Do Ghosts Have a Place in History?

Often, when we look for historical fiction books, we look for stories that seem real. We look for stories that make the past seem vivid and tangible.

I didn’t expect to find this in Beloved. One of the most important elements of Morrison’s novel is Beloved, a ghostly presence who haunts Sethe as a constant reminder of the horrors of slavery. I don’t believe in ghosts, and so I thought that the intangible Beloved would serve as a distraction of the real-life horrors the book touches on.

But Beloved is part of Sethe’s story. By writing about Beloved, Morrison managed to write about Sethe as a person, rather than just writing about her experiences. And in writing about a person, Morrison was able to describe the haunting impacts of those experiences.

Toni Morrison story was one with depth. It doesn’t just help us to understand history — it creates empathy.

The Importance of Storytelling

Throughout her novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison portrays the importance of storytelling. It is essential to the novel as it serves as a way to communicate memories among the characters. One of the ways in which memories live on is through storytelling. 

As Sethe tells Denver about her family and her remarkable birth, Denver is able to develop a sense of personal history and heritage. Storytelling allows memories to stay alive especially among characters such as Sethe, Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Denver. These personal memories create a shared tradition about the past and provide slaves the ability to tell their own story. This ultimately allows slaves to define themselves rather than constantly being defined by slave-owners. 

Although storytelling brings people together, it can also bring back horrific memories. For Sethe and Paul D, their memories as slaves continue to haunt them, which can prevent them from moving on. At the end of the novel, Morrison repeats, “It was not a story to pass on” (324). This suggests that after Beloved’s disappearance, people had to forget about her in order to live on with their lives. Morrison’s story of Beloved conveys that there is value in learning about this painful story of the past because it is important to remember the history of slavery.

"Bottom of the River" and Beloved

The song that most reminds me of Beloved is “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae.

The verses, which are from a different perspective than the chorus, tell the Mother through call and response of terrible things to come and that she should drown her son before an angry God takes him away. Like Sethe, the unnamed mother in the song kills her child to protect them.

One way to interpret the chorus is that the Mother is calling to her child to hold her hand. This tenderness and desire for togetherness reminds me of the way Sethe was with her children. She may have tried to kill them but it was never her intention to be separated from them. I believe that had she not have had any other children she would have killed herself to be with Beloved. 

One can also imagine Beloved singing the chorus. She emerges reborn from the river with the intention of being with Sethe. However, she becomes like a parasite sucking the life from Sethe. If she comes to life after swimming to the river’s surface then swimming to the bottom of the river could represent her going back to death. Only this time she demands Sethe goes with her.

Lyrics

[Chorus]
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down to the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down, a long way down

[Verse 1]
If you get sleep or if you get none
(The cock’s gonna call in the morning, baby)

Check the cupboard for your daddy’s gun
(Red sun rises like an early warning)

The Lord’s gonna come for your first born son
(His hair’s on fire and his heart is burning)

So go to the river where the water runs
(Wash him deep where the tides are turning)

[Pre-Chorus]
And if you fall
And if you fall

[Chorus]
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
A long way down

[Verse 2]
The wolves will chase you by the pale moonlight
(Drunk and driven by a devil’s hunger)

Drive your son like a railroad spike
(Into the water, let it pull him under)

Don’t you lift him, let him drown alive
(The good Lord speaks like a rolling thunder)

Let that fever make the water rise
(And let the river run dry)
And I said

[Chorus]
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
A long way down

Hold my hand
Ooh, baby, it’s a long way down (long way down)
To the bottom of the river
Hold my hand
Ooh baby it’s a long way down, a long way down

Community in Beloved

In Beloved by Toni Morrison, community plays a large role in the characters lives. The black community in Cincinnati acts as a salvation for ex-slaves, while the underground railroad acts as a support network for escaping slaves. These two communities are most prominently seen throughout the novel.

When Paul D is in the depths of slavery and is in his “chain gang”, him and the other prisoners around him find a way to escape together. The only way in which they are able to escape is because of the fact that they are all together, and because of the community and support provided by the underground railroad. Essentially the underground railroad is a network of people all working under the same community and fighting for the same cause-freeing slaves.

One key example of a community coming together is also seen when Baby Suggs coordinates for the whole black community of Cincinatti to provide food for Denver and Sethe when they are in need. This sense of community is even further seen when a large group of women basaically stand in front of Sethe’s home in an attempt to exorcise Beloved from the home.

Community is essential in anyone’s life, however, I believe that it is especially essential for ex-slaves trying to form a new life after slavery. In Beloved, community is what the characters fall back onto when they are in need. Without community, there definitely would not be any surviving slavery, along with the after effects of slavery.

Why Can They See Color?

Color is a motif throughout Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I think that color has many different meanings in the book. It often symbolizes very specific things such as how the color red represents the traumatic experiences of the past and the desire to forget them. More importantly, I think that it is intentionally used to demonstrate the transition into becoming a complete human being.

Color shows up a lot after Baby Suggs’ and Sethe’s escapes and during the characters present life. Color represents emotions which is important because even though slaves can have emotions it shows how they are not valued because they are not treated as people. They are not able to have emotions or other human behaviors because they are not treated like them. When describing Baby Suggs death Sethe says “…pondered color her last years. She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before…I don’t believe she wanted to get to red and I understand why because me and Beloved outdid ourselves with it” (237). Even after they escaped into the north there was still a possibility that they could be caught and taken back into the south. Even if this possibility did not occur they were treated differently because of the color of their skin. I think that she is able to see more color as she approaches death because she is starting to become the most free version of herself, a soul. She is no longer lesser than anyone because what divided her, her body, is no longer there. You are able to see color when you reach freedom because only then are you able to have emotions.

Beloved and The Middle Passage

In class one day, we discussed that passage in which Beloved talks about where she came from. Beloved doesn’t name a specific location of her origin, but rather gives the reader a detailed description.

Beloved described the place that she came from as “dark” and “hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in” and that “A lot of people is down there. Some is dead.”

This description sparked much discussion and interpretation among the class. Some commonly agreed upon ideas within the classroom were Hell, a coffin, and a womb.

Then, Mr. Heidkamp gave a suggestion that nobody in the class had brought up, that Beloved was describing her journey through The Middle Passage.

The Middle Passage is the route slaves took from Western Africa to North America, where they would be sold into slavery. The Middle Passage was described by some slaves as the worst form of punishment, and in most slave autobiographies, this middle passage through the Atlantic Ocean isn’t even mentioned.

About 50% of Africans forced onto these slave ships died in The Middle Passage due to little to no food, water or shelter, as well as disease. Many debates in the colonies and later on, the states, involved whether these slave ships should be “tightly” or “loosely” packed with slaves.

The extreme dehumanization and of these people on The Middle Passage speaks to the horrors of slavery, and the disgusting actions the European colonists in North America.

Beloved expressed her dislike, and possibly even fear, of the place that she came from earlier on in the novel. It made me think a lot about this Middle Passage, and the other horrors that people faced due to the abuse of European power and force.

After I left that day in class, I heavily reflected on the emotional and physical impact of this passage, and how if a person was able to survive it, they would still be left with the horrible emotional trauma of the gruesome journey.