This past summer, I read a few novels that have been on my “to-do” list for a while: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston; Beloved, by Toni Morrison. All African-American writers, all African-American protagonists, all novels that I should have read long ago. I’m going to spend a few moments on each book, not in summary, but in reflection, not only because they affected me so deeply, but because they embody an artistic expression of anti-oppression that forms the central argument of this series.
Until some time last year, I had only heard of H. G. Wells’ similarly-titled science fiction adventure, The Invisible Man. I came across Ellison’s book in an article by black womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland, and was so intrigued by the reference–and by the fact that I had never heard of the book–that I put it on my short list of fiction to-read. It definitely didn’t take me into science fiction! I was so caught by his prose, even from the beginning. He just grabs you–the prose, the story, the insurmountable struggle which is precisely that. It was like, even though you knew the ending from the very beginning (Ellison sets up the novel as such), there was always a chance the protagonist would make it, there was a chance he could make the changes to society and to himself that he wanted to make. There was always a chance he could succeed and survive. He doesn’t, of course, at least not in the way success is defined in the white world in which I live. But that’s part of the point, I think. What is success? What are we striving for? How do we define victory?
Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I read Zora Neale Hurston’s book second, more because I had heard it mentioned a decent amount and didn’t really know much about it. I didn’t read it in any of my many years of education, and I needed to know. In short, it was beautiful. Just, just the whole thing. Shocking, painful, disarming, subtle, and always so human, so tender, so clear. If Ellison’s novel could be described as “struggle,” Hurston’s, perhaps, was “triumph.” But not in the way I have typically conceived of triumph. More in the sense of the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: that triumph which is the human person, living and dying, deciding and being decided upon. That triumph which is bringing to life that which is more real than one thought imaginable. Of the three, I think I enjoyed reading this one the most.
Morrison’s Beloved was last of the three. I came to it through the recommendation of Shawn Copeland–who wrote that her latest book, Enfleshing Freedom, could be seen as a reflection on the novel–and renowned womanist theologian Emilie Townes–who told me in person that Beloved, in her mind, is the best work on African-American liberation theology in the 20th century. I was not disappointed, but I’m not sure I’d say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading the book.
Beloved, in short, was devastating. Morrison–winner of Pulitzer, Nobel, and many other prizes–tore me apart in Beloved, page by page. There’s just no end–so many tales, so much heartache, so much hope, so much life, so much death. The difficult thing is Beloved is not the slavery per se, but the effect of slavery on persons, on communities, on souls. By comparison, the movie 12 Years a Slave (which I very highly recommend for mature audiences) succeeds both because of its amazingly historically-accurate depiction of slavery and because of its devastatingly-emotionally-overwhelming happy ending. Beloved, on the other hand, succeeds because the ending–which is pointing upward–isn’t the point. Morrison has already laid bare your soul in so many lives interwoven throughout the text. I, a white, male doctoral student in theology in 2014, became Beloved, Sethe, and Baby Suggs, whether I wanted to or not. Morrison gave me no choice.
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It is one thing knowing that slavery existed, as I did growing up in New Orleans. I knew that “plantations” housed hundreds of slaves. I knew that slaves were bought and sold, and that the Civil War was fought over such things.
But I did not know. I did not know.
Not till I saw the moss drooping from the trees in 12 Years a Slave and said to myself, “I loved playing with that moss growing up.”
Not till I read, time and time again, of the destruction done to black women’s bodies and souls throughout the African diaspora known as “slavery.”
Not till I entered Morrison’s story and, surprising even myself, understood how killing your own infant to prevent it being sold into slavery could be somehow justified in the horrific and cruel world of that “Peculiar Institution.” And now, even knowing just a little, I constantly remind myself that I am still learning the depths to which a soul can be torn apart in fear and hate and despair.
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Becoming Anti-Oppressive, by John Slattery
Part 1: Growing Up Racist and Misogynist and Catholic
Part 2: The Act of Knowing
Part 3: Racism, Bigotry, and Theology
Part 4: Banging on the Door