(2 of 5)
Q. You've said that you didn't like the idea of writing about slavery. Yet Beloved, your most celebrated book, is set in slavery and its aftermath.
A. I had this terrible reluctance about dwelling on that era. Then I realized I didn't know anything about it, really. And I was overwhelmed by how long it was. Suddenly the time -- 300 years -- began to drown me.
Three hundred years -- think about that. Now, that's not a war, that's generation after generation. And they were expendable. True, they had the status of good horses, and nobody wanted to kill their stock. And, of course, they had the advantage of reproducing without cost.
Q. Beloved is dedicated to the 60 million who died as a result of slavery. A staggering number -- is this proved historically?
A. Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million. There were travel accounts of people who were in the Congo -- that's a wide river -- saying, "We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies." That's like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those ships.
Slave trade was like cocaine is now -- even though it was against the law, that didn't stop anybody. Imagine getting $1,000 for a human being. That's a lot of money. There are fortunes in this country that were made that way.
I thought this has got to be the least read of all the books I'd written because it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia.
Q. You gave new insight into the daily struggle of slaves.
A. I was trying to make it a personal experience. The book was not about the institution -- Slavery with a capital S. It was about these anonymous people called slaves. What they do to keep on, how they make a life, what they're willing to risk, however long it lasts, in order to relate to one another -- that was incredible to me.
For me, the torturous restraining devices became a hook on which to say what it was like in personal terms. I knew about them because slaves who wrote about their lives mentioned them, and white people wrote about them. There's a wonderful diary of the Burr family in which he talks about his daily life and says, "Put the bit on Jenny today." He says that about 19 times in six months -- and he was presumably an enlightened slave owner. Slave-ship captains also wrote a lot of memoirs, so it's heavily documented.
There was a description of a woman who had to wear a bell contraption so when she moved they always knew where she was. There were masks slaves wore when they cut cane. They had holes in them, but it was so hot inside that when they took them off, the skin would come off. Presumably, these things were to keep them from eating the sugar cane. What is interesting is that these things were not restraining tools, like in the torture chamber. They were things you wore while you were doing the work. Amazing. It seemed to me that the humiliation was the key to what the experience was like.