When I return from Chicago next week, I will teach Beloved to my Critical Writing class. I’ve read the novel a handful of times, and it is notably one of my all-time favorites. But this time will be/feels … different.
I keep thinking about Sethe, hitting Howard and Bugler in the head with a shovel.
Keep thinking about Sethe, taking a saw to Beloved’s neck.
And I am thinking about black mothers and black children, black heads and black minds.
Thinking about: Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Terrence Crutcher, Samuel DuBose, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown …
That last ellipsis articulates the endless inexhaustible; the silence of black death, and the absent horizon onto which we— black-born-bodies—may project our imaginations of hope. I keep thinking. How many others?
This time when I teach Beloved, I am moved to contemplate the black mother-body anew. Still centering love, I have to ask about its form as manifest in destruction—but in light of so much national grief, it is a profoundly different question than before.
[ Amendment 4/6/18: Today at lunch, two scholar friends and I discussed the permanence of grief in the black body. How can we not? How can there ever be a reprieve? The missing name. The unknown ancestor(s). The stolen spiritual practice/magic/intelligence. The shattered family. The behind-bar-daddy. The dead male dignity. The eviscerated pillar of power. The murdered capacity for community. The fallen (s)heroes. AIDS. Heroin. Poverty. Crack. Stolen black girl. Stolen black girl good. Boys born men. Men still boys. Girls and stolen milk from breasts too young to nurse; always giving of themselves to a world that gives them nothing back but grief.
…so how can we not live in the grip of perpetual mourning, covered with the veil of our own blackness that hides our faces and keeps us the things that go bump in the white night? ]
I always understood Beloved as a question of what it means to “love.” (I want to call it a love structure with dead black bones forming the frame. I want to call it the very framework of blackness—an all-consuming, bloody kind). How do I make that legible?
It is a treatise on the intrusion of white supremacist power on black selfhood and black capacity for fullness of being. Baby Suggs was fully black when she celebrated Sethe’s liberation. Fully black before a people of colorless core, who did not understand what it meant to be “alright.” So they shunned her in her fullness.
Beloved grapples with choices and guilt. Does the past haunt the present or the present hang around the haunts of the past? It collapses the past, present, and future into a single moment; a single and current condition of grief and mourning—ever present and ever actuated. But, in the collective remembrance of grief that refuses to end and strings our black bodies together, un-gendering us so that Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and so many other murdered black women can hold hands with murdered black men. In that grief I see a different center taking form; it is the loving anticipation of state violence that necessitates an intimate embrace of death. Not just an embrace of it, an insistence on it.
I can’t stop thinking about what it must be like to be a black mother doing nine-month labor, giving birth to child, looking into the tenderness of its face, and knowing that as soon as s/he acquires language—maybe before—you are assigned the task of killing it. That is your duty; your responsibility. It is not an option, and you do not have the luxury of bloodless hands. Your baby cannot afford the luxury of innocence.
I am thinking today about my step-father telling me when I was nearly 8 that no matter where I went I would always be a nigger. In the morose shadow of his pronouncement, I lay down, not knowing what a nigger was or why I had to be one.
I am thinking about the day I realized that I, in fact, was a nigger to some. While that story is too long to tell here, it is sufficient to say that it hurt only a little less than the pain of hearing my step-father abjectly ontologize me in a way that unsettled my entire understanding of who I was/am. It still crawls inside my coat before I go out the door every day. It still stares back at me every time I look in the rear-view mirror and remember that the state is always back there, blue-lighting my blackness, following me to future pursuits.
There were many other moments when I learned to navigate the world as a raced body; moments that have been crucial to my survival. As I reflect on them now, I see myself laying down repeatedly, already dead. And I see my parents as arbiters of death who took something to preserve something.
In my rumination of Beloved, I’m thinking about the murderous mandate placed on black and brown parents every day, in every delivery room, at every school, at every grocery store, in every public space, (and for Stephon, even every private). At the outset, they are painfully aware that, in many ways, in order for their children to live in America, their own parental hands must be the first to grip the neck and force them to die, knowing that to give life, some of it must be taken away. They are dead men walking.
This time I’m thinking about Sethe’s act as anticipatory in the sense that it articulates the complexity of black parenthood in a world where the deaths of children are in one way or another, metaphorically or materially, a certainty.
My parents loved me, I have no doubt … and they loved me with bloody hands, just like Sethe. In a way, a shovel to the head, a saw to the throat, takes aim at two of the most dangerous tools we might ever possess—thought and voice. These two allow us to think of ourselves outside of the systems of the world, beyond its rigid borders, and from those hinterlands to speak truth to power. I think Sethe’s frantic effort towards salvation is far from impulsive; it is indeed the blackest strategy for survival.
Love yourselves. Over there they don’t love you.