I thought I would try something different this year for Banned Books Week. I shall give one frequently challenged book a thumbs up (must read!), and another a thumbs down (don’t read). What’s this business about a thumbs down? Well, I am not the kind of person who champions that all things should exist or be accessible just because. Remember, 1 Corinthians 10:23 says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful, but not all things edify.” (See the editor’s conclusion of Saga for another example.)
Thumbs Up: Toni Morrison’s Beloved
In order to understand Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, which, along with The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, one must understand the story of Margaret Garner.
January 1856 marked one of the coldest winters in Ohio history. The then-pregnant Garner and her husband, Robert, exploited this auspiciousness with their three children and a dozen other slaves by taking flight across the frozen Ohio River. Nine members of this party proceeded to Underground Railroad safehouses in Cincinnati, while the Garners went to Margaret’s uncle, a freed slave, to seek guidance. Patrollers and the U.S. Marshalls would catch up with the Garners, and what happens next is the part of history that Morrison’s Beloved makes famous.
Margaret Garner kills her two year-old daughter, Mary, with a butcher’s knife and manages to wound her two sons before the pursuing party apprehends her.
When I think about white politicians and school boards in favor of banning Beloved because of “violence and rape,” I think about how Garner was described in court documents as “mulatto,” an archaic term derived from “mule” (Latin: “mūlus”), that white people used to further degenerate specific black people beyond the rape that produced them (see also: “quadroons” and “octaroons”; bonus: understanding how these designations for black people relates to voting power between the slave and free states and the three-fifths compromise). A mule, the offspring of a horse and donkey, is a sterile mutation; to reference a human in this way is to imply an abominable creature. Consider the great contradiction, the profound hypocrisy, within the hearts of souls of so-called white Christian men who claimed [black women] to be “disagreeable in odor, dull of imagination, and possessing inferior beauty and reason” (from infamous slaver, and therefore freedom fraud and Sally Hemmings rapist, Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, here and here). Yet these Christian men would drag black women kicking and screaming to bed, or beat them into submission; Garner herself bore a scar on her face from a white man’s abuse.*
Mulattoes’ mere existence reminded spurned white wives of how their husbands regularly violated their marital vows. Among the myriad of ways that the Peculiar Institution eludes comprehension, lighter-skinned slaves were paradoxically more likely to become house servants rather than field hands. The master might favor his bastardy, “preserving” them from laboring the fields. The women, his very own daughters, were often required to warm the beds of his male guests–and with a generation or two removed, his own. Alternatively, the house mistress might employ his mulattoes in domestic tasks, while abusing them terribly, to spite her husband, their presence a degradation for everyone involved.
This is the kind of historical baggage that white people seeking to ban Beloved want to avoid wrestling with—that a woman like Garner would kill her own flesh and blood to avoid a worse fate might hit too close to home. If there is truth to “slavery is in the past; we are not responsible,” then there would not be feelings of guilt and shame associated with revisiting the subject, that turns into rage. Morrison, accompanied by many other sagacious authors of neo-slave novels, knows better.
Beloved, is a novel about many things. This reader/writer believes that it is a novel about black people reconciling with the trauma that they have had to endure to survive white supremacy. In the case of protagonist Sethe, having killed her eldest daughter rather than see her suffer under the Peculiar Institution, the local black community shuns her for doing the unthinkable. Her sons run away. Her mother-in-law dies. Only Sethe’s daughter Denver remains in a house rumored to be haunted by the spirit of Sethe’s murdered child until Paul D, another survivor of the Sweet Home plantation, arrives in a state of static transience. He woos Sethe, convincing the remaining house occupants to leave for the first time in forever for some fun. Upon their return, a young woman who identifies herself as Beloved (roll credits!), sits waiting on the steps of the house. Beloved’s presence forces everyone in the house to face their traumas of the past and present, for better, and in the case of Sethe, for worse, as her love for her reincarnated offspring destroys everything.
Beloved is not a casual read. One must approach that novel while bringing all of their faculties to bear. Treating this novel seriously disrupts idyllic notions of the Lost Cause and other Confederate tall tales. Watch out—proponents of the Failed Revolution will not stand for it.
And that is among many reasons why it must be read.
*In exceedingly rare instances, some slave owners defied social mores and folkways by daring to fall in love with their property. It should be understood that such instances may be eligible for validity only when accompanied by manumission. Anything less renders these exceptionally uncommon relationships as rape by coercion. Readers can begin their journey on the history of defying anti-miscegenation laws with the story of Newton Knight and/or the movie, The Free State of Jones.
Thumbs Down: Craig Thompson’s Habibi
Like every other erudite individual, my first exposure to Craig Thompson came way of Blankets. The book was a creative non-fiction graphic novel depicting how he was raised in a devoutly Christian household, and how the reality of his parents consuming conservative hate TV, and the failure of his relationship with his first love Raina, erode his faith to the point where he abandons religion. I read Blankets when I was still in my zealous new Christian phase and repudiated the book, dismissing it as celebrated solely because of its anti-theist underpinnings in the age of anachronistic Neal deGrasse Tyson memes.
My thoughts on Blankets have changed over time. I think it is fair to waver in faith when one’s first true love fizzles—did God not bless this relationship, was it a Satanic distraction, or both, or neither? I also believe that maintaining a healthy incredulity in the age of polemically contrarian programming on streaming services or YouTube is a daily exercise in wisdom and discernment. In hindsight, I can see the value in Blankets and how it yields valid criticism of American Evangelism.
Thompson began his next large project, Habibi, in response to the rampant xenophobia and explicitly anti-Muslim atmosphere in America after 9/11. In a fictional Middle Eastern setting of Wanatolia, an adolescent Dodola is married to a much older man. After he consummates the child marriage, he consoles her, stating that the blood on the bedsheets is a badge of honor. From under his bodyweight by night, and tutelage by day, she learns how to read Arabic. That is, until raiders invade their home, kill him, and take Dodola captive in a human trafficking ring. She manages to escape, and steals away with the younger child of an African slave whom she names Zam. The two take refuge in a desert dump where a nautical ship of all things protrudes from the sand. They find little food, so besides Dodola teaching Zam lessons on Koranic stories, the two must scavenge for food. One day, Dodola determines to ask for help, finding a desert caravan in an attempt to appeal to a merchant for help.
Quid pro quo is his proposal, and Dodola returns to Zam with a cornucopia of goods. In other words, Dodola provides for the two through
sex work enduring (more) rape. Years pass, and Zam becomes old enough that the once-innocently shared baths with Dodola become torturous. Her body transitions from girlish to nubile, giving Zam guilt-ridden wet dreams. This culminates in an unforgivable scene that gave me undesirable flashbacks, which I had repressed, of Michonne and the Governor in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics.
At least in this hemisphere, a minor cannot consent to sex. Therefore, every time Dodola goes out into the desert, “willingly” to exchange her body for sustenance, she is raped. Thompson was probably thinking that no sex worker practices their trade without some unsavory experiences, and thought to disrupt his own fantasy-fiction by illustrating Dodola suffering prolonged rape that endures for several pages. It is an incident that Zam witnesses. On this occasion, he happens to follow Dodola to the desert, wondering how it is that she always comes back with provisions. In this scene, he is effectively (pre)emasculated, because he imagines violently rescuing Dodola. Instead, he weeps behind a rock as the perpetrator huffs and puffs, pinning Dodola down while commenting on how a woman likes it when a man takes his time, his traveling companion impressed at his endurance.
This scene lingers for the duration of the almost 700-page graphic novel, even after Dodola’s reputation for being a desert enchantress reaches the Sultan’s ears, and he sends his guards to capture her and bring her into his harem while Zam happens to be away to fetch water. Guess what happens to Dodola there? Yep, more rape! By some miracle, she only becomes pregnant after some outrageous number of consecutive nights where she is to please the Sultan lest he become bored and throw her into prison…where he still comes to visit and rape her with the promise of going back on his word and freeing her. All the while, she wonders what has happened to her little Zam, who unbeknownst to her, grows up into a man of intimidating stature.
Meanwhile, instead of starving in the desert boat, Zam travels to the city in search of Dodola. Though there has been a recent rise in male sex workers, the field of sex work is dominated exclusively by women, a market that exists because patriarchal social hierarchies around the world have historically hindered women from earning a living by independent means. Even men in the field are patronized primarily by other men—women with disposable incomes who can hire sex workers of their own is relatively new. Thus Zam doing what Dodola did to survive is beyond Thompson’s vision. In fact, Zam does something of the opposite. Still riddled with guilt when he witnessed Dodola’s rape, up to fantasizing that he (wishes that he) did it himself, Zam becomes a hijra, which includes a castration.
So, (to Mr. Thompson), in this rapey fantasy, the reader is left to abandon all hope with two-thirds of the book left to finish. Even
if when the two inevitably reunite, what for? Their love can never be erotic, for I doubt that in conceiving this rapey literature, Thompson experienced a yonic epiphany to undermine all of his painstakingly illustrated phallocentrism. When Zam and Dodola are finally together, the first time Dodola can give her consent, without coercion or reservation, as an adult woman, tragedy ensues. Thompson denies the pair mutual happiness and leaves the reader with a finale where they purchase a child from a human trafficking operation (Zam gets a temp job in the city when they escape the Sultan), suggesting that at least this one will not have to undergo the trauma that our protagonists endured. As for the others? Unfortunate.
I hated Habibi and spent many days trying to purge its evil from my mind. Yes, evil! What else would one call a book that draws attention to the experiences of a girl who spends half of her life in concubinage, without providing hope for those stuck in the realm of human trafficking, or those who have survived? All of Thompson’s illustrations and calligraphy and Abrahamic religious allegory gets buried under the weight of sexual perversion. And though I have not written about it here, concentrating primarily on its sexual vulgarity, equally pressing are the dangers of Thompson’s 21st-century orientalism (warning: that link includes explicit imagery from Habibi).
I do not celebrate that anti-censorship “won,” and therefore, was able to experience the vexation that Habibi generates. Nay, I would have rather my local libraries had saved me the trouble by not shelving it. I would have shrugged in response to its absence in the catalog while moving on to the next of 100s of graphic novels I could have been reading instead. Now when I see that voluminous maroon volume in the graphic novel section, I curse its existence.