The Summer Reading: From the Artist’s Library series continues here at the Modern. This series showcases the literature that has influenced the art of Kara Walker. Susan Ayres, Professor of Law, at Texas Wesleyan University was recently here to discuss the second book in the series, Beloved by Toni Morrison. She was also joined by actress, Sarah Elizondo who read excerpts from the novel.
Susan Ayres’ presentation on Beloved revealed things I didn’t know about the author, the story, and the artwork of Kara Walker. Ayers talked to the audience about how Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, and how the author is an avid reader. Morrison also currently teaches at Princeton. The author’s work was greatly influenced by the Midwest which explains Beloved’s Ohio setting. Ayers also shared with the audience that Morrison based the character, Sethe, on the life of Margaret Garner. These two slave women had something in common that I never knew occurred in the history of slavery in this country. The commonality was infanticide. Both women killed their children to protect them from slavery. The painting, The Modern Medea, 1867 by Thomas Satterwhite depicts the desperate act of Margaret Garner.
Ayres engaged in a discussion with the audience regarding whether the acts of these women were right or wrong. Garner’s actions were seen as acts of defiance against her slave owners. Infanticide showed power and control. Sethe didn’t want her children to go through what she had been through as a slave. These women acted instinctively and didn’t think that their children would survive. Some audience members thought that the infanticide showed how much these mothers loved their children. They had that "thick love" for their children that Morrison describes in Beloved. Ayres stated that Morrison would most likely agree with those that said that Garner’s act was right, but it was not her right.
The abolitionists thought that Garner’s act was another example of the horrors of slavery. The slave owners thought that the infaniticide was normal for slaves since they thought of them as animals instead of human beings. But what did the black community think of these acts? Were they right? Were they wrong? The black community was silent. Historically, it is not known how the black community responded to infanticide during slavery. Morrison invented a response with Beloved. Kara Walker evokes a response with her silhouettes of babies being dropped from their mothers. The lives of the babies in her artwork are at risk at the hand of their own mothers.
Risk is not unknown to Kara Walker, and I believe Edward P. Jones knows a little something about it as well. Come out and join the discussion on The Known World by Edward P. Jones on Thursday, September 11 at 7pm in the Modern Auditorium. The Known World discussion will be available on the Modern Podcast after the event. Click here for the Modern Podcast of the discussion on Beloved.