Hope for the Future as seen in "Beloved" by Tony Morrison and "Alright" by Kendrick Lamar

After reading Beloved by Tony Morrison I was left with a sense of hope. Slavery is a gruesome and terrible time in America’s past. When writing about this period in our nation’s history, most author’s stress the inhumanity in the way that African American were treated. They describe the atrocities of the Slave Trade and the plantations. They point and say, look how these victims were abused, look at how bad things were.

Morrison, however, decides to take a different approach. She does not only focus on condemning slavery, but also on the growth and healing afterward. The novel is set a decade after the civil war. Therefore, it is more relevant and focuses on an issue we still deal with today: how to live after slavery. At the end of the novel, Sethe and Paul D, two former slaves that had worked at the same plantation, mend their relationship and try to live a normal life together. The book gives the reader hope for the future. Morrison shows that although this terrible thing happened to these group of people, we can survive and we can are strong enough to get past this.

The hope I got after reading beloved reminded me of another song by a more recent writer. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” condemns the issues African American’s still face in the twenty first century:

I recognize you’re looking at me for the pay cut

But homicide be looking at you from the face down

What MAC-11 even boom with the bass down?

Here he talks about African American’s role in society as seen by White America. Although Kendrick is one of the most popular and influential rappers, he still feels he is only seen as a way for the record industry to make money. Similar to slavery, Kendrick is not seen as a person, but rather a tool to profit off of. With the next two lines he then focuses on the problem of gang violence and the nation’s ignorance to the issue.

However, just like Morrison, he still has hope for the future and knows that African American’s can overcome and survive racism. During the chorus of the song Kendrick says,

My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright

Although Kendrick is fed up with the state of oppression African Americans are in (“My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow”), he still has hope for the future that everything will work out (“we gon’ be alright”). Kendrick and Morrison’s focus on the future is empowering. If we only focus on the past, how can we grow?

"Beloved" and the Power of Perspective

Throughout “Beloved” Toni Morrison intentionally provides possibly limited but illuminating points of views. The stories of struggles and triumphs are told almost selectively from the perspective of former slaves and their relatives. While some may argue that it limits the scope of the story, I think it is important to hear the story from the lion’s perspective instead of the hunter’s. Through the textbooks that circulate our country’s public school systems, we are desensitized to the atrocities of slavery. These books often sugarcoat the horrors that took place on many plantations during the era of slavery. Until reading this novel, I had never heard of a “bit” or many other forms of systematic torture of slaves. Slavery was almost primarily discussed through the scope of civil war. We were taught that it was a divisive topic between the north and south, but rarely were we taught about the slave’s lives stuck in between the Union and Confederacy. That is why Morrison’s utilization of perspective is so essential. This novel, while fictional, gives a voice to a underrepresented community.

Morrison also shows the reader how dangerous the hunter’s perspective can be. While Sethe and Baby Suggs tell their own stories of escape, Sethe’s infanticide is told through the perspective of the schoolteacher. This perspective spreads to all of Sethe’s neighbor, essentially ostracizing her from her own people. Those that knew what happened didn’t care for Sethe’s reasoning. They didn’t care that Sethe did it to protect her infant daughter from a fate worse than death. They only cared about the story of a mother killing her child in cold blood. That is why the hunter’s narrative is so dangerous in isolation. If left unchecked, inaccurate information spreads like wildfire until the lion’s point of view is eradicated.

Is "Beloved" a Ghost Story?

In reading “Beloved,” a question arose in my mind. Is “Beloved” a ghost story? Clearly, there is a ghost or spirit of some sort in the form of Beloved. While Beloved is a spirit, what was Morrison’s motive to include a ghost in a story about post-slavery America? While one of Beloved’s main purposes is to haunt Sethe, what more does she represent?

There are a lot of questions there. But in my opinion, “Beloved” is not a ghost story. Personally, I think to call it so is simplifying Beloved as a character. To call “Beloved” a ghost story is to overlook many important events in the novel. As readers, we see many different time periods and events throughout African-American history throughout the book. We see a newly post-slavery United States through the “present” eyes of Sethe and Paul D. We also get to see flashbacks of Sethe’s and Paul D’s back to Sweet Home and slavery. We even get flashbacks to Sethe’s childhood and her mother, who spoke a different language, where Sethe would have been around people who could’ve remembered the middle passage. Morrison uses Beloved to fill some of the gaps missing in this history. As readers, we get vivid, horrible, brutal images of the middle passage through Beloved’s description. This is a part of the history that would not have been included in the story otherwise, but is very important in understanding the history of slavery in America. Beloved is also the one who asks Sethe so many questions about Sweet Home, providing the reader with more information about Sethe’s experience as a slave. Although Morrison could have found other ways to delve into Sethe’s past, Beloved is a natural and interesting tool that Morrison can use in order for us as readers to learn more about Sweet Home.

In this way, I think Beloved as a character serves a much larger purpose than just to be a ghost in the story and haunt Sethe. For this reason, to call “Beloved” a ghost story is a bit of an insult to the book because it holds so much more than that.

Past vs Present

Throughout Toni Morrison’s remarkable novel Beloved, the effects that the past holds over the present pieces together the story at 124 using dialogue and flashbacks are used to convey the impact it has had.

Main character Sethe is in a constant struggle to “beat back the past.” However, it will not remain buried, both literally or figuratively. The ghost of her dead daughter haunts her. While she is content with that, Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” comes to visit her, bringing with him painful memories of slavery. Sethe hates her “rebellious brain” that will leave no painful memory behind, with no room to plan for the future. But with Paul D she is better able to bear the past because the horrors belong to him too. This connection being the reason that their relationship is so sturdy. She hopes that she can learn to trust him. Although, she tells him her worst memory, that of killing her own child to save her from slavery. He reneges on his promise to “catch her” and leaves.

Paul D begins to talk to Sethe about memories of Sweet Home. But he leaves most of them locked up in the “tobacco tin” that takes the place of his heart. After hearing Sethe’s reasons for killing her daughter, his tobacco tin is blown wide open. Memories of the horrors of Sweet Home under authority of schoolteacher (the slave owner) come flooding back. In the end Paul D remembers his friend Sixo’s love for the Thirty-Mile Woman. He decides he wants to combine his story with Sethe’s and make a future together.

Beloved’s memories, revealed in stream-of-consciousness narration, are of dying and being among dead people. When she comes back to life, she remembers her mother’s diamond earrings and a song she sang. She forces her mother to remember. Sethe wants to tell Beloved everything, to make her understand. In this way Beloved helps Sethe confront the past, but it almost ruins her. Through these memories Morrison makes sure the reader does not forget the brutality of slavery.

Did Beloved Really Exist?

In the novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Sethe and the other main characters in the book are haunted by Beloved. Beloved is the child that Sethe killed to prevent from returning to slavery, who rises from the dead to live with Sethe, Denver, and Paul D.

Although Morrison portrays Beloved as a physical reincarnation, one may interpret that Beloved is just a memory so prevalent to Sethe that she believes Beloved is real. For instance, Beloved appears after Paul D’s return. Paul D is a fragment of Sethe’s past, so when he reenters her life he unearths a lot of her memories of life in slavery.

Ultimately, Beloved metaphorically consumes Sethe as she forces her to remember her life at Sweet Home. The more time Sethe spends with Beloved, the more she loses herself in her memories, which makes me think that Beloved may not actually exist in the physical sense at all. Beloved could be a metaphor for Sethe’s past.

In a broader sense, Beloved could also represent the collective experience of slavery that formerly enslaved people tuck away after becoming free (as in Paul D’s “tobacco tin”). Beloved only leaves once Sethe is so entirely consumed in her past that she literally relives the day she killed Beloved when she sees Mr. Bodwin riding up to her house. These occurrences lead me to believe that Beloved may not exist as a person, but instead as a memory so strong that it manifests itself in a physical form.

Everything Sweet

After reading the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, it is clear that she carefully constructed this story to have deeper meanings. There is an abundance of symbolic elements, so much I most likely didn’t catch it all as a reader.

After doing the symbolism activity in class and being assigned the symbol of sugar, it opened my eyes to the recurring mention of sweetness/sugar. I was oblivious to this before but going back and looking made me realize just how carefully placed this symbol was.

Sugar was mostly mentioned when referring to the pas memories of Sethe. There was always an association with the bad memories and sweetness. One of the most prominent examples being the name of the place Sethe and Paul D escaped from, “Sweethome.” With this association of the past, sugar is also mentioned when talking about Beloved. It appears that she feeds off of sugar and is always refueling on something sweet. She is the one who brings up past memories for Sethe so it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that she fuels off of sugar.

Another element that I found interesting is the fact that sweetness/sugar is typically associated with the good in stories. It is quite ironic that it is associated with the exact opposite in Beloved. It makes it a harder motif to comprehend as a reader and catch at first glace into the story.

Walking to Life in Beloved

Throughout all of Beloved, we see tons of motifs that have strong symbolic meaning in the book. One in particular that stands out to be is the motif of feet. Feet are quietly a very important aspect throughout the entire book.

Feet, in my opinion, are the symbol for life and death. Every time we see feet used in the text, it’s either to compare it to life and death or use it as a segue to talk about the subject. On page 42 of the book, Amy says to Sethe that “anything dead coming back to life hurts” when she is massaging her feet. A clear example of the motif, feet are the physical representation of life and death in the book.

Another example where we see this is when Beloved arrives at 124. Her feet are “soft and new” as she is revived from her past life. As she continues to experience this second life, her feet continue to grow and get fatter, as Sethe’s feet grow smaller. As Sethe approaches the end of her life, Morrison shows this with the description of her feet.