Passages

From the novel, “Beloved”, by Toni Morrison:

“…Eighteen seventy-four and whitefolks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eighty-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken. He smelled skin, skin and hot blood. The skin was one thing, but human blood cooked in a lynch fire was a whole other thing. The stench stank. Stank up off the pages of the North Star, out of the mouths of witnesses, etched in crooked handwriting in letters delivered by hand. Detailed in documents and petitions full of whereas and presented to any legal body who’d read it, it stank. But none of that had worn out his marrow. None of that. It was the ribbon. Tying his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it the best he could, he caught sight of something red on the bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp. He untied the ribbon and put it in his pocket, dropped the curl in the weeds. On the way home, he stopped, short of breath and dizzy. He waited until the spell passed before continuing on his way. A moment later, his breath left him again. This time he sat down by a fence. Rested, he got to his feet, but before he took a step he turned to look back down the road he was traveling and said, to its frozen mud and the river beyond, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?”

“…he believed the undecipherable language clamoring around the house was the mumbling of the black and angry dead. Very few had died in bed, like Baby Suggs, and none that he knew of, including Baby, had lived a livable life. Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there. You need two heads for that. Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through, and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.”

Reading these lines from the remarkable novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison, brought me in touch with the underlying emotions that arise from America’s shadow and have dominated our political debates for as long as I’ve been alive. I wonder sometimes whether we as a nation will ever gain the courage to deal with the echoes resounding from centuries of suffering inflicted on our fellow human beings in the name of wealth and capital. Instead of recompense and reparations we continue to pursue the panaceas of punishment, repression, racism and blaming others for the crimes we’ve committed in the quest for an American dream. Slavery is the crime that largely built our economy during a time when cotton was the most valuable trade currency in the world. It’s the crime for which we refuse to face atonement because it threatens an economy built on the backs of the poor and the disadvantaged. Our feelings of guilt get us nowhere, because we end up projecting our guilt on those whom we’ve victimized, leading to even more injustice and more cruelty. We tell ourselves that those on the bottom of the social and economic ladder somehow deserve to be there. When they protest their position we find someone even more marginalized to point the finger at. Unfortunately, self-rightousness and bigotry continues to be one of the most familiar political tools in our national discourse. Yet, everything is tied together in the body politic, and it’s the original sin of bigotry and violence that obstructs our view of a future shaped from well-being and harmony. It may be that only the passing of generations will lead to healing the wounds that sow the spectacle of distrust and chaos that we witness on our streets, in our prisons and in the halls of “justice”. The only way out of our mess is the path of self-knowledge and compassion. We must ultimately own our mistakes and only then can we forgive ourselves and others before moving on to deal with their consequences.

Lastly, also from “Beloved”, a passage about love.

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

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