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What kind of mother would cut her child's head off with a hacksaw? This is a question Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison explores in Beloved, a novel with a chilling metaphor about the legacy of slavery and which finds echoes in another current question, Why is the leading cause of death among young African American men murder by another black?
Sethe, the novel's main protagonist, is an escaped slave and mother of four a few years after the end of the Civil War. Her apparent good fortune at successfully escaping while pregnant and giving birth in flight and finding refuge at her mother-in-law's spiritually nourishing home vanishes twenty-eight days later. The sight of a hat belonging to a cruel white owner who has tracked her down sends her and her four children into a woodshed where rather than let them suffer the torments of slavery proceeds to kill them. After killing Beloved, her third child, she is stopped by a friend who has rushed in as she is swinging the infant by her heels to smash her head.
After some time in jail for murder Sethe returns to a home haunted for years by the child's ghost and after an exorcism attempt the child appears in the flesh as the teenager she would've been, intent on making her mother pay for having taken her life. Without knowing who she is Sethe takes the girl in, but once she realizes it is Beloved she sees it a divine opportunity to seek forgiveness from her daughter and understanding for her deed.
In a story impossible to predict Morrison, with a breathtaking mastery of the language, weaves in and brings to life other complex characters such as Paul D, another slave who had escaped from the same plantation but who had not seen Sethe for over a decade. After unexpectantly finding her in a small Ohio town he moves in with the hope that a bright new beginning is in store for both of them. Denver is Sethe's other daughter who not only almost lost her life in the woodshed but also at birth if it hadn't been for an uneducated white girl who helped Sethe deliver the baby in the tall grases on a river bank. The troubled, isolated teenage girl has rarely ventured from her home and since her two brothers ran away from home her only playmate is her dead sister's ghost.
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Sethe's infanticide finds parallels in how self destructive urban black culture can be as evidenced in black-on-black violence. It's as if, to use Sethe's logic, before the white man destroys you let me do it. There's also the issue of when is it time to move on and, however gruesome the past, to not let it dictate today's choices.
Morrison's novel appears twenty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act when in many ways African Americans are worse off than they were back then. In this post-Civil Rights era the African American community wrestles with whether to tie their redemption to the white community's redemption or whether they should instead separate, turn inward, and heal themselves. Morrison uses Ella, the leader of the black community's posse to get rid of Beloved, to explore the topic:
"Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. . . . Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn't stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life -- every day was a test and trail. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem. "Sufficient unto day is the evil thereof," and nobody needed more; nobody needed a grown up evil sitting at the table with a grudge. As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place ñ shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such -- Ella respected it . But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn't mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion."
While not condemning Sethe as many of the novel's characters do, Morrison extends a vision that moves beyond victimization for sectors of the black community unable to escape a gruesome past that won't let go of their present like Beloved and Sethe wouldn't let go of each other. As Beloved exacts her vengeance and as the community plays both the role of judge and redeemer the protagonists go down different, and surprising paths. Those who can't let go of the past self destruct while those who choose to respect and mourn the past but not be beholden to it find unexpected freedom.