Why Beloved is the most important book I never finished

This is the fourth in a series in which carte blanche editors explore books and collections that profoundly influenced them. This month’s pick is brought to you by Chalsley Taylor.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved has been the most important read of my life thus far. I’ve plenty aging left to do but I don’t foresee a change of mind ahead. It’s a bold statement for one as incisive as I am, particularly since I still have not read the novel in its entirety, cover to cover. (Yes, I have seen the movie; yes, I am ashamed.)

As a wispy reader of 9 or so I spied a copy on the shelf built into my mother’s headboard, tucked among several books by Iyanla Vanzant and a John Grisham paperback or two. Its location on that shelf alone made it seductive; one of a collection so very unsuitable for my self. But prying into Adult Things while unsupervised was a favourite pastime of mine so, when left alone, I’d often crack open one of these books to a random page, hoping for something salacious. More often than not, what I found didn’t hold my attention for long; Iyanla was beyond me.

Beloved was different. I’d linger too long trying to wrap my head around whichever scene I happened to land on that day, only to furiously shut it out too soon at the sound of mounting footsteps. The after-image was strong and returned at intervals until I could take another peak. Considering its subject matter I should not have been so drawn to this novel. Not for the violence, but for the fact that the narrative centres on enslaved and newly ‘free’ Blacks in the United States. I should not have wanted to read it because it was so close to that abstract spectre of my childhood, Black History proper and its designated month.

Before I began my slow acquaintance with Beloved I kept books and all other media on the subject of Black History at a distance, to be avoided whenever possible. One February my mother placed a small stack of picture books from the library in my hands. All clearly pulled from a Black History Month showcase, I received them with mild scorn. I may have read just one, if any. Some other February I bore a Black History Month special of Reading Rainbow, much cherished by myself, with considerable difficulty. I may have sat through it out of loyalty, but more likely I had no alternative. Alone in the living room, dark by afternoon both inside and out, I perched on the couch with all my limbs drawn close, braced for impact. LeVar Burton, host and winner of little hearts, presented clips from the TV mini-series, Roots, featuring himself as Kunta Kinte. I frowned for twenty something minutes straight.

I found no joy in Black History Month, its attendant assembly, the slides of George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman, grainy VHS tapes of shackles and stoic faces so unrecognizable. The Black Kid in class knows the peculiar sensation of hyper-visibility that finds them some February afternoon when they thought they’d be learning about how The Pioneers churned butter. My aversion back then has me guilty now, particularly my intense distaste for those library books. Why couldn’t I bear to read them? I’d already had a small set of picture books featuring black characters, a five piece collection of Caribbean folktales and Afrocentric retellings of European fairy tales. These were unlike the library set, which confronted me with my own blackness out loud and in public. The folk and fairy tales were private joys, or they felt so. Classmates at my mostly white school didn’t know about Lajabless but they knew what “Colored Only” signs were all about.

The supernatural elements of Beloved nestled an unloved subject within a much-loved genre (forgive my childhood self for grouping Pulitzer Prize-winning literature with all the other horror stories with which I loved to frighten myself). More literal histories were too raw to take at the time, at once too real and too foreign to my mind, and somehow reinventing me as foreign. The Black History Month library books asked me to witness and claim stories I couldn’t recognize as my own, nor did I want to. Though fictitious, Beloved gave me a glimpse at the history of Black life (and death) in America. Morrison’s novel permitted me to witness in private and wrestle with its meaning during whichever month I pleased.

I haven’t held this book since childhood and I haven’t returned to read the narrative in its entirety, in order this time; still it seems housed in my psyche somehow, piecey but powerful.

Chalsley spends her time in Montreal, writing and studying and lurking. A working stiff by day, she is the managing editor of carte blanche at all other hours.