I wanted the reader to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population - just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.
Toni Morrison, Beloved, xviii
In understanding or comprehending the institution of amerikkkan slavery it is important to know and remember that Transatlantic/Transmeditterean slavery irreparably transformed relations between human beings, their ontology, and the comprehensiveness of capital (private property). The uprooting of Africans and the commodification of their bodies, their work, and their subsequent freedom, broke open history in such a way that Human Beings have been thrown into an inescapable hell of unresolved horrors, unmitigated terrors, incentivized by material rewards of flesh and wealth and power. Chattel slavery is the only system of dehumanization, extermination, reproduction, domination, subjugation, death, violence, and terror in Human history that has, for all intents and purposes, been managed to remain a fluid, yet stable, element of modern civilization. Its tragic continuity, or what Lewis Gordon and Jared Sexton call the afterlife of slavery, is one aspect of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved that I have identified. My reading of Beloved deepened my understanding of the comprehensiveness of the effects and ripples that racial slavery had and has in a so-called Post-Emancipation world. Beloved speaks on the power of systems of racialization and the well-documented horrors (both mundane and spectacular) that mark the lived experiences of Black people in amerikkkan history. This tragic continuity is an aperture that is diligently analyzed and examined, lived in, loved in, lost in, an opening into a world whites do their best to not see - only seeing as much as they are willing, or told, to see.
Beloved has its many moments of enjoyment, triumph, and victory - not to harp or focus singularly upon the light that gives birth to its shadows. But attention must be paid to the place from which the rays of oppressive light shine, so as to find its source, and snuff it out, if the object is to plunge the two worlds into darkness: the white world and the Black world.
Morrison firmly holds her reader within the context of white supremacy, and its constitutive cultural, political, and economic institutions. Whiteness is always the unspoken backdrop, looming in the ether like dark matter, manifesting itself in the myriad (re)memory and rehashing of all of the despicable acts practiced, all of the violations, the disappointment, and having no other choice but to settle…which drive Sethe to take the reins, as she attempts to shine a looking-glass into the face of the White World which took everything from her.
Thus there is no equilibrium in the mise-en-scene as Morrison takes the reader frantically across and between space-time, abducting the reader’s ability to comprehend the situation unfolding by way of the narrative. What this does thematically for the novel cannot be understated. Take not for granted the fact that the structure Morrison so deliberately obliterates and excludes from the narratology can be taken as a cryptic message. Not cryptic in the sense that it is coded (Morrison explains the reason for the anachronistic anti-structure of the book in the Foreword in the First Vintage International Edition, June 2004) but cryptic in the sense that (white) amerikkkans are ideologically, epistemologically, and ontologically unconditioned and oblivious to this message by default. Morrison’s deliberate exclusion of a certain compassion for the reader needs to be taken seriously, a certain plea-for-sanity to readers to get the picture, to pay attention, to stand against the injustices of the world. Morrison wants the reader to engage critically with their own internalized anti-blackness which the narrative structure of the novel is designed to unsettle and disturb. Ideological complacency should be the enemy and object of scorn for those interested in freedom - and whiteness is a key culprit in perpetuating injustice past to present, globally.
Remembering for Toni Morrison is integral, as the text of the afterlife of slavery is constantly replaying in the present and going unrecognized and unacknowledged. The cancellation of this reality pre-empts anger over its injustices, and thus the possibilities for creating conditions to critically engage with and dismantle our structures of antagonism (political and cultural systems that reconstitute antiblackness and white supremacy). The whites responsible for the creation and sustenance of the slave trade shrouded themselves in benevolence: as so-called Enlightened Servants of their white God and their White Jesus, yet they were the ones who justified the pain inflicted by way of Christian Humanitarianism, the ones who reaped the material and psychic rewards of its production; the coffers of gold overflowing in the Vatican and the industrial and infrastructural development of the kingdoms of Europe and the incomprehensible, foundational greed and inhumanity of chattel slavery and its continuity make freedom today a ruse of whiteness, and a far-off dream to Black people who do not want to sell their souls to entertain the white masses by way of winning their Affection.
Beloved is an alternative. Beloved does not bemoan victimization, nor does it synthesize Blackness with Victimhood. Beloved screams creative resistance to whiteness. Morrison relentlessly drives into the reader’s mind that slavery was not a system of forced labor - it is and was a system of turning bodies into goods in a global economy run by white people. Because slaves’ bodies were the property of white people and continue to be imagined to be so through cultural artifacts like 2013 film “The Purge”, it was common practice to force slaves to procreate, for slave-masters to use sex as a weapon of subjection. In “The Purge” the male head-of-household spends much of the film fearing that a Black man who has ‘invaded’ his home by way of being let in by their son will rape and kill his white daughter and wife. By the end of the film the Black man, a homeless veteran serviceman, proves his loyalty to the white family that inadvertently saved him from being “purged” by a gang of white yuppy students headed by a beady-eyed Aryan in a Catholic school uniform. The message of the film romanticizes and fleshes out the liberal post-racial fantasy of whiteness’ preservation and Blackness’ submission to new forms of domination. Justifying acts of gratuitous violence against Black people requires merely updating the systems by which Black people are dominated - reform.
Amerikkkan political, cultural, and social common sense, when it comes to the making and maintenance of all policy, all property, is anti-black at it’s core. And if its authorizers do not work at dismantling the ideological, and onto-epistemological structures built within them (which were built without their consent by the seemingly external social force of race-making institutions, and the productive apparatuses of state and civil society), then there is deliberate complicity with an ordering of the world that stratifies human beings into a caste-system created over a thousand years ago. See the world with blinders on, and blindly you navigate its course.
When the mise-en-scene of Beloved is such an uncanny representation of the antagonisms of Black life in amerikkka today and bears such insidious identification with our current socio-political structuration (eg page 176-177 when whites try to take Sethe’s children to “raise them properly” and ponder its resemblance to the current juvenile justice system of capture and punishment without crime, DCYF and social work apparatuses) how can the premise that our civilization is a just one stand against all of the evidence significantly substantiating the opposite premise?
Do not trust the world.