I will be putting this link at the top of each of my blog posts for Beloved - as I read this book, I could not get this song out of my head: Sinnerman - Nina Simone
So, at its narrative heart, this is a ghost story deeply infused with the history and folklore of the African American people. Yet, Morrison also betrays this folklore by modifying it to meet her own needs of the story. This isn’t done out of malice, yet by altering the traditional folklore of a people in order to present a story about those people really seems similar to casting Burt Lancaster as a Native American in Apache or the Yiddish actor Paul Muni in Scarface. For the most part, though, it works. I’m not fluent in every aspect of African American folklore by any means, however I know enough to know when Morrison is stretching way beyond the basic traditions. That being said, by stretching these traditions, she is able to balance her character of Beloved between the real and ethereal realms of nature.
This ethereal nature of the character is what started this and led me to question how in the hell the Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. don’t get that she’s a ghost and freak out! You know, when I read Huckleberry Finn and read about Jim’s tantrum at the thought of a ghost, I began to learn about the role of mysticism and the supernatural in African American folklore. I later learned that my favorite piece of southern folklore actually came out of the legends and folklore of African American culture: the blue porch ceiling. I’ve heard several stories about this, the most ridiculous being that it looks like the sky, but I’ll tell you what I heard from the deep woods of forgotten lore:
The tale is that the dead live in an upside down world and travel around at night, lost and looking to get home. They will enter and live in any home they find, but especially if they have a history there they will be drawn in and imprisoned. The way to keep ghosts out of a house is to paint the ceiling porch blue (the windows aren’t necessary because ghosts use doors, only dreams and aliens come in through the windows). Anyway, in the small Georgia town that I lived in years ago, there is a large cemetery just off of highway 27 (the Martha Berry Highway) that runs through town a block south of the town square. Half of this cemetery – the older half that dates back to Reconstruction – has a drainage ditch all the way around it. For my summer job, I used to work landscaping, and a fellow I used to install irrigation systems with told me all about it. The thing is, ghosts hate water and won’t cross it. The moat around the cemetery was to keep the ghosts from getting into the city buildings across the road. In early African American folklore, however, the ghosts existed in a topsy-turvy world, though, so by painting the ceiling of your porch blue, it made them think it was water and so would not cross it. I guess they don’t have good eyesight, either.
Anyway, so what I don’t get is that only Paul D. is kind of freaked out by the ghost of the murdered little girl showing up (and he winds up sleeping with her – yuck – he can keep her). But beyond that, she’s all wet, and if there’s anything these characters should’ve known, it’s that ghosts hate water! Witches, too! Throw this lady off a bridge already to see if she floats – Monty Python style!
I also don’t get that Paul D. leaves 124 and can’t find a bed or hospitality for several days (though he rejected it later when offered); but when Crazy-Town shows up sopping wet, sick, thirsty, and reminding everyone of the kid Mom butchered a few years back, she gets a ‘come right in.’ Seriously?
I’ll leave you now with Paul D., probably my favorite character in the book, and here’s why: a fellow I came across a few years ago named Estevanico. I’ll save you from my tedious retelling of his story, because in order to understand Estevanico’s story, I’d have to tell you all about a Spanish conquistador named Cabeza de Vaca; who, together with Estevanico, really shook the pillars of Earth (if you will allow me to interject at least one Big Trouble in Little China comment into this class). Anyway, Paul’s adventures reminded me of Estevanico’s, albeit a bit less fantastic. Take a read of an account of these intrepid explorers that I scanned for you here (it’s worth it, but you’ll have trouble finding much more about him on the internets).