Is Toni Morrison’s Masterpiece ‘Beloved’ a Call for Reparations?


Toni Morrison’s Beloved is hailed as a literary masterpiece that highlighted the evils of slavery through magical realism. Now, a new book holds that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel also makes the case for reparations.

Kingsborough Community College Professor Maureen Fadem’s new book Objects and Intertexts in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’: The Case for Reparations explores Beloved as an indictment of society and a literary clarion call for reparations.

“When I say that Beloved is a case for reparations, I mean that Beloved is saying to us that we need finally to abolish slavery. When we talk about mass incarceration, or when we’re thinking about the prison industrial complex — in my view, the prison industrial complex is a reinvention of the plantation,” Fadem says.

“It’s just now a literal prison as opposed to a plantation, which was a prison. I also mean unfreedoms of other kinds. Institutional and systemic racism. Beloved as a story and Morrison as an author were dramatically reminding us of this injustice that lives not at just the core of our history, but it’s in the present.” 

Beloved follows Sethe, an enslaved Black woman who escapes to Ohio where she and her family are repeatedly visited by the spirit of her deceased baby, known only as Beloved. 

Fadem says she’s thought for years about Beloved and its connection with reparations. It wasn’t until Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 that Fadem decided to begin writing the book. Now, as the nation celebrates president-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump, Fadem says she hopes the country can look to Morrison’s novel to contextualize justice movements.

“Beloved is a moment in American literature in which we are dramatically reminded that abolition is unfinished, seriously unfinished. We are still haunted. What are we still haunted by?

“We’re haunted by slavery, precisely because we don’t want to deal with it or repair it,” Fadem says. “But we’re also haunted by slavery in the sense of its literal, continuing existence in different shapes and forms.”