Kenya: Remembering Nobel Winner Toni Morrison

19 September 2020

August 5, 2020 marked the first anniversary of the death of the great American Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, editor, essayist and university literature professor Toni Morrison.

The iconic author is best-known for her novels Beloved, Jazz, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Love and A Mercy, in which she tackles the themes of race, class, the trauma of slavery, oppression, equality, social justice, and gender centred on the black American experience with gorgeous language through African American characters.

Morrison's critically acclaimed novel Beloved (1987), which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is based on the true story of a runaway slave called Sethe, who is haunted by her decision to kill her infant daughter rather than see her child become enslaved.

Beloved chronicles the lives of Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from slavery in Kentucky to Ohio.

Sethe, her husband Halle and other slaves plot to run to freedom but the escape does not go according to plan. Paul D and Sixo are captured and tied. Sixo dies later. The Thirty-Mile Woman escaped but no one knows what happened to Paul A or Halle.

At the point of recapture, Sethe has just given birth to a baby girl in the woods by herself. She kills her daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. Three of her children survive.

Teenage daughter

Sethe lives in Ohio in a small house at 124 Bluestone Road with her teenage daughter, Denver, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Isolated from her community after Beloved's killing, Denver forms a close bond with her mother. Halle is not there for Sethe and their children. Sethe's sons, Howard and Buglar, run away from home at 13. Sethe believes they fled because of the ghost.

Paul D, a man who with many painful memories of his time as a slave, comes to live at 124. Sethe and Paul D, who were slaves at Sweet Home, reunite in a brief romantic relationship.

When Sethe, Denver and Paul D return from attending a carnival in town, they find a young woman sleeping on a stump near 124. She says that her name is Beloved and is running away from varied troubles.

Beloved is invited in to 124. Beloved returns as a living entity. At one point, Beloved seduces Paul D. After learning that Sethe killed her daughter, he leaves.

It soon becomes clear that the daughter has come back to fix her mother. Beloved accuses her mother of leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her.

Personal independence

Sethe cries, saying she never did, or meant to - that she had to get them out, away, that she had the milk all the time. That her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side, forever. Beloved is not interested.

As the situation worsens, Sethe loses her job at the restaurant and becomes completely fixated on Beloved. Sethe is worn down, speckled, dying, spinning, changing shapes and generally bedevilled. Beloved beats her, ties her to the bed and pulls out all her hair.

For her own her personal independence and her mother's wellbeing, Denver breaks the cycle of isolation at 124 Bluestone and shares the troubles of their family with Lady Jones, who mobilises food aid for the home. When Ella then mobilises fellow black women in the neighbourhood to rescue Sethe.

Thirty women walk to House 124 in an attempt to stage an exorcism. Sethe opens that door and reaches for Beloved's hands. Together they stand in the doorway and face the 30 women. The devil-child has taken the shape of a pregnant woman, naked and smiling in afternoon sun. Sethe looks like a little girl beside her.

Sethe and Denver run into the faces of the people, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. At one point they see the Baby ghost and then they don't.

Bitter poetry

The 324-page novel that was published by Vintage International and is divided into three parts. It is filled with bitter poetry and suspense. It tackles the themes of the psychological effects of slavery, pain, love, the supernatural, mother-daughter relationships, and family relationships, among others.

According to the author, Cathy Lowne, "Beloved offers a harrowing look at slavery and its lasting impact. The intensely shocking and moving narrative was written in a variety of voices and lengthy fragmentary monologues, which, like the character of Beloved herself, are sometimes ambiguous. Morrison's beautiful language and intense imagery, however, were rightly celebrated in this classic work... "

A film adaptation of Beloved was released in 1998 and starred Oprah Winfrey, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover.

Morrison's other novels are Tar Baby (1981), Paradise (1998), Home (2012), the novella God Help the Child published in 2015, and a number of children's books that she co-wrote with her son Slade Morrison. She also published her essays, reviews and speeches.

Morrison died on August 5, 2019 at Montefiore Medical Centre in New York.

She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 in recognition of her contributions to her field, becoming the first African-American woman to be selected for the award.

She was born on February 18, 1931, in Ohio.

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