That's All You Let Yourself Remember

I don’t remember many of the books I read in the 1990s, but Beloved still haunts me.

Cover images of Beloved and Frederick Douglass

I hope you haven’t read Toni Morrison’s Beloved yet, so you can experience it for the first time. I realize this is unlikely. In the twenty five years since I first read the book, it’s apparently become a staple in high school English classes. But if somehow you haven’t read it, I encourage you to pick it up, and do your best to avoid spoilers beforehand.1 Be warned, though, it’s not an easy read. It is a novel about slavery, so there is almost nothing happy in the book. It’s also written in a challenging style. The plot is nonlinear, jumping from character to character and time to time. Many things are hinted at rather than being explicitly stated. As a result, it demands careful attention just to figure out what’s going on. Your reward for being a careful reader is an emotional gut-punch when you piece together the “Misery” at the center of the book. I know this doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation — but Morrison’s approach to writing about slavery creates a story that will stick in your brain for the rest of your life.

If you have read Beloved, then I encourage you to reread it at some point. My second reading of Beloved was a different experience because I already understood the main arc of the story. I did not need to spend my attention trying to figure out the basics of what was going on. Rereading, I was surprised to see how Morrison lays out everything in the first five pages. The key plot points, the major themes, the most important characters: It’s all there, quick as can be — just not as clear as can be in your first encounter with the novel. Freed from needing to devote most of my attention to piecing together the plot, I was able to wrestle with this question: Why does Morrison write her book in a way that makes the reader work so hard just to figure out what’s happening? Was this just a cheap trick to hide the main plot development of the story and reveal it later for maximum dramatic impact? You could imagine Morrison writing a different novel: A simple, straightforward, linear narrative that walks the reader clearly through the events that happen to her characters. You would read about the dehumanizing and brutal treatment of slaves by enslavers, the characters’ risky escapes to freedom, and how life unfolds in a world first governed by the Fugitive Slave Act and then post-Emancipation life.

In fact, you don’t have to really imagine this book, you can read it: The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave covers much of the same territory as Beloved. Douglass describes how the institution of slavery destroyed the family life of the enslaved, the brutal treatment of the enslaved, the soul-destroying inhumanity of the entire system, and Douglass’s escape to freedom. Douglass’s Narrative asks for empathy from its readers but does not make its readers work to piece together simple facts.

While the two books cover much of the same material, they were written for very different audiences, and I think the different audiences explain their different structures. Douglass’s book was published in 1845, when slavery was still very much alive and a large share of the white population — his book’s intended audience — viewed enslavement as the necessary and right way to provide strong guidance to people of an inferior race that could not otherwise run their own lives. His book’s goal was to either convince or remind people of the shared humanity of black and white in 19th century America. By making his narrative easy to follow, Douglass was able to reach the widest possible audience, and he could use what he wrote to prove to a skeptical audience that a former slave could match or exceed anybody in intelligence and eloquence. Morrison is writing for people seven generations later, when slavery has passed out of living memory, when the biggest danger is we let ourselves forget this part of our history, and when she can be confident that readers believe that the enslaved are fully human. This last bit lets Morrison do something that Douglass could not: She can try to remind people that the barbaric conditions of slavery would break a normal human being, and trust that her readers will know that a traumatized human is still a human. She seems to know that Douglass could not have this level of trust in his readers; in the only part of Beloved told from a white character’s point of view, she shows how the character Schoolteacher, a slaveowner, views being traumatized by savage treatment as something characteristic of animals, not people:

Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think – just think – what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education… Supposed you beat the hounds past that point that away. Never again could you trust them in the woods or anywhere else.

Douglass couldn’t talk about this part of how enslavement affected the enslaved without inviting this kind of dehumanizing comparison to animals in the minds of his audience. Morrison can. Every character in the novel is broken in some way by slavery, and she shows us that broken narrators will produce a broken narrative. This is what Morrison wants us to experience as readers. She trusts that we will view this as a sign that her narrators are fully human and not that they are sub-human. The difficult nonlinear storytelling and hints-instead-of-explicit-narration are not tricks to hide the point of Beloved — they are the point of Beloved.

I write all of this knowing that you have probably read Beloved once, because it is so widely taught in schools. However, it is also one of the most widely challenged and banned books from school curricula and libraries because its themes are so unpleasant to think about.2 This is ironic, because one of the major themes of the book is how people will sacrifice memory to protect themselves from pain. One of the earliest lines of dialog in the book comes when the grandmother “Baby Suggs” complains to her daughter-in-law Sethe that she only remembers one minor detail about all of Baby Suggs’s eight children that had been taken from her because of slavery. Sethe’s insightful response: “That’s all you let yourself remember.”

I understand why people want to avoid thinking about the topics raised by Beloved. I empathize with parents who want to protect their children from the brutality of the world. I want my kids to live in a world free of violence and oppression, too. However, I also believe we must remember the mistakes of the past so we can be vigilant against repeating them. I believe the memory and condemnation of past wrongs is an important tool to help us improve the way we treat our fellow humans. Let yourself read or re-read Beloved; let your high school children read Beloved. Let yourself remember.

  1. Amazingly, in this era where we “spoiler alert!” everything we talk about, if you Google Beloved and read anything about it, you’ll find articles that reveal, like it’s no big deal, the key plot point that the book carefully unfolds. So: if you haven’t read Beloved, don’t Google it. Just get a copy and start reading.
  2. The fight over teaching Beloved in my home state of Virginia likely cost former governor Terry McAuliffe his job in 2021. Though I’ve lived in Washington for decades, I think of myself as a Virginian, so this feels personal.