May I call you by your first name? I know it’s really “Chloe,” but I’m most familiar with “Toni.” For years you were my writing instructor, standing behind me and occasionally nodding your approval after reading a sentence or a word combination almost worthy of your skills. You were the magician who practiced your slight-of-hand with the characters you made disappear and then reappear with no logical explanation. You knew why they evaporated from the page before showing themselves once again for their or your own reasons. For decades you were the historian, replacing the facts I’d been told and bringing into focus people and events that happened eons before my contemporaries and I arrived, naively clothed in red, white, and blue garments, houses, and college degrees.
Would it surprise you to learn that one of your novels, Beloved, has been dragged onto today’s slave block, stripped naked, and publicly flogged in an attempt to shore up the scaffolds of an election campaign? Your Beloved has become the newest of so many other Willie Hortons, a shrill lie riding astride a dog-whistle, a poorly finessed attempt to prevent a generation of readers from seeing a different side of our nation’s past, an explanation for why we’re here in this cauldron of fear and hatred. Your Beloved’s cover pops up on TV with regularity, literally ad nauseum.
You’re not surprised by this turn of events, especially not by its timing? You say you could have predicted they would wait until you were no longer with us because they knew they wouldn’t be able to muffle your backtalk? You saw this coming, Pulitzer Prize be damned?
Toni, are you angry or alarmed, or both? Do you feel like you and your work are convenient scapegoats?
I’m wary. I’ve read about past teachers and writers and journalists whose voices were systematically erased during the early chapters of totalitarianism, the revised syllabi teachers were forced to follow, and the words writers had to disavow if they intended to survive. All of that happened before the possibility of social networks flickered in some scientist’s dream.
I imagine it could occur much more quickly now. A few keystrokes and your work is gone. The tragic truths of enslavement’s hold on a mother whose surest way to spare her child from its unrelenting legacy of physical and mental anguish was to slay her will be neither told nor remembered. And the newly elected governor of Virginia will never speak your name…nor Sethe’s.
©Renée Bess 2021
Renée Bess is the author of five novels, the co-curator of an award winning anthology, Our Happy Hours, LGBT Voices From the Gay Bars, and Between a Rock and a Soft Place, Collected Works. She is a recipient of the 2019 Alice B. Readers Award. She welcomes your comments regarding her blogs. http://www.reneebess.com