This post was supposed to be about research. Specifically, about how real research is prompted by real questions that arise when we are engaged in reading (or talking, or thinking). By the time I was finished, the reflections ended up being about something very different, and more intense, than the idea of doing research. I ended up with so much more to think and feel because of what I found in that research.
I have been rereading Toni Morrison’s gut-punching novel Beloved (1988) because I want to teach it in AP Lit this year.
I first read it shortly after it came out, and appropriately to the narrative, it haunted me. As with all great works that call on us to exercise our empathy, it left me trying to get inside the characters, trying to imagine lives and experiences so different from my own through the depiction of the former slaves that populate number 124 in Cincinnati, Ohio. How much pain can people endure? How could they live in the house haunted by the baby? What could make a mother kill her child?
With this reread, I’ve been sometimes reading Beloved a paperback, and sometimes on my Kindle. The other day when I went onto my Kindle, I somehow ended up in Morrison’s introduction to the novel. That was where I encountered the story of Margaret Garner. Garner’s story was the inspiration of Morrison’s novel. Immediately I felt my history education had short-changed me; how could I not know about Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed her own daughter rather than allowing her to be taken back into slavery?
This sliver of Garner’s story sent me to the computer to do some more research. I what I learned left me with even more questions.
Garner was a slave on a plantation in Kentucky. She escaped with a group of slaves, including her family – husband and children – to Ohio, a free state. Unfortunately (a word not nearly strong enough), they were apprehended by slave traders and US Marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. In order to prevent their being returned to slavery, Margaret Garner tried to kill her children, and did, in fact, kill the youngest.
Her defense attorney tried to get Garner a trial for murder in Ohio. Ultimately she was returned to slavery, and found guilty of destruction of property.
Her children were the property of her white slave master.
They were also likely the children of her white slavemaster. The material I read refers to sources that say they looked something like him, and that based on when they were born – within a few months of his wife giving birth – they were probably conceived in what were called the “gander months” related to his wife’s pregnancy. Gander months were another thing I learned about in my impromptu research. This was a relative commonplace “understanding” of the 17th through 19th centuries which held that during the last month of a wife’s pregnancy, and the recuperative month after giving birth, it was not considered surprising for her husband to find company with another woman if he could. In the case of Margaret Garner, he had a victim who was not free to refuse him.
The idea that the murder of a child is equated to breaking some china is breathtaking to me. I knew the history, the systematic dehumanization of black people that had to be at the foundation of slavery for it to exist as a system. But the compounding and compounding of the hopelessness of captivity, and the insistent denial of basic humanity that creates a circumstance where death is preferable to life in slavery that is at the heart of Margaret Garner’s story, and Morrison’s novel is beyond what my imagination can grasp.
But I don’t doubt the truth of it.
This novel, Beloved, has taught me about the power of telling truth through fiction, through art and how important it can be to how we understand the fullness of our history as Americans, and humans. It has reminded me that the truth is deeper than our typical view of it. And it calls me to look beyond that regular view.