Beloved by Toni Morrison

Today is our final day with Beloved, and I am just getting around to saying something about the experience, which has been both riveting and mind blowing.  I think this has been true for some of the students as well although by no means all. 

A documentary is like a choral group, made up of many voices, many strands. This is actually true of all films--fiction as well as documentary but with fiction films, such as for instance in this case, the film version of Beloved directed by Jonathan Demme, I think we are generally more aware of the many hands, many voices aspect of it since it advertises itself as fiction, often the featured actors are recognizable from other films, the director generally has left his paw print on the production, there may be music we've heard in other contexts, and there is a long list of credits that roll by at the end. Reading a good book, or reading it well--especially a book by Toni Morrison, especially Beloved, is like this as well. Although there is a single author, the author sings in many voices, draws upon many hands (among them your own) in constructing her vision. 

In an attempt to capture that collaborative spirit which I felt so strongly present in reading and re-reading Beloved, I had the idea to read the novel alongside the film version and alongside a very clever documentary made by the BBC's South Bank Show (RM Arts Presents Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison," VHS Home Visions) with Toni Morrison's assistance just at the time the novel was first published in 1987. My intention in doing so was to problematize the notion of a single definitive  reading as fundamentally in contradiction with the spirit in which the book was written and with how people have continued to read it and interpret it ever since, sometimes as though it had just been written. For me in 2013, I experience this book as entirely new, now that I am myself 61 and the scholarship, art and film--documentary and feature--on slavery has progressed so far beyond 1987.

Going back today to look at the documentary again with my students but with lowered expectations because what I realized is that it probably isn't possible for most of them to detach from the notion of the definitive reading (which they are waiting for me to provide). Now I see why some disapprove of using film in literature classes because for many of them to show the film (even portions of it) or the documentary is to suggest that I am pointing them to these texts as definitive, whereas my real intention is to add more obstacles to that notion of a definitive reading, to totally explode it. This seems to me particularly clear in looking at this particular documentary--which I have now watched maybe 5 times because it is, itself, not a unified text on any level.

It is composed of the narrator/host of the show, British, who I can see now is pursuing a thesis about the book which is somewhat resistant to Morrison's own onscreen reading. His thesis is supported by selections from the text, which are read by two actors--a male and a female.  Whereas, Morrison says a variety of things, things I wonder how she would now see and expand upon these 37 years later in the light of all her subsequent returns to the topics addressed in Beloved, as well as its subsequent extraordinary success, her Nobel Prize and her recent novel A Mercy, which is also about slavery. In addition, the documentary includes some visual images, all of them authentic artifacts of slavery. Such images would have been rare and hard to find in 1987, whereas today not only can you find these exact same images online but you can also find out their precise genealogy, which the documentary doesn't mention, nor does any documentary mention this still.

I am thinking case in point would be the most recent 6 part Henry Louis Gates Series on the history of African Americans on PBS. Great visuals but rarely with any explanation of their source although last Tuesday he did include a wonderful segment on W.E.B. DuBois' use of photographs for the Negro Exhibit at the Paris Exposition, with David Levering Lewis providing the background.  Sadly, they barely scratched the surface given that these images traveled and circulated as a unit for decades at various venues in the United States--making them the first step toward the concept of an African American museum, according to Mabel Wilson's Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums.  University of California Press--a vision we are still trying to concretize in the form of the Museum of African American Culture and History currently being built in Washington D.C. as part of the Smithsonian. 

Finally, Morrison who appears to be in her living room in Croton-on-the-Hudson reads a series of selections from the book she has chosen herself. The tension between these different trajectories and versions are designed to up the stakes on the simplistic reading. But I am not sure that I have succeeded in doing so for reasons that I will later return to after we've had class. Going to try going back and pointing out a few things, which it may have been difficult to notice on the first viewing.