I’m immersed in the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s magnificent novel, Beloved, recorded by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer herself. I read the book nearly thirty years ago, when it was new. I was a grad student then, and I remember being stunned by Morrison’s writing, by the richness of her characters, by the shimmering overlay of magic in the story. I was also stunned by the brutality these people faced, and, in the face of it, the depth of their humanity, their capacity for love.
The story takes place in the mid 1800s, and Sethe, the black slave in the centre of the story, has escaped across the Ohio River to live as a free woman. The house she and her family inhabit is crowded with voices and memories, and the locals steer a wide berth around it.
Morrison is a patient teacher. We travel with Sethe as she crosses the river and begins a new life. We witness the terrible things in her past—devastating, inhumane, unspeakable things. We see that freedom is necessary but not easy. We’re with her as she wrestles with her history, her hopes, her ghosts, her demons. We watch her trauma spill out like acid. As she puts it: “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
I’m struck by the extraordinary love and tenderness in Sethe and her people, not only in spite of the trauma, but because of it. They are horrified by human cruelty. They are philosophical in the face of outrageous injustice. They remain sensitive to the world’s beauty—light, flowers, laughter, food. And everywhere, behind the dark moments and light ones, is Morrison herself, the spellbinding storyteller with her glorious language, her lilting delivery, her directness and courage.
Beloved is different for me now—deeper and richer, and far more troubling. My maternal self trembles at the impossible choices Sethe faces. My own heartbreaks hum behind hers. But my horror at the cruelty perpetrated on Sethe and her family, the institutionalized racism that supported branding, beating, burning, lynching, studding, owning—that dismay has come into sharper focus over the past thirty years.
It’s true that slavery has been abolished, at least on this continent, but racism? bigotry? entrenched and protected privilege? These things remain present, and potent. Desperate refugees climb into boats and hope they don’t wash up dead on Europe’s shores. Black kids are shot in the streets of American cities, and a pompous blowhard proposes to ban all Muslims. In our own city, people line up daily at food banks and soup kitchens. Our taps spill out limitless water from a community with a boil-water advisory. A little group of determined souls drag the Red River for lost souls as we are declared Canada’s most racist city.
It takes commitment and heart to create a life that’s hopeful and healthy when you carry injuries that run generations deep. It takes commitment and heart to identify and address the privilege which protects you from those injuries—and which injures you in less perceivable ways. We all have demons to wrestle, and we can do that by deciding, each of us, to practice fairness, curiosity, and respect in our households and our neighbourhoods. We can listen more carefully and share more truthfully. We can do better.
The beginning of a new year is an auspicious time. And we have momentum: Justice Murray Sinclair has delivered the Truth and Reconciliation Report, our new government has committed to an inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women, an access road the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation has been announced, and Syrian refugees are arriving in our city. Now is the time to learn to work and play together—like the brave and stubborn musicians who gathered in New Orleans a hundred years ago, determined to speak across the cultural divides. They invented a new language: jazz.