What Toni Morrison’s Beloved Can Teach Us About Privilege

What would happen if every American read Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe we’d be a little more understanding. Maybe we’d be a little more appreciative. Understanding and appreciative of what?Book cover of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

How about understanding of slavery’s residual impacts. Perhaps appreciate of the benefits we, those of us not belonging to a race that was enslaved, enjoy through our skin color.

This page contains affiliate links. This means I earn a small amount of money if you make a purchase using these links. Visit my Disclosures page for more info.

“Privilege” has become a testy word in America. Many of us white folks are told we are privileged. Some of us are instructed to “check our privilege.”

Many of us white people hear this while our kids can’t find work, our bills are unpaid, and our neighbors overdose. Many white Americans live in dire circumstances. It doesn’t feel privileged when you’re scraping together loose change to buy gas.

Privilege denotes an access, a wealth, a power many white Americans feel they don’t have. How can it be that a poor white American is anymore privileged than a black American?

Read Beloved.


There’s a chance some of my ancestors were once slaves in some Northern European outpost of the Roman Empire. Outside of during the antiquities, though, it can be assumed none of my ancestors were another person’s property. In fact, more recently in my familial history we were the masters, not the slaves. Photo of a gray sea under a cloudy sky with the words "'Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.' - 'Beloved,' Toni Morrison."

Now I’m no more to blame for what my ancestors did than I am if you sneezed right now. (Bless you.) But I probably enjoy some benefit from being a few generations removed from owning another person.

No, not direct monetary benefits. I assure you, any money the slave-owning branch of my family once had is long gone. My parents were country kids who got married young and struggled to make ends meet. My brother and I grew up somewhere between poor and lower middle-class, on the same rural Missouri road on which my parents were raised.

And still I enjoy the benefits of my familial history. Still I enjoy the privilege of belong to a race that was never enslaved. How?

Read Beloved.


Beloved begins where American slavery ends. It’s a story about slaves turned negros before they were called African-Americans. It’s a story about how these former slaves attempted to build a life.

Of course, how do you build a life when you don’t know how to count money? And when you can’t read? When you’ve spent your entire life on a single plantation? Or when you’re used to all twenty-four hours of all your days being controlled by another person?

How do you make a family when you’ve been bred like livestock, your children sold off to the highest bidder? Or when you were never allowed to marry? When your only relationship role model was the married couple who owned you?

Suddenly, the chains come off and you are free to go wherever you want. For the first time in your life, you can receive money in exchange for your labor. Marry? Yes, you can do that. Raise children? Sure. Buy groceries? Move to another state? Yes and yes.

Yet no one is going to teach you how to do it. No one is going to counsel you, mentor you and, in most cases, many are going to do their best to hinder your progress. You have to figure out how to be a citizen in a country that largely resents your existence.

This is the story of Beloved.

It’s a story that in Morrison’s masterful hands helps you understand on a base, human level what happened when slavery ended. And how what happened then reverberates still today.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a recommended read for anyone considering race and America.

Have you read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? If so, what did you think of the book?

Beloved Book Cover Beloved
Toni Morrison
Fiction
Vintage Books
1987
321

Sethe, an escaped slave living in post-Civil War Ohio with her daughter and mother-in-law, is haunted persistently by the ghost of the dead baby girl whom she sacrificed, in a new edition of the Nobel Laureate's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Reader's Guide available. Reprint. 60,000 first printing.