Sethe, a former slave, is raising her last child left in the lonely, two story house at 124. Well, they aren’t completely alone. There is the spiteful spirit that bedevils the house, scaring away Sethe’s two sons and turning her mother-in-law infirm. The arrival of Paul D, another former slave that worked on the same farm as Seth, brings a short period of relief from the haunting. Until a few days later, when a young woman shows up on their porch, with no memory, who calls herself Beloved. Beloved – the same word, the only word, carved on the tombstone of Sethe’s dead baby.
I hope I’m not giving too much away, but it’s clear very early on that Beloved has somehow resurrected herself into flesh, at the correct age she’d be if she had lived. Some people perceive Beloved more ambiguously, thinking she may just be suffering for stress induced amnesia and latched onto Sethe. But that doesn’t explain the things Beloved knows, the things that a stranger to Sethe’s isolated life would have no way of knowing.
Once in school, I had an American history teacher show us a ledger from a plantation. He pointed out that slaves actually were paid for their labor, enough that they could purchase Christmas presents for their family (also meticulously recorded in the ledger). Therefore, he argued, slavery couldn’t be “that bad”. I was baffled by that statement. I was still young enough to think teachers were infallible, I guess. But that statement still seemed off to me. If things weren’t “that bad”, why had people risked their lives to escape on the Underground Railroad? Not long after Sethe and her family first escaped slavery and arrived in Ohio, a posse came to collect them and return them. Rather than have her children face slavery, she murdered one and tried to do the same to the others. (This is based on a true story, by the way.)
I think a lot of this comes from how we teach our history. Beloved is a lot like how the antebellum South is portrayed – Blake Lively is singing its praises in an alliteration heavy blog post, Paula Deen is describing a perfect Southern wedding that incorporates throwbacks to slavery. The focus is on how beautiful and graceful the South was. Sethe withers away and gives up her own life in order to keep Beloved happy and make up for her dark deed. Our history books shy away from painting a true picture of the atrocities and horror of slavery in the South, because we wouldn’t want to upset anyone, would we? So we teach children that slavery was bad, but we don’t explain why. Laying the ground work so that other teachers, later on, can say moronic, unsubstantiated claims that slavery wasn’t “that bad”.
I’m not saying we need to wallow in the gore and torture of what many slaves endured, like baby Dexter in a shipping crate of blood. But we do need to be honest with ourselves and our own past. Slavery WAS that bad. Yes, there were some slave owners that treated slaves well; Sweet Home, where Sethe and Paul D come from is such a place. But that wasn’t the norm. It’s important to look at history head on, and not through rose tinted glasses. Otherwise, you may be doomed to repeat it.