile. “Tell me your diamonds.”
The unforgettable portrayal of Beloved, the mysterious, 20-year-old woman (Thandie Newton)—who appears in Sethe’s (Oprah Winfrey) home mysteriously just as the infant ghost haunting the family disappears—leaves an indelible image in the mind’s eye in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film. We may learn about the history of slavery in the U.S. through a wealth of recovered data and historical sources. But to understand its psychological horrors, and the lingering trauma of its survivors, we must turn to works of the imagination like Beloved.
So why not just watch the movie? It’s excellent, granted, but nothing can take the place of Toni Morrison’s prose. Her “versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds,” wrote Margaret Atwood in her 1987 review of the novel. “If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.” The novel’s American gothic narrative recalls the “magnificent practicality” of haunting in Wuthering Heights. “All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s merely natural for this one to be there.”
“Everyone at 124 Bluestone Road,” the Ted-Ed video lesson by Yen Pham begins, “knows their house is haunted. But there’s no mystery about the spirit tormenting them. This ghost is the product of an unspeakable trauma.” Demme’s film dramatizes the horrors Sethe endured, and committed, and tells the story of the Sweet Home plantation and its aftermath upon her family. What it cannot convey is the novel’s treatment of “a barbaric history that hangs over much more than this homestead.”
For this greater resonance, we must turn to Morrison’s book, written, Atwood says, “in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” The novel brings us into contact with the human experience of enslavement:
Through the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe’s mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best—which wasn’t very good—and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined. Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions humans ever devised…. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.”
Morrison’s fictionalizing of the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved mother who killed her child rather than let the infant become enslaved to such a future, “points to history on the largest scale, to the global and world-historical,” Pelagia Goulimari writes in a monograph on Morrison. Morrison uses “Garner’s 1856 infanticide—a cause célèbre—as point of access to the ‘Sixty Million and more’: the victims of the Middle Passage and of slavery.”
Perhaps only the novel, and especially the novels of Toni Morrison, can tell world-historical stories through the actions of a few characters: Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and Beloved, the angry ghost of a murdered daughter and a desperate mother’s trauma and the traumatic psychic wounds of slavery, returned. Learn more about why you should read Beloved in the animated lesson above, directed by Héloïse Dorsan Rachet, and discover more at the TED-Ed lesson’s additional resources page.
Hear Toni Morrison (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)
Toni Morrison’s 1,200 Volume Personal Library is Going on Sale: Get a Glimpse of the Books on Her Tribeca Condo Shelves
Toni Morrison Deconstructs White Supremacy in America
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
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