Some years ago a friend asked me if I thought Beloved was Toni Morrison’s best book. I answered that it was one of the best books, period. To me it’s right up there with Steppenwolf, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice. It’s a book that has the ability to change your outlook on life. It has the ability to physically alter your brain and the way you think.
What makes it so remarkable? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. Toni Morrison does not make things easy for her readers. Her books are like mazes formed from concentric circles, with jigs and jags, and maybe a few dead ends. There are many layers of meaning. First of all, it’s a great story, a page turner even. I sped through it wanting to know what would happen next. All the while though, there was something going on in the back of my brain, like a persistent clicking noise. This book was important, and it was trying to tell me something specific. I slowed down my reading and tried to work though what was being said to me.
The first thing that occurred to me is, slavery is bad. Yes, I knew that already, but what specifically was bad? Specifically she was talking about slavery in America where people were brought here from Africa against their will. People were owned by other people. They had no freedom to control their own lives. Yes, I knew that too, but what exactly made that horrible, and not in a theoretical sense? It came to me quickly and it was this. Without warning and without recourse, you could lose every person who mattered to you. They would be taken from you, you would never see them again, and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it. You most likely would lose your parents, your siblings, aunts and uncles, children, spouse and friends. What did this do to an individual over the course of a lifetime? What did it do to a people over the course of 400 years? How did it affect their culture and their way of looking at the world?
Doesn’t it make sense that some of the problems that have plagued Black America in the 154 years since emancipation could be directly attributed to this aspect of slavery, in addition to institutionalized racism and general bigotry? It was psychological abuse on a huge scale. And what about all the people who scoff at those ideas, saying slavery was a long time ago, get over it, everyone has equal opportunities now? That led me down another path in the maze.
A generation is generally considered to be thirty years, which means slavery ended just about five generations ago. I thought about what that would mean to me personally, looking at the lineage of my father’s mother, whose ancestor came to America in 1630. It meant considering my great-great grandfather, Edmund Spurr. If the family had been Black and lived in a slave state, he would have been born into slavery and would have been a young child when the civil war ended. As it was he became a small-scale farmer, but it’s unlikely he would have been a landowner had he been born a slave. He would have been living in the chaos of Reconstruction amid systemic and dangerous racism. My great grandfather Vernon Spurr was born in the early 1880s, and was the eldest of nine. As it was he left school early to help support the family. If he had been born Black, would he even have been able to go to school all? Maybe, but I doubt he would have been the landowner and farmer that he was. Maybe he would have been a sharecropper. My grandmother Elizabeth was born in 1911. It’s possible she would have benefited a bit from things going on then, like the rise of a separate black economy brought about by Jim Crow laws. Maybe she would have had a little more education or been a domestic servant rather than having to work in the fields. My father Lee was born in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression. What kind of opportunities would he have had? What kind of racism and bigotry would he have faced? Would he have been able to go to college on the GI Bill and become an architect? Probably not. I come next, born in 1962. The Civil Rights movement was just getting going. Might I have benefited from changing attitudes and things like Affirmative Action? Yes, probably, but the fact remains that my generation would have been the first since the end of slavery that experienced anything close to equal opportunity, and even then, it wouldn’t have been that close. Tell me again how slavery isn’t pertinent to current discussions of race in this country.
These thoughts led me to yet another part of the maze. Most often the question I’ve heard asked is why hasn’t Black America come farther, and what do we do about it. A more appropriate question would be how as Black America managed to come this far in such a short time, given all the obstacles? It certainly isn’t because of the benevolent assistance of white America. And what does this mean for me as a white person? Beyond just not acting like a racist, there are other, more subtle things to think about. The absolute least I can do is to acknowledge our shared history and not gloss it over with Whataboutism and false equivalencies. What happened happened, and the effects continue to this day. Why is that so hard to accept? It doesn’t mean I have to accept personal responsibility, but collective guilt does serve a useful purpose in any society. It prevents the same lessons from having to be learned by each generation. It means that the same terrible thing doesn’t have to keep happening over and over again. It means accepting, really accepting, that not everyone starts from the same place in our society, and that working to equalize the playing field is a perfectly acceptable and good thing to do. It’s the human thing to do. I actually never had a problem with affirmative action programs because I always knew that there would be another job or another opportunity for me. What if this was someone’s only shot, something that could change their entire life? Wouldn’t it be the right thing to step aside, and dare I say it, the Christian thing? Of course it is.
When I got to the end of this journey, over the course of several weeks, I actually felt a huge sense of relief. My world made more sense. It wasn’t any prettier nor any kinder, but it was just a little bit easier to understand. I’m not sure if this was the path Toni Morrison intended me to follow, but it was the one I found and I’m grateful for it.