The Elusive Effort of Beloved’s Beginning: A Meditation on Another Morrison Reading

One of the most common misconceptions that I have both observed and experienced in taking undergraduate literature courses is that there is a right or wrong way to approach a class—that the goal of taking a literature course is to ‘get it,’ to smooth the student’s understanding out into a nicely rounded trinket that they can take home and keep on their desk to show that they accomplished something; however, on the first day of this class, it became immediately clear to me that the intended outcome of this course is not meant to be anything nearly as linear or neatly outlined as this expectation. So far, nothing in this course has had a concrete, ‘right’ answer or approach—in fact, our class discussion has seemed to, more than anything else, emphasize the importance of not approaching a reading, assignment, or even class period with this mindset.

Even in conversations not directly pertaining to Toni Morrison, I have been brought to question simple knowledge and habits that I have often executed without thought or self-reflection. The class discussion that we had on using the term “enslaved person” versus “slave” on the first day already made me call into question the reasons that I make changes to my language and the way that I think. While I had thought that I was making a nuanced, respectful, and ‘correct’ choice by using the term “enslaved person,” that conversation brought me to remember that the outcome of these class conversations is not to decide what opinion is right or wrong, but about making a genuine effort to learn and take on good faith practices.

The first time that I read Beloved, in a high school classroom, I definitely approached my reading with this type of “I want to get it” mindset, but as I have reread Beloved again and again, I have better come to terms with understanding that reading and really experiencing Beloved is not nearly that simple. Though I was encapsulated by Morrison’s poetics and felt a strong sense of resonance with her characters like Denver and their deep desire to be cared for, I felt connected to Beloved more for craft and character development rather than trying to immerse myself in Beloved’s greater historical context and significance. While I would not suggest that White people are unable to experience a meaningful connection with books like Beloved, I was definitely not reading the book in the context that was meant to be read. Our conversation in Wednesday’s class about Morrison’s intention of writing to and for Black audiences with the understanding that non-Black readers are invited to come along contextualized my experiences as a White reader interacting with Morrison’s work. I hope to, in alignment with Morrison’s wishes, continue to approach this course with an expansive mindset rather than supposing that I concretely understand or have ownership over any knowledge regarding Morrison’s creativity, reasoning, or craft. Even entering the Major Authors Morrison and Silko class that I took last year with Professor Woidat, I was not really prepared to enter the class without these past biases and interpretations clouding my judgment. I still remember quite clearly on the first day of that class writing in a discussion post that said I was excited to learn more about Morrison’s usage of magical realism, only to learn down the road that this “magical” component of her novels was meant to be read literally, rather than in the fantastical sense that I was interpreting. While this interpretation was made in good faith, it was not one that included fruitful acknowledgment of Morrison’s intentions and is thus the sort of preconception I am moving to release on the threshold of another Toni Morrison course.

I am addressing all of these experiences and reflections at the start of this course in order to think critically not only about the thresholds we are addressing in Morrison and Dante’s work but in approaching a new opportunity for growth and learning. With that, I am thinking about the orientation with which someone embarks on a new journey, precipice, challenge, or portal. Because I have some experience with Morrison’s work already, I am trying to take a deep breath to clear my mind about what I know (or think I know) about Morrison and her work, while still trying to supplement the work that we do in this class with the biographical knowledge I have about Morrison, her writing processes, and the interdisciplinary knowledge I have regarding Morrison’s work from reading books like The Bluest Eye in women and gender studies courses. I am grateful for and reflecting very intentionally upon the preliminary work that we did on the first day of class, which felt like a meditation—not a final understanding—of how to read Morrison’s work. Instead, this class served as an introduction to treating her work the way it deserves and demands to be treated, rather than a tutorial on how to be respectful and aware throughout our readings and conversations.

This metaphorical threshold is one that lends itself well to the explicit mentions of thresholds that appear throughout what we have read so far from both Morrison and Dante. In both Beloved and Dante, we are so brought along with their literary journey that we have no choice but to be wrapped up in it. Morrison encapsulates this sentiment perfectly in the foreword of Beloved—“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 another, without preparation or defense” (xviii). Of course, we see this pattern implicate itself physically and metaphorically from the very first moment of Beloved, from “124” skipping the number three to Beloved’s ghost being ripped from the house by Paul D. In this way, the threshold from which the reader enters Beloved is but a moment of recognition that something is about to change, rather than an extended rumination on what is going to happen. Morrison does not want her reader to finish Beloved sitting down with a pretty and polished understanding of it, but with an authentic experience of what it means to move through this book that contains so much. Similarly to the characters of the book, we are faced with the consumption of pain and devotion, “still full of that” (83) as we sit with Morrison’s writing and allow ourselves to move through the journey it contains, from the beginning we find ourselves in now to the ending of this course come May.

Dante’s writing, too, demands this same level of dedication; just as Beloved’s journey from the afterlife and back again is unavoidable both to Beloved’s audience and characters, Dante the pilgrim embarks on an unimaginable expedition into the depths of Hell, all the while keeping the reader by his side with remarkable prose and observation. While both works of literature accomplish this imperative severity, I find myself thinking more about the implications of Beloved’s stakes in a world where tragedies like the death of Keenan Anderson continue to occur every day. In her lifetime, Morrison knew and understood the consequences of the fact that, “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” When I first read Beloved in a high school classroom, it was the only book by a Black author my class was taught that year—the book was not chosen to recognize the artistic meaning and implication of Morrison’s work, but to check a box of having a Black author on a high school syllabus. Morrison implored us to treat Black literature seriously, part of which means to meet her novels where they’re at—thus, it is important that we enter Beloved without much sense of direction at all, which I am striving to let loose of at this class’ precipice. This threshold, just as Morrison described, is elusive and difficult to grasp; however, it is a meaningful scaffold that I intend to stay rooted in throughout this semester.

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