"WE HAVE A GHOST in here," a character says in Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved." The haunting figure is the long-dead child killed by her fugitive mother. The slave catcher had come, and rather than let her daughter be snatched back to bondage in Kentucky, the mother, in a mad frenzy of anguish, took her baby's life.
"What she want to go and do that for?" another character asked. The horror became a buried memory, driving the action of the novel years later. "It was not a story to pass on," the narrator explains, and so the ghost of the dead child - Beloved - comes and goes unexplained. "They forgot her like a bad dream ... remembering seemed unwise."
I was in Cincinnati last week, where remembering has been unavoidable. When I arrived, a citywide state of emergency was still in effect following the worst civil disturbances in three decades, an outpouring of citizens' rage at the April 7 police slaying of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed black man.
Everyone I spoke to was stunned by the racial earthquake. Thus it seems heartbreaking to recall that "Beloved" is set in Cincinnati. For slaves, it was a terminus of the Underground Railroad, a dream place below the north star. But not necessarily. The slave catcher, with local help, could still seize you there. "Counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life's principal joy was reckless indeed." More than a hundred businesses were damaged in the spasm of vandalism that followed Thomas's death. He had been fleeing, police explained. He had "14 open warrants" against him, a phrase that was repeated by a police dispatcher calling officers into pursuit and then offered as justification for the shooting. "Timothy Thomas - 14 open warrants!"
For three days blacks expressed their outrage with street protests, and whites could be heard asking, in effect, "What they want to go and do that for?" One woman answered, according to a Cincinnati Post story, by telling city authorities at an open meeting, "When I look at you, you seem to be the same old slavemasters." The Post headline read, "Voices of Anger," but just above it was a photograph showing the Confederate Stars and Bars with the headline, "Mississippi voters: Keep rebel flag!" The juxtaposition seemed to explain exactly why black voices are so angry. (As if further explanation were needed, two days later a judge in Atlanta would halt publication and promotion of "The Wind Done Gone," the Alice Randall novel that provides a slave's rebuttal to "Gone With The Wind.")
The lesson a white reader takes from Toni Morrison's "Beloved" is that the horror of slavery exceeds the imaginative capacity of anyone not subject to it. Blacks in Cincinnati know very well - one of them reminded me - that "Beloved" is based on an incident that actually happened there. The berserk mother is not remembered as the source of evil. The slave catcher is.
In addition to not getting it about slavery, whites don't get it about black life in America today. Whites typically imagine that the humiliations of savage racial injustice are a thing of the past. The race-based dominance that characterized slavery is gone, right? "You are not listening!" a minister told city authorities at that open meeting. "The children are saying you are not listening." The story of Timothy Thomas, the slain 19-year-old, is thus a revelation. It is not only that he was unarmed, a threat to no one, when police shot him dead; not only that his "14 warrants" were all tied to traffic misdemeanors. His traffic violations themselves reveal the awful truth. As the Post reported, the charges filed over several months were never for speeding or reckless driving but, typically, for violations that police could have discovered only after stopping him: driving without a license, driving without a seat belt. The "open warrants" that got him killed, in other words, were tied to the crime of "driving while black." What 19-year-old, having been harassed like that - race-based dominance routinized - would not have fled? How could his family, friends, and neighbors not be enraged? And how could they fail to connect his fate to that of others like him, not just the black victims of police violence in Cincinnati - 15 blacks killed since 1995, no whites - but the staggeringly antiblack criminal justice system that operates across the nation?
"We have a ghost in here." The character was speaking of Cincinnati, but the ghost roams widely. America's laws once allowed slavery. America's laws today - punishing blacks, shielding abusive police, protect the symbols and myths of white supremacy - inhibit a long-overdue moral reckoning with slavery and its consequences. The ghost will not rest, or cease her haunting, until the voices of her people are heard.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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