Toni Morrison’s Beloved has been described as a timeless novel. It is not only a book that depicts the tales and struggles of enslaved black people in North America, but it also opens up a conversation about the richness of black community, tradition, community dialogue, self-empowerment, and healing while navigating black womanhood.
In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, as well as the Nobel Prize in 1993, and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She also wrote a foreword in 2005 which has given great insight into her intentions and sources when writing this novel.
So, if you haven't read it yet, here are 5 reasons why you should.
1. The references to West African mythology and African American traditions
Morrison draws on several west and central African symbols and tales, such as the Kikongo – ‘bandoki’ of modern-day Congo, Kanda (living elders), Igbo tradition of ogbanje (Nigeria). The main reference was to the Yoruba abiku – which is ‘a spirit child which incarnates in human form to be with his mother’ (Nigeria). The character of Sethe closely resonates with this mythology.
On top of West African traditions, Morrison draws on the Native American tradition of “Yowa” and more generally the history of over 6,000 surviving slave testimonials, notably Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 trial upon which the novel is based. There is a beauty in the attention to detail that Morrison introduces in her references to African traditions, which makes the novel even more enjoyable.
2. The importance of Womanhood and its challenges as a black woman
Morrison draws on the story of Harriet Jacob to demonstrate the unique struggle black women, and more specifically the experiences' mothers faced during the period; bringing light to historically untold stories. One of the great characteristics of this novel is how the hardship faced by black mothers, shown through the ghost of their beloved, embodies the past that must be remembered in order to be forgotten. The novel gives a name to several black women who were often overshadowed by their male counterparts. Toni Morrison also explores how generational trauma can affect the ways black women can express themselves and pushes for a breaking of the cycle. Beloved becomes a new ‘middle passage’ in which the breaking of trauma is necessary for change in the future.
3. The use of language in the novel and the beauty of oral tradition in black history
Morrison describes the book as a form of “Black art”, which simultaneously criticises, retells history while also encouraging change in the way black stories are told. Beloved can be described as a “speakerly text” or a "village literature”. This means that Morrison writes the story in a way that encourages the reader to heal. It highlights the rich history of oral literature. Morrison involves the reader in a refreshing way by pulling into question the history of traditional literature and white American novels. She does this by writing in colloquial African American vernacular, as well as beautiful streams of prose. She describes this juxtaposition as a way to “give nourishment” to the reader.
4. Dismantling notions of the ‘strong black woman’
Morrison also attempts to demystify ideas of the strength and resilience of black women historically and the harm that these notions cause. This is done through the depiction of irrational and emotional responses of the main female character. The impact of generational trauma was also explored by demonstrating the flaws in her actions. This way, Morrison shows the need to diversify the attributes and depictions of black women in stories and, more generally, in the media. Morrison shows a weakness in Sethe that prevents the reader from simply labelling her as a “strong black woman”. This particular point resonates with struggles black women face today in social spaces, and in the media. Oftentimes black women are stripped from the ability to speak for themselves, but Morrison encourages them to speak their truth unapologetically whenever they can despite these stereotypes.
5. Her critique on the patriarchal concepts of ‘founding father’
A key theme in Morrison's novel is the importance of retelling history. In the novel a critique is made on the historical white literary technique, and the effects it has on the erasure of black stories and more specifically black female writers. Morrison famously describes the novel as a product of the perspective of a “black woman writer”, and how others like her have a duty to tell their own stories in an “unforgiving/unloving way” by repossessing, re-naming re-owning the literary space and tradition.
Written by Olamide Alao