Black Herstory: Haunted By Margaret Garner

On February 18 — which is the 81st birthday of Toni Morrison — let’s also remember Margaret Garner, a slave woman whose herstory was memorialized in what is often considered Morrison’s greatest work: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, later made into a film produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey.

Morrison, the author of nine novels (with a tenth, Home, on its way this year), revisited Garner’s story in 2005 when she penned a libretto for the opera Margaret Garner. As Morrison described it, “If Beloved is about forgetting, Margaret Garner is about remembering.”

What is it that we’re supposed to remember? The details of the story, which Morrison stumbled upon while assembling The Black Book — an African American history scrapbook published in 1973 while she worked as an editor at Random House — are sketchy. Morrison added “blood to the scraps” of the story, and this is what we learned: In January 1856, Margaret Garner escaped slavery in Kentucky with her husband, her in-laws and her four children. They crossed the frozen Ohio River to get to the “free side” of Cincinnati, Ohio, but were pursued by slave catchers, who — thanks to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 — had legal rights to reclaim runaway slaves.

However, Margaret Garner didn’t want to return to slavery; instead, she chose to kill her children, and was successful in killing the second youngest daughter, 2-year-old Mary, by slitting her throat.

Abolitionists magnified Garner’s eventual trial in order to dramatize the evils of slavery, thus turning her into a cause celebre. Garner was convicted not for the murder of her own daughter, but for theft. You see, her life and her children’s were not hers to claim. As one of the characters in Beloved mused: “Now ain’t that slavery or what is it?” Especially when, after all the hoopla and agitation, Garner and the surviving children were returned to slavery anyway. In the opera version, Garner is hanged for her crime.

What is truly remarkable is the way that Morrison forces us to see Garner’s humanity and the humanity of all of our enslaved ancestors–for this murder, this infanticide was a gesture of motherhood and family reclamation. Or, it was what Morrison so radically argues: a gesture of love. Those of us who read the novel Beloved know that the baby girl who was sacrificed was, indeed, “beloved,” despite the paradox inherent in such claims. Margaret Garner’s act indicts the entire system of slavery for its perversion of motherly love and inhumane gestures of such humanity. Thanks to Morrison, who resurrected Garner from a distant past, she has become a subject of documentaries and historical books, not to mention a novel, film and opera.

If Garner (as symbolized by the character Sethe in Morrison’s novel) is haunted by the ghost of her baby daughter (who appears in the flesh at the age she might have been had she lived), Garner as heroine in the opera is the ghost who haunts us and indicts–not the community of her own time, but of our own. The stage production eerily fades to black as Garner drifts in and out of the crowd, draped in white, while her hanged body on the gallows looms ominously in the background. Unlike the film adaptation, which reduced the pain and the trauma of the story to histrionics and horror-film grotesqueries, the opera magnifies the despair and sadness that her story should represent.

During her own time, Margaret Garner was the subject of poet, novelist and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s sentimental poem, “The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio [pdf].” She was also depicted in an 1867 painting by T. S. Noble. She haunted her contemporaries then; she haunts us still.

Further reading on Margaret Garner:

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.