Saturday, July 9, 2011

Beloved II: The Political Message

The political goal of the traditional slave narrative was unambiguous: abolition now! That is hardly the purpose of Beloved. Instead, the novel serves to to show a contemporary audience, more than a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, that physical emancipation is only part of the story.

Beloved is not only the "devil child" who "possesses" the mother who killed her, but also the memory and legacy of slavery, which haunts, not only those who were physically emancipated, but also their progeny.

Sethe bears the physical scars of slavery on her back; psychological scars in her memory, her conscience, and her identity; and the social scars of deprivation, isolation, and condemnation. Just as her feet, swollen and numb from walking away from slavery while pregnant, must suffer pain as feeling returns to them, so those scars of slavery cannot heal without reliving the original injuries, both those suffered and those inflicted. And lest we forget, "Anything dead coming back to life hurts" is a constant refrain.

What are the implications for contemporary African Americans? for other Americans? Perhaps the novel suggests that one of the legacies of slavery is a kind of social and cultural neurosis that leaves no one untouched. If African Americans must relive slavery and its aftermath to heal themselves, then white Americans may need to relive it to purge themselves of ignorance, denial, guilt, and the corrosive effects of white privilege. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Jewish Americans may respond with resentment at the focus on slavery as opposed to other forms of oppression, or they may empathize and apply the healing lessons to their own historical burdens.

The lesson of this novel can also be applied to non-ethnic minorities such as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, who can certainly resonate with the legal prohibition against slaves marrying without permission from their owners: " get to a place where you could love anything you chose--not to need permission for desire--well now, that was freedom." And like any oppressed group, LGBT people bear their own psychological wounds of social outcasting, stigmatization, invisibility, and self-denial, wounds that may need to be lanced before they can heal.

Women readers may identify with Sethe's oppression based on gender, as well as race. Humiliated, whipped, and raped, she gets herself and her children out of slavery while pregnant with her fourth. Whether the result of temporary insanity or rational calculation, she attempts to murder all four when the slaveholders arrive to take them all back, suceeding, before she is stopped, in slitting the throat of her third-born, a daughter, who later returns as Beloved. Can there be a stronger indictment of slavery than as an institution that perverts mother-love from life-giving to death-dealing?

Why is it necessary to revisit the pain of history, be it our own or our country's? "Can't nothing heal without pain, you know."