Toni Morrison’s Beloved was published in 1987. This novel is based on a true story, which Morrison read as a newspaper clipping, while reviewing material for The Black Book; a collection of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents, showcasing the lives of slaves in the US and edited by Morrison herself. That clipping was the story of a young African American mother named Margaret Garner. In 1856, she escaped from slavery in Kentucky and ran to Ohio, a free state, by crossing the Ohio River. When she was recaptured by her master, she killed her infant daughter to save her from the clutches of slavery. She was arrested for this brutal act and the headline in an American newspaper at the time read; “A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child.” This incident acted as a catalyst for activists who were fighting against the Fugitive Slave law passed in 1850. This law allowed slave owners to capture those slaves who had run away to the free states and take them back to their plantations in the slave states.
Beloved is set during the years preceding, during, and after the American Civil War, fought between 1861 and 1865. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), independent states in the US gradually outlawed import of slaves and in 1808, Congress passed a federal law, abolishing international slave trade. But not all states in the US favoured this ban. Domestic slave trade still flourished within the country and in 1860, there were around 4 million slaves in the country. Some states like Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, and Tennessee were in favour of slave trade, as their agrarian economy depended on slave labour. To avoid confrontation, as a compromise between the Northern and Southern states, The Fugitive Slave Act, also known as the Compromise of 1850, was passed by the Union. This Act allowed the slave holders in the Southern states to capture slaves who ran away to the free states.
Between 1830-60, the movement to abolish slavery had gained momentum. The westward expansion in the US had led to the debate over the new states’ right to continue this practice. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won the election and his openly anti-slavery Republican party wanted to completely abolish slavery, when eleven states broke away from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The US was split into two parts; the Northern free states that wanted to abolish slavery completely and the Southern states which supported the slave trade as they needed cheap labour for their indigo, tobacco, and cotton plantations. The
economy of the Northern states was more modernized, with industrial output many times that of the North. This economic disparity was one of the factors that contributed to animosity between the North and South.
The Civil War was the culmination of decades of growing friction over slavery. The Confederates were fighting to establish an independent country, based on Southern institutions like slavery. The four-year war led to immense loss of life and property, especially in the South. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that declared enslaved people in Confederate occupied areas free, was a wartime measure but The Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution, passed by Congress on 31 January 1865, granted citizenship rights to free slaves. The Confederates surrendered on April 9, 1865, and on 14 April, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and a Confederate sympathizer, assassinated President Lincoln.
The Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederate forces in 1865. However, the fight against racial discrimination and exploitation did not end. It was a long uphill struggle. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was another landmark in the struggle for Black rights and against institutionalized discrimination.
More than a hundred and fifty years later, the legacy of slavery is something the US is still dealing with. On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, an African-American, was arrested by the police in Minneapolis, for allegedly using a fake bill in a store. He died as a result of police brutality; bystanders filmed and shared the video on social media. It was not the first time this had happened, but the first time it was caught on camera, triggering outrage across the country. Demonstrations, marches, and violent protests spread to more than a hundred cities in the US, and many other cities all over the world to express solidarity with Floyd; exposing the fault lines in American society. Racism is an uncomfortable reality that the US and many other nations are still struggling with.