Ghosts of horrors past

Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 am

Journey To Beloved
by Oprah Winfrey
photographs by Ken Regan
Hyperion, $28, 184 pp.

One night, two young white men attack Sethe, a pregnant slave on a Kentucky plantation. They hold her down, rip her dress and suck the milk from her breasts. It's an act of spiritual rape against both Sethe and her children.

That night, Sethe runs north toward freedom. On the shores of the Ohio River, she goes into labor. With the help of a white woman, she gives birth to a baby girl. On the eve of the Civil War, Sethe names the child after the woman who saved her: "Denver."

That could be the end of the story, but few stories of enslaved Africans ended with such hope. Nearly a decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison felt it was time for America to look back at its tortured racial past without blinking. So she held up a mirror, and called what she saw Beloved.

"When I read this book, it sat me down," says Winfrey throwing herself back on an armchair in a room at the Dearborn Ritz-Carlton. "It sits you down and gets you up. I thought I felt what it was like to live in that time, as opposed to just intellectually understanding it."

In Morrison's 1987 book which garnered her a Pulitzer Prize, Sethe makes it across the river where she is reunited with her children. But on her 28th day of freedom, Sethe looks up and sees "schoolteacher," her former slave master, coming to claim his property. Grabbing her children, she runs to the protection of the woodshed.

When schoolteacher reaches the shed, he finds that Sethe has bludgeoned her children. Her plan was to kill them, then herself, rather than be taken back into captivity. He leaves in disgust, and Sethe claims victory. Her children would live free or die.

All of Sethe's children survive the attack but one, 2-year-old Beloved. The child's spirit haunts Sethe for the next 18 years, then one day reincarnates to confront the woman who gave her life, then took it away.

After reading the harrowing tale based on a true life story, Winfrey came undone.

"I called Toni and asked her to explain to me what I had just read," says Winfrey. By the time they finished talking, Winfrey had offered to buy the movie rights to the book. Morrison balked at first, skeptical that her visceral, haunting tale could translate to the screen. But Winfrey was determined. After 10 years of her searching for the right studio and director, the film Beloved has just opened in theaters across the nation, with Winfrey starring as Sethe.

Winfrey's odyssey from multi-millionaire entertainer to escaped slave was a difficult one. Her experience is chronicled in a companion book to the movie, Journey to Beloved, which unveils Winfrey's fears, triumphs and revelations while on the set, and the lessons she took from one of the most vicious chapters in American history.

"I did (the milk) scene for every woman whose milk was ever stolen," writes Winfrey in Journey. "(For) every single one who struggled so life could be better, who knew they were the seed of the free -- we exist because of them."

In a time when Americans cannot have a rational dialogue about race relations or reproductive choice, Beloved forces us to dissect our racial cancer and the effects of an institution so terrible love and infanticide could be synonymous.

"Sethe made a rational decision. The only way out was for her to take her children and herself," says Winfrey, who wrote in Journey that she lit a candle daily and spoke the names of actual slaves to connect with Sethe's hopelessness. "You can't look up and see schoolteacher coming and think, 'Oh, we'll go back and maybe things will be better this time.' She thinks, 'Can I send my children back to the place where I know every time schoolteacher looks at them he sees an animal? No way. I will take my children to the other side first.'

"Others try to judge her. Paul D (Sethe's lover played by Danny Glover) asks, 'Couldn't there have been some other way?' But at one point Sethe reminds him, 'A thin love ain't no love at all.' She does what she has to because of love."

While Beloved is firmly rooted in the African-American experience, Winfrey believes it is instructive for everyone.

"There's a ghost sitting up in Sethe's house. She's free now, but she's haunted by the past. And just like everybody else, if you don't deal with it, the past will come and sit at your table. It will be sittin' at your table and you won't know how to call it by name; you won't even recognize it. That's the great big metaphor of this film."

It's a lesson America has yet to learn about the legacy of slavery, says Winfrey.

"It's sitting at our table on a daily basis the way we look at each other. When you don't see the humanity in each other's experiences."

Thandie Newton, the Zimbabwean actress who plays the ghostly Beloved in the film, agrees that the story is essentially about coming to grips with the past. And sometimes, she adds, the past falls hardest on those who don't even remember it.

"Beloved was never a slave," says Newton, who studied spirit possession in Africa and Haiti to prepare for the role. "That's the ironic gift her mother gave her. In that way, she's a more contemporary character who is able to rail against the slaves, having never been one herself. All she knows is that her mother hurt her. Her sense of betrayal becomes more and more physical as she realizes what her mother did."

Toward the end of the film, Denver, the child born on the shores of freedom, comes to grips with the past and carves out her own destiny. But Beloved, now pregnant herself, is crushed by the weight of a darkness she never actually experienced.

"What becomes of Beloved's baby?" asks Newton. "That's what we're living with. The poison that resulted from what happened in the woodshed. Where is the antidote? Globally, we have a responsibility to clean up after the wreckage of slavery. Sometimes there's nothing you can do but resolve to move on with greater understanding."

Perhaps it's the descendants of Denver who are able to do just that: move on, stuff their pain deep and wear their joy high. And maybe it's the descendants of Beloved who still walk in darkness, who haunt our prisons, who live in squalor, who shadow us on city streets wondering why they continue to suffer for a past they don't even remember.

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