Ivanka Trump is currently under attack for her use of a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in her recent book. While I agree that the passage is misapplied, I want to address another concern, the issue of subjective interpretation.
The passage, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” occurs after Sethe has barely escaped slavery with her life. After being raped by the nephews of “the schoolteacher,” who suckle the milk meant for her newborn baby, and then being beaten so severely that she has a permanent “chokecherry tree” on her back, she heads for Ohio. Carrying her baby, Sethe barely makes it to the Ohio River but, once across, starts putting her life together. This is what the book means by “claiming ownership of that freed self”:
Sethe had had twenty-eight days—the travel of one whole moon—of unslaved life. From the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood was twenty-eight days. Days of healing, ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day. That’s how she got through the waiting for Halle [her husband]. Bit by bit, at 124 and in the Clearing, along with the others, she had claimed herself. Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.
Her trials have only begun, however, as her master, making use of the fugitive slave law, comes to reclaim her. She escapes only by killing her baby, at which point she becomes such an object of horror that her master gives her up. The “beloved” of the title is this baby, who returns to haunt her throughout the novel.
Ivanka Trump uses the passage to advise women in leadership roles who are “enslaved” by their belief that they have to please everybody. Reviewer Annalisa Quinn of National Public Radio describes the book and is not impressed:
Trump’s new book shares a name and a mission with her company’s marketing campaign: Women Who Work. Organized into sections with titles like “Dream Big” and “Make Your Mark,” Women Who Work is a sea of blandities, an extension of that 2014 commercial seeded with ideas lifted (“curated,” she calls it) from various well-known self-help authors. Reading it feels like eating scented cotton balls.
Trump’s lack of awareness, plus a habit of skimming from her sources, often results in spectacularly misapplied quotations — like one from Toni Morrison’s Beloved about the brutal psychological scars of slavery. “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” is positioned in cute faux-handwritten capitals (and tagged #itwisewords) before a chapter on “working smarter.” In it, she asks: “Are you a slave to your time or the master of it? Despite your best intentions, it’s easy to be reactive and get caught up in returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails …”
If we want to be generous, we could say that women bear scars from patriarchy just as African Americans bear scars from slavery, even while acknowledging that the scars are of a different order. Trump, however, is no battling feminist and is following a different line of reasoning. Enslavement for her is focusing on busy work when you should be doing something bigger. No excruciating life choices, no dead babies, haunt her book. For her to invoke Toni Morrison, is definitely inappropriate.
I want to make another point, however. Since I’m all in favor of using literature to guide one’s life, I’m prepared to give Trump some leeway. If she had actually read Beloved, I could imagine her using it to grapple with father issues, which can’t be minor. After all, her father is a man who once said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” I can imagine Ivanka experiencing a thrill of recognition as the schoolteacher, while holding back himself, vicariously indulges his forbidden desires by watching his nephews rape Sethe.
I suspect, however, that Ivanka picked up the quotation from some website and appropriated it for her own use. If so, she uses literature in exactly the way that I tell my students not to. Yes, apply the literature to your life, I tell them, but don’t reduce it to your life. Otherwise, you only learn what you already know. While we initially relate to literature from where we are, we must then let it can take us outside ourselves and push us deeper than we thought possible. Above all, we must listen to what the work has to tell us.
Ivanka doesn’t listen much in Women Who Work, either to Toni Morrison or to the descendants of slaves or to any other women. She recirculates platitudes from a position of entitlement and uses her celebrity to sell the book. In short, Women Who Work is everything that literature is not.