I cradled Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in the crook of my arm the summer before my 18th birthday.
Sweat dripped from my elbow onto the plastic cover of the library book as I waited to cross the street to my house on the corner. Jackhammers echoed the soundtrack of my frayed nerves. A traffic cop stood in the middle of the street and held his hand against the rush of cars.
“I’d stop traffic for you any time,” he said.
I ignored his flinty smile and hurried across the street. I had bigger things to think about, like the flashes of anger quickening across my mother’s face. They grew more frequent as the day I would leave for college approached.
I escaped to the local library in the afternoons while mom napped between her “stories.” My stories lived among the dusty, library stacks. On that day, a white book with a white cover and green and red letters whispered, “Beloved.”
Woman Is a Story
A wild spirit lassoed me when I read Morrison’s novels.
Her protagonists entangled me because they were people like me – little girls who believed their dark skin was a stain that having blue eyes could redeem. The men of Morrison’s novels swaggered like my father. Morrison’s characters spoke in flinty truths delivered with the tenderness of a baby’s plump cheeks.
Beloved chose me because I needed it.
Inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who kills her own daughter rather than see the child returned to slavery, Beloved is, at its heart, a mother-daughter story.
Like Garner, Sethe, the novel’s protagonist murdered her child when she is recaptured by her former master. Years later when Sethe is free, a young woman claiming she is the reincarnation of Sethe’s dead daughter, Beloved, returns.
Is an enslaved life worse than no life at all? How can a mother kill her own “best thing”? Was Sethe selfish or the embodiment of a mother’s love? Do we murder a part of ourselves when we separate from our mothers through time, circumstance, or trauma? Can the power of a mother’s love choke the very life out of us? If the life of a woman was a story, what story was I writing for and of myself?
These were the questions I considered while reading Morrison’s seminal masterpiece. It would take me three years of Beloved and reading Morrison’s other works like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and later Paradise before I came close to understanding.
Morrison, in the meantime, led patiently and wisely with each sentence.
Her language shimmered like the early morning like through the thickly-forested interior. She bristled when interviewers called her language “dense,” “lyrical” or “mythopoetic” because she wrote in a language spoken before time.
Morrison reclaimed language for a people who were stolen from their homes and forbidden the taste of their own words. She stripped the bark of sentences for people who invented a common language from the sound of their bodies thumping below decks of slave ships. Morrison gifted language to people who were forced to speak, but not read English. Writing from that space shattered the veil of the American Dream.
Paradise Lost and Found
The veil of the American Dream shattered that summer of my 18th birthday.
Weeks after I checked Beloved from the library, the traffic cop violated me. I murdered my own best thing, my innocence, when I chose not to tell my family what happened. My mother’s inexplicable temper worsened. I tried to run away from home.
But that isn’t the end of my story.
I began my journey of healing when I read Beloved. Morrison’s words nourished me in ways therapy, meditation, and prayer could not. I also got married and divorced, had a successful career as a journalist and political consultant, moved to Mexico, and embarked on a second career as a writer and documentary film producer.
Before my mother’s death three years ago, we talked about the summer of my 18th birthday. I told her what the police officer did and how much her anger frightened me. Mom told me that she wasn’t angry, she was afraid. She was afraid of sending me into the world without the proper tools to care for and defend myself. Mom poured everything she had into me and it still felt like it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t angry at me; she was angry at herself.
I re-read Beloved shortly after the news of Morrison’s death earlier this month. Maybe at the age of 46, I finally get it. A mother’s love is many things. Sometimes it’s cruel. Sometimes it’s kind. Sometimes it withholds us and sometimes it sets us free. But love – in whatever form it comes – teaches us that we are our “own best thing”.