This past weekend one of my favorite talk show hosts, the African American political science professor Melissa Harris Perry of MSNBC, quoted a long passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in response to Barack Obama’s Charleston eulogy. A close look at the passage explains why she made the connection, which is not immediately apparent. It also explains why the president’s words struck such a deep chord amongst African Americans.
I’ll share the passage in a moment but first let me set the scene. The words are those of Baby Suggs, a former slave who functions as a healing earth mother for the black residents of Cincinnati. She is also the mother-in-law of Sethe, who escapes to join Baby Suggs after being raped and then brutally beaten by her Kentucky master.
Harris-Perry may have thought of Baby Suggs in part because she operates as an “unchurched preacher” bringing comfort, which is the role that Obama assumed as he stood before the assembled mourners. Here’s Morrison describing Baby Suggs’s “ministry”:
Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart— which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beating their presence.
Baby Suggs conducts her services in a “Clearing” in the woods. Like Obama in his eulogy, she gets everyone involved:
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the tree. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted. “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringling trees.
“Let your wives and your children see you dance,” she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
Obama too talked of grace, how we have been blind to it but that it is there for us to see if we only we open our hearts. It is up to us to receive it:
We don’t earn grace. We’re all sinners. We don’t deserve it. (Applause.) But God gives it to us anyway. (Applause.) And we choose how to receive it. It’s our decision how to honor it.
Baby Suggs shares with her “congregation” what it means to live with an open heart. This is the passage cited, at least in part, by Harris-Perry:
In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
Note how Baby Suggs mentions both African Americans suffering and how, if they love their big hearts, they can stand strong against oppression. Obama maintained a similar balancing act.
On the one hand, he pointed to the hurt that the African American community has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of whites:
For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred in too many of our citizens. (Applause.) It’s true, a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge — including Governor Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise — (applause) — as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always represented more than just ancestral pride. (Applause.) For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.
Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong. (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.
On the other hand, he talked about the large heart of the victimized community:
A roadway toward a better world. [Rev. Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart.
That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilyn Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. (Applause.) If we can tap that grace, everything can change. (Applause.)
When you have been living long years in a country where those who have power wish you ill, it is almost inevitable that you will come to feel worthless, as though black lives don’t matter. Obama acknowledged the full force of white oppression, including endemic poverty, underfunded education, a warped criminal justice system, gun violence that disproportionately harms blacks, and systemic racism—ills so entrenched that even the most powerful man in the world can’t bring an end to them.
But if one stops there, one sinks into passive victimhood. Obama also reminded the black community that they are a big hearted people that can rise to these occasions and turn them into something good. He also invited the rest of America to enter into generous vision of Reverend Pinckney and the others souls at Emanuel AME Church:
Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group — the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the fallen would respond when they saw him in court — in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn’t imagine that. (Applause.)
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, under the good and wise leadership of Mayor Riley — (applause) — how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.
No wonder Harris-Perry thought of Beloved.