Getting Free & Staying Free


It might seem a bit cliché for an English professor to be all like “Beloved is one of my favorite novels,” but it’s the truth. I love that book with a fiery burning passion. It’s one of those texts that I can always go back to and that never gets old. I can open any page and be moved, or laugh (yeah, there are some jokes in Beloved), or marvel at Morrison’s wondrous prose.


The last few times I reread Beloved was because I was teaching it, which was cool. I mean, I love teaching the novel (and Morrison more generally) and I’m always down for talking about slavery and the ways in which black folks utilized their agency to engage one another in loving practices or whatever else the novel brings up.


But sometimes I need to read Beloved just because there is a gem of wisdom and truth that speaks to me. Recently, I’ve been mulling over this particular line:


“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”


Go ahead, and read it again.


If that isn’t the gospel truth, I don’t know what is.

**Feminist Praise Break** 

Yes, that’s me waving my church fan.  Join me in this pew right here. Don’t be ashamed if you have a feminist testimony about how you got over! Claim that freed self! Or else you better get free!

 **End Praise Break**

When I first read this novel almost fifteen years ago as a college student, something broke open inside of me and I have not been the same since. The passage about freeing oneself in particular has always spoken to me. I think about the times in my life when I have been focused on an end goal and then done little to nothing to enjoy the fruits of my labor. That might be cute if you are trying to win the Martyr of the Year Award at the Capitalist Protestant Work Ethic Championships sponsored by Bank of America or something, but it might not work out if you are trying to get free.


Thinking about this line as someone who is the descendant of enslaved people and who is committed to fighting for justice in my work as an educator and an activist has always brought another level of introspection for me as well. What are the connections between self-care, movement building, and life long learning? I don’t have all the answers, but Beloved always moves me to think in creative ways about getting free and staying free in a hostile world.


Last month, after attending a poetry reading from the fabulous Alexis Pauline Gumbs, where she read from her latest chapbook inspired by Morrison’s canon, and listening to Alexis describe her connection to Morrison, talking about particular books as types of “secular sacred texts,” I got to thinking more deeply about my own relationship to Morrison’s work.  Not only has Morrison’s work been pivotal to my career (I’ve taught several classes devoted to her writing and half of the articles I have published are connected to her work), but, as a reader, Morrison’s novels, essays, and her one lonely short story (“Recitatif”—it’s awesome and you should read it!) have been part of a sacred circle of texts, with Beloved as a particularly poignant part of that gospel. These sacred texts help to challenge, soothe, illuminate, and restore me.


As I go on about the work of claiming my freed self bit by bit this summer and beyond, I’ll be looking at other sacred texts that I hope will help me grow and be in loving community with others.


Do you have similar sacred texts?   What are they? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

toni morrison

Or maybe one of you is writing one!

31 thoughts on “Getting Free & Staying Free

  1. Love this!!! I’d say Parable of the Sower and the four agreements. Always come back to those and always find something new and delicious in them.

  2. Sula. It helps me be less hard on myself and those I love most. The Portable Promised Land. Sister Outsider.

  3. The Salt Roads- Nalo Hopkinson. I just finished reading it for the fifth time and each time I get something new. I definitely had to have a feminist praise break with it!

  4. For me, it is The Color Purple. I read that book one month out of a three-year abusive relationship, and it came to represent my choice, and my subsequent struggle, to take back my own self-worth.

  5. I love this! Mine are: Audre’s Zami, Walker’s The Color Purple, Shange’s For Colored Girls, and of course, Beloved. With the everlasting lack of coverage where dying black bodies are concerned, I definitely find myself in these books often. Whenever I have really tough discussions with classmates or coworkers that end in me being told that I’m “just too stuck on race. It isn’t healthy,” I come back to these women. Whether its racism, sexism, homophobia, misogynoir, classism, etc. I know that their words and experiences can help piece me back together, help me keep my mind in tact, when everyone else seems hell bent on crushing another queer, woman of color. Thanks for this post.

  6. Thank you for this! Morrison’s one of my favorite authors. I reread Jazz this weekend and fell in love again with this novel. Her brilliance is sacred and liberating.

  7. As a white woman who read Beloved sometime in my 40s, I can say that the book broke me open too (in a very different way) and changed how I think and feel forever. Paradise did the same thing. I don’t re-read either of them; maybe because they’re so intense, maybe because I don’t ever want to go there without that first-time hit.

    So they are sacred texts. Others include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark.

  8. As I free myself from the heavy chains of man-made obligations and venture into the world of entrepreneurship, my secular sacred texts are found among the white papers and reviews of technical innovations. The only thing I read more often is the Bible. I am inspired and in awe of what the human mind can imagine when it is set free to invent.

    I really do swoon over gadgets as some of you appear to swoon over the writings of Morrison. 🙂 I used to feel guilty about it until somebody said that I was “free” to make my way by working at something I truly love and that I would be a more well rounded human being for choosing to do so!

  9. TW for some talk around childhood abuse, bereavement – no grizzly details.

    Beloved was this for me too, but in a different way. I don’t live in the US, I’m white (in fact I live in Scotland which is 97% White Scots) and I first encountered it by reading it in an academic context, but I found it incredibly difficult to just clinically break the book down the way I had with others. I was in a great Comparative Lit class, had great lecturers but you know, there’s always something a bit clinical about taking apart how a book made you feel, and I found it so hard with that book that I couldn’t write about it until it was exam time and you have 45 minutes to sit and write a screed about one of your books. I think for me, it’s that getting free feeling – my life has been full of bereavement, handed down family trauma and then my own massive trauma because of repeated abuse, and somehow I got through and just stayed alive, but I’m still not THERE, wherever there is. Beloved was the first book I picked up that just had that feeling running through it like a constant thread. Lots of people in my class said the style of prose was inaccessible, they called the book boring (I still don’t get this, at all), they were confused by the points where Beloved comes in, but I just got worked up at them, it was like they weren’t even trying, they didn’t want to try. You saw lots of them recoil on the first day when they’re told what the subject matter of the book is, and in that moment when they all recoiled and I didn’t, I couldn’t wait to read that book. It felt like, here is someone who has taken a dark, desperate moment, born of horror and desperation, and she hasn’t flinched, or judged, or assumed that she can understand the choice of another whose situation she didn’t share. It was just such a huge thing for me, to see this big beautiful book of prose that is focused on a woman who in every sense would be looked at as not quite a woman, fallen, seen to have unforgivably transgressed her ‘nature’, and it just refuses to look away and it makes you get inside her feelings and her life and it forces you to come at the events of the book from her perspective and with what tools she has available to her, and that was so powerful for me. Because of my life, I have disabilities that manifest in ways that go against what I’m supposed to be as a woman, and then confirm people’s ideas of me as a working class person in a poor former industrial city, and people recoil from me all the time. The idea that there was someone, and not just anyone, but an awe inspiring, perceptive and hugely intelligent woman out there who understood the necessity of a book like Beloved – it made me feel cared for. I might have had to listen to people talk some utter pish about that book during the two weeks we were being lectured on it, but every time they said something ignorant or bigoted or just awful that upset me, I clutched that book close to me like armour.

    I’ve taken up so much room here so I’ll just say my others quickly. Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison is one of the first books that I’ve read during my recent upswing of PTSD symptoms that has given me the same pure delight and sense of entering another world that I got from books as a child, and it instantly earned a place in my heart for that. Lanark by Alasdair Gray is an excellent book anyway, but I think it has an extra something if you’re a Weegie, it captures the feeling of the place so well, the anxiety over what we are and the kind of ever present threat of early death. And then, if you’re a poor weegie eczematic former art student who got miserable at the exact art school he’s writing about, it becomes your life on a page.

  10. the color purple because it always reminds me of the salvation and restoration that comes when black women love each other.

  11. ‘parable of the sower’ and ‘honey, i love’ (specifically the edition with illustrations by the dillons)

  12. Beloved is so amazing, I can see Sweet Home so vividly it’s as if I’d been there, I’m so invested in that book. Also Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I love the way it echoes with the Bronte’s text and forces you to re-read everything.

    1. Yes! Anybody who asks me if they should read Jane Eyre gets a quick “yes, and then you have to read Wide Sargasso Sea right after it.”

  13. ntozake shange’s sassafrass, cypress and indigo…just so very touching and poignant!

  14. sula and song of solomon. sula because nel and sula never HAD to be friends. they tried and fell apart, and, in a way, came back togother. they CHOSE that friendship and kept choosing it. a roadmap for life and love of my friends? yes.

    song of solomon: lena’s speech to milkman at the end of chapter 9. pilate’s speech at hagar’s funeral at the end of chapter 13. (Mercy! Mercy? I hear you.)

  15. Great piece. Toni Morrison is a great writer; and I love that quote. I’ve read many of her books. I don’t have a favorite book and I feel as though I should narrow it down to one. Having a favorite book is like having a personal motto or mission statement. You’ve inspired me to give it some serious thought and possibly reread a few books.

  16. The top three are probably The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and No Disrespect by Sister Souljah. Nothing speaks to me like a coming of age story. I seem to come back to those whenever I am in “transition.”

  17. I have that quote tattooed on my ribcage (although changed to the present tense). It is one that has definitely moved me. Thank you for sharing! x

  18. Call Me By Your Name is my Beloved, and also my beloved, because when I read it I felt like someone had written it specifically for me. It’s so close to my soul I felt like I must have written it myself in a session I later blacked out, and also that I was 1,000 times more talented in that session!

  19. Tracks by Louise Erdrich, and Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker are two texts that I come back to over and over. I was also enthralled by Beloved for many years, and read everything Toni Morrison wrote for the longest time. Paradise did me in, though. I didn’t get it. Also, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. I don’t even know why, I can’t explain it.

  20. Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker is my everything! Along with the collected poems of Audre Lorde, they are my bible and probably contain everything I need to know in life if I search within them enough.

  21. Toni Morrison is a National Treasure. I read the Bluest Eye in high school and feel deeply in love, and I felt like Beloved demolished me so I had to rebuild myself when I was finally done searching through the rubble. It was absolutely the most profound literary experience of my life.

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