[I]f all the ramifications that the term [race] demands are taken seriously, the bases of Western civilization will require re-thinking. Thus, in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgement, “race” is still a virtually unspeakable thing (Morrison 1989, 9).
When Sethe locked the door the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw and say whatever was on their minds. Almost. Mixed in with the voices surrounding the house, recognizable but undecipherable to Stamp Paid, were the thoughts of the women of 124, unspeakable thoughts, unspoken (Morrison 1989, 13).
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
“The Unflinching Gaze:” Denying Monolithic Definitions
Toni Morrison defines the double function of a narrative in her Nobel Prize Lecture: “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is created” (1993). In her view, texts are both the creations of an author and the creators of a certain audience. They seem to fill an epistemic gap in the reader’s mind, by revealing the unknown side of the black self. The silent images of the black community emerge to the textual surface so that the audience begins to speak, creating a text that, in its turn, reconfigures readers’ racial perspective. Reconstructing black history by means of collective and personal memory, Morrison’s fiction stands for an “interrogation of national identity” (Grewal 1998, xii).
Morrison’s novels—The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), and Love (2003)—respond to “a sense of absence and lack of representation” of the African American identity in fiction (Matus 1998, 37). The auctorial gaze is fixed upon a universe haunted by conflictive interrelations between oppositions: the self versus the other, the individual versus the (black or white) community, and the past versus the present.1 Morrison experiments artistic freedom by deconstructing such stable concepts as race, gender, or sexuality, whose complexity and shifting multiplicity are skillfully emphasized. 2 For the author, “the role of literature is that of identifying conflicts, tensions, and problems, by making the reader aware of them, without offering their solution” (Mihãilã 2000, 151).
A palimpsest, Beloved combines the meanings of real and fictional events in order to reconsider the unspeakable truth of black history. The present chapter analyzes how Beloved rewrites the rich nineteenth century literary tradition of black and white authors. 3 The chapter starts with the real story that prompted Morrison to write Beloved and with Morrison’s rethinking of the stereotype of “the black savage.” The analysis further discusses two of Morrison’s key intertexts: Frederick Douglass’ three autobiographies (1845, 1855, 1881), and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861). In addition, special attention will be paid to the way in which Harriet Beecher Stowe’s white sentimentalism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is reconsidered in Beloved. A contemporary author, Morrison writes against that literary tradition that “drops a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate” (Morrison 1987, 109). Her novel offers a counter-history that rips the veil that has fallen previously over unspeakable events, so that slavery and its aftermath are reexamined from the social and psychological perspective of black characters.
Drawing on the deep interconnection between subjectivity and memory, the chapter focuses on the main protagonist in Beloved, Sethe, whoacquires a polytropic character by rebelliously disrupting the white rules and affirming her autonomous identity.4 Sethe has to assert her independence twice: on the one hand, when she is able to overcome her subordinate condition as a slave and runs away in order to assert her own freedom; on the other hand, when she reenacts the past and frees her guilty conscience from its burden. The novel thus stages a double escape from the unspeakable state of slavery and from the unspeakable memory of the past. Remembrance and mobility become forms of resistance and represent basic means of constructing an autonomous identity that denies monolithic definitions and affirms the inherent difference through a multiplicity of perspectives.
By making us hear Sethe’s voice, Morrison rewrites the African Americans’ story at another level. She unravels the mechanisms of the white text imposed on the blacks in several versions: the newspapers controlled by the whites that manipulate the public opinion, Schoolteacher’s notebook that strives to prove the blacks’ animal-like aspects, ultimately the slave mother’s body, which can be read as a text upon which white power laid its imprint. It is Morrison’s task to make us reread these texts. It is her auctorial gaze that fixes the African Americans’ unknown life-story into the framework of her own masterpiece. In this light, her own words about Faulkner are significant in her case, too: ”He had a gaze that was different. It appeared, at that time, to be similar to a look, even a sort of staring, a refusal to look away approach in his writing that I found admirable” (Morrison 1992, 295).5
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
White Literacy as Dis-Membering: “This Ain’t Her Mouth”
In Beloved, a neo-slave narrative about the pre- and post-Civil War era, Morrison pays attention to an apparently footnote event in African American history, which nonetheless becomes essential in a broader historical context. The act in itself is radical and charged with suffering: a slave mother kills her baby daughter rather than let her be taken into slavery, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Law (that was reinforced in 1850). Writing about Sethe’s crime, Morrison challenges former historical and literary representations, since “the institutionalized parameters of guilt and responsibility do not provide the vocabulary to ‘tell,’ legally or narratively, the anomalies of a slave mother’s infanticide” (Levy 1991, 117).
The main source of the novel should be found in the biography of Margaret Garner,6 which was included by Morrison in The Black Book (1974), a collection of documents about African American experience. Morrison quotes here an article entitled “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child,” published in The American Baptist in 1856:
She [Margaret Garner] said that when the officers and slave-holders came to the house in which they were concealed, she caught a shovel and struck two of her children on the head, and she took a knife and cut the throat of the third, and tried to kill the other—that if they had given her time, she would have killed them all—that with regard to herself, she cared but little; but she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done.
I inquired her if she was not excited almost to madness when she committed the act. No, she replied, I was cool as I now am; and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery, and be murdered by piecemeal.
There are common points between the historical event and Beloved: both Margaret Garner and Morrison’s Sethe are slaves living in Kentucky, who attempt to escape slavery by crossing the Ohio River to the free Ohio state. Even if they escape together with their four children, their freedom is short-lived, as they are caught by the slave hunters. In order not to allow their children to be taken back into slavery and thus experience the same ordeal as they did, both Margaret Garner and Sethe attempt at killing their four children, and manage to kill one daughter—for which they are taken to jail and put to trial.
To gain imaginative freedom, Morrison departs in her novel from the real story. If in reality the event takes place in the winter, and Margaret Garner crosses on foot the frozen Ohio River (together with her husband, in a party of seventeen runaway blacks), Sethe’s journey takes place in the summer, and the only person who takes care of her is a white girl, Amy Denver. If the Garners take refuge in a black man’s house named Kite, Sethe arrives at the house of her mother in law, Baby Suggs, where the rest of her children were sent in advance with another party of runaway slaves.
While rewriting Margaret Garner’s story, Morrison wanted to reshape it in an emblematic way. The writer has no sympathy for Sethe’s deed, which is left “without comfort or succor from the ‘author,’ with only imagination, intelligence, and necessity available for the journey” (Morrison 1989, 29). Aware of her tricky task, the writer knows how to disclose the truth about the narrated events and not to fall into the trap of prosaic militantism, offering the reader a naked lunch of documentary texts.
True to the nineteenth century reality, Morrison consciously creates Sethe as an illiterate slave, whose access to literacy has been denied. She emphasizes accordingly that orality and storytelling are skills that Sethe and other (ex)slaves know how to master, while reading and writing are part of the white world. Missy Dehn Kubitschek aptly suggests that “in the world of the novel’s setting, print literacy is white-controlled, it often damages the black community” (1998, 135). In Beloved, the newspapers that relate the official variant of Sethe’s (Margaret Garner’s) infanticide promote a distorted representation of a black woman’s desire to escape. As part of the official history of the white people, newspapers are instances of textual dis-membering, of assembling the real events into written pieces that mislead the audience and present the African Americans in accordance with the Negrophobic versions of the official regime. In this context, Sethe’s act of killing her child is solely an exemplification of an animalic violence, of the savage part of the African that could not be tamed by the “civilizing” process of slavery.
Such stories as that of Sethe (Margaret Garner) were used by official supporters of racist ideology as an example for the blacks’ lack of moral standards. At the time, a rhetoric of the blacks’ inferiority was promulgated in order to represent the African Americans as “a permanently alien and unassimilable element of the population” (Fredrickson 1987, 1).7 The pro-slavery fraction in the first half of the nineteenth century strove in this way to construct theories for validating a thorough justification of slavery in the South. One of the pro-slavery supporters, Professor Thomas R. Dew wrote:
The slaves have now all the habits and feelings of slaves, the whites have those of masters; the prejudices are formed, and mere legislation cannot improve them… Declare the Negroes of the South free tomorrow, and vain will be your decree until you have prepared them for it… The law would make them free men, and custom or prejudice, we care not which you call it, would degrade them to the condition of slaves (Dew 1852, 435-36, in Fredrickson 1987, 45).
Moreover, another pro-slavery theory claimed that the “savage” nature of the blacks must be “civilized” by slavery. The slave had to be domesticated, because the slave’s submissiveness was not inborn in his or her natural character, but it was an artificial creation of slavery. While the notion of the “civilized Negro” was a product of slavery, it found its antithesis in the free slave as a monster, an uncontrollable creature ruled by wild instincts. One of the promoters of this theory, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright of Louisiana, claimed that “the negro must, from necessity, be the slave of man or be the slave of Satan” (Cartwright 1861, 651, in Fredrickson 1987, 55). 8
According to this racist view, Sethe (Margaret Garner) stands for the alienated slave who disobeys the white man’s rules, and acts as “the slave of Satan.” Her desire to be independent is misinterpreted by the pro-slavery ideology, which asserts that the brutish inclinations of the black people emerge when their behavior is no longer checked by the whites’ surveillance. Morrison’s creative imagination urges us to unravel the psychological mechanisms that made Sethe act as she did. The author therefore suggests that Sethe’s process of attaining an autonomous identity by affirming her freedom as love is misinterpreted by the newspapers. Her crime—a most radical act of protecting her children from entering a repressive system—is used by the newspapers to illustrate the theory of the free slave’s unrestricted savagery.
Ironically, Morrison places a literate slave, Stamp Paid—in charge of the Underground Railroad—into a position of a mediator. It is Stamp Paid who brings the newspaper into the story, informing Sethe’s lover, Paul D, about her act.9 Unable to read the lines printed on the white page, Paul D can only read the picture. His remark “this ain’t her mouth” (156) becomes the leitmotif of the fragment that summarizes his skepticism toward the official version of the story. His point of view deconstructs the white perspective offered by newspapers and reveals his awareness that mass media manipulate the readers’ opinion by constructing negative images of African Americans. Whenever a story about the blacks is published, “it would have to be something out of the ordinary—something whitepeople would find interesting” (156).
As soon as the crime is revealed to the other characters in the novel, they significantly assume the role of the judge, criticizing Sethe directly or indirectly.10 For them, Sethe is the deviant woman, the one who has trespassed the communal unwritten laws. The others’ silent reproach is expressed by Paul D’s open remarks, in a dialogue that discloses the difference between his view and Sethe’s thinking:
“Your love is too thick,” he said, thinking, That bitch is looking at me; she is right over my head looking down through the floor at me.
“Too thick?” She said, thinking of the Clearing where Baby Suggs’ commands knocked the pods off horse chestnuts. “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
“Yeah. It didn’t work, did it? Did it work?” he asked.
“It worked,” she said.
“How? Your boys gone and you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard. How did it work?”
“They ain’t at Sweet Home. Schoolteacher ain’t got em.”
“Maybe there’s worse.”
“It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.”
“What you did was wrong, Sethe.”
“I should have gone on back there? Taken my babies back there?”
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”
“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet” (164-65).
Unable to comprehend Sethe’s tragic choice, Paul D arrives at an ontological aporia, a difficulty of reasoning. His negative attitude culminates with the blame he lies on Sethe for going beyond the limits of human ethics. His remark echoes the white racist thinking that associates the black person with an animal: “You got two feet, Sethe, not four” (165).
Hence, Paul D also plays the role of the judge drastically allying himself with the dominant opinion of the black community. He confronts Sethe with the notorious paper clipping dated eighteen years ago, and dares to ask Sethe things that the others would not, thus displaying everybody’s moral point of view. Similarly to the Greek tragedies, the pathos comes here from the powerful conflict between the nomos11 of the community and the personal values of the polytropic character. As we shall see in the next section, Morrison strives to read the blanks of nineteenth century texts, in order to make us understand the mechanisms that trigger Sethe’s behavior—the most powerful manifestation of her motherly love.
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
Douglass’ and Jacobs’ Silences: “The Veil Withdrawn”
Morrison’s Beloved samples two representative texts of nineteenth century black literature—Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents—texts that acknowledge the depreciation of both black manhood and womanhood that occurred during slavery. In their more or less fictionalized autobiographies, each of these authors had their own reasons for keeping silent over certain unspeakable events. This section discusses each author at a time, while tracing Morrison’s reasons for filling in her precursors’ blank spaces.
In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass gives details about his careful preparation to run away: the escapist images that haunt his enslavement prompted by the ships that follow their way to Baltimore, his incipient idea about liberation initiated by his acquisition of literacy, his attempt to fabricate false papers for himself and his fellow slaves, and mostly, his throbbing desire to reach the North. However, in this retrospective autobiography written seventeen years after his flight, Douglass prefers not to talk about the most significant part of his escape: the Underground Railroad. The silences and gaps of Douglass’ text have a deep racial impetus, as he does not want the white slaveholders to find out about secret ways of escaping employed by his people. The Underground Railroad would turn into a surface railroad.
In her turn, Jacobs’ narrative abounds in ellipses and allusions that disclose her desire not to reveal certain aspects of her excruciating experience. If Douglass had racial reasons for keeping silent, Jacobs’ reasons are mainly psychological and sexual. She draws attention to the gender issue in the nineteenth century, when black women were subject to a double exploitation due to the racial and patriarchal system. Jacobs avows in her narrative: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (79). This “veiled matter,” woman’s honor, represented a tricky subject at the time, when the cult of true womanhood was in vogue. In this respect, Lydia Maria Child’s words in her Introduction illuminate Jacobs’ message: “This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn” (8).
Jacobs lifts the veil, but not completely. Even if her autobiography is destined to make her private life public, the narrated events are carefully chosen. As Hazel Carby cogently suggested, the title Incidents “directs the reader to be aware of a consciously chosen selection of events in Jacobs’ life” (1987, 51). Therefore, a constant elusiveness haunts the unspeakable events in her story. Her silences serve “both as a veil that covers certain aspects of her life, and as a shield that can defend her from the attacks of her master, Dr. Flint, and the judgements of her readers” (Emsley 1998, 1).
Intertextually, Morrison rewrites the unsayability of Douglass’ and Jacobs’ texts, writing a book that epitomizes a mise en scene of the previous, unspoken events. Both Douglass’ and Jacobs’ racial and psychological issues are to be found in Beloved. If Douglass refrains from telling us about his escape, Morrison gives us various details on Sethe’s flight and the Underground Railroad. If Jacobs also refuses to give us the trivia of her sexual harassment, Morrison insists upon Sethe’s symbolic rape, and the stealing of her milk. The contemporary writer carefully chooses the words to say it.12
Douglass and Jacobs wrote their narratives in the pre-emancipation era, and their main ambition was to place their writing into the service of abolishing slavery. Like her precursors, Morrison points to the unspeakable experience of slavery, but in addition she stresses its terrible consequences. Beloved’s meandrous events extend from the narrative present in the post-Civil War era (1873), to the narrative past in the pre-Civil War times (1855).13 Infused with magic realism, at the boundary between harsh reality and Gothic fantasy, Morrison’s novel both rewrites a complicated literary inheritance and brings into focus the author’s innovative strength that actualizes the past.
Furthermore, Sethe’s unspeakable story that draws our attention to the methods of docilization imposed upon slaves has similar points with Douglass’ and Jacobs’ autobiographies. Both nineteenth century authors lay stress on either physical or psychological torture as a means of destroying any sparkle of freedom in slaves. The African American critic bell hooks broadly analyzes the “methods of terrorization” that “succeeded in forcing African people to repress their awareness of themselves as free persons and to adopt the slave identity imposed upon them” (1981, 19).
Douglass repeatedly presents us with various ways of “taming” the black body (through the lack of food, clothing, and sleep), or the black psyche (through the denial of any free choice). Probably one of the most excruciating moments probing the white master’s sadism can be found in Douglass’ two descriptions of young female slaves beaten by their masters. In the first description, he insists on Esther’s story: a young beautiful slave who continues to see her black lover in spite of her master’s forbiddance. The master chokes any manifestation of Esther’s love and free will, breaking her spirit by whipping her handsome body. In the second instance, Nelly, a slave mother, is whipped in front of her children, as a lesson for her unabashed pride. Unlike Esther who yields without resistance, Nelly fights back and thus challenges her master’s authority.
In Beloved,like in Douglass’ text, the reader becomes engaged in a voyeuristic enterprise, in which the body of an African American woman is exposed as a site of traumatic events. Sethe’s pregnant body that has been tortured by her white masters becomes a text inscribed with the terrible events of a past whose traces cannot be erased. The symbolical chokecherry tree grown on her back as a result of her whipping refers to her past that still haunts her future, since “it grows there still” (Sethe’s remark, 17).
In her suggestively entitled essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers comments upon the way in which the black female body during slavery carries the marks of the visible mutilations and violations, as physical identity has to be reshaped and all signs of resistance destroyed. Sethe’s story is symbolically written upon her body, which is marked by her otherness as a mother, a slave and a fugitive. Each of its parts bears the imprint of different events: her breasts are deprived of milk, her back is torn open, and her feet are hurt by the effort of running. Importantly, the symbolism of Sethe’s stolen milk retraces a whole slave history, during which the milk of black women was seen as a marketable product to be exchanged. Sethe’s story is juxtaposed upon the story of her mother, a slave obliged to feed the master’s white children and to neglect her own. In comparison with her mother, Sethe’s case is more radical since the stealing of her milk is committed for no practical reason, but only for the cruel delight of the white men who want to choke in her all the remnants of independence. Paradoxically, the inverse happens: as a result of this brutal treatment, Sethe’s consciousness awakens and she runs away from Sweet Home.
The significant relationship between womanhood and motherhood is to be found in Jacobs’ text, too. Morrison draws upon Jacobs’ experience that directly deals with a runaway female slave whose desire to escape signifies maintaining both womanhood and motherhood. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs’ narrative persona, Linda Brent, designs a double stratagem in order to elude her white master’s continual harassment. First, she willingly makes “a plunge into the abyss” and gets involved in a relationship with another white man, Mr. Sands (hoping that he would liberate her and their children). Her main argument for her behavior explains the degrading character of slavery, which does not protect the unsheltered purity of slave women regarded as means for increasing property. Second, when realizing that her first plan would never succeed, she hides in her grandmother’s garret for seven years, and writes letters to Dr. Flint that make him believe that she is in the North.14
Morrison’s Sethe has similarities with Jacobs’ Linda: for both characters the quest for physical and spiritual freedom is essential, encompassing their fight against exploitation and the attaining of an autonomous identity; still, more essential for both is the issue of motherhood manifested in their free agency to liberate their children from slavery. For both Linda and Sethe, escape symbolically represents a fissure into the racial system,15 their resistance “bring[ing] alive those coercive forces which dictated women’s decisions” (Clinton 1994, 210).
If their experience is analyzed using Michel Foucault’s perspective, Linda’s and Sethe’s subject is constituted in and through a historical network of discursive and nondiscursive practices—“a subject that (passionately) disrupts the traditional categories of subject/object, mind/body, inside/outside, activity/passivity” (Heiner 2003, 24-5). By stepping out of their master’s surveillance, both Sethe and Linda pass through a “limit experience,” which “has the function of wrenching the subject from itself, or that it is brought to its annihilation or its dissolution” (1988 c, 241). The result is the re-creation of a new type of subject, with a polytropic identity that subverts the standard, submissive image of a slave girl.16
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
“Ceremonies of Proper Burial:” Storytelling as Re-Membering
By creating a symbolic spatial order, Morrison transforms the home of an ex slave into a specific site of memory. Morrison’s haunted house powerfully evokes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description of the garret in Legree’s house, “a weird and ghostly place” (406). The garret is the place where the cruel master Legree abused and killed a black woman, whose mournful story remains buried within its walls, but is unearthed in the superstitions about the ghostly room. As in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in Beloved,a house in Cincinnati becomes a liminal place, a fluid frame for storytelling, situated at the boundary between the visible and the invisible:17
124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims (3).
The novel begins ex abrupto with a tricky uncomfortable image: the ghost of the baby girl that Sethe killed eighteen years ago disturbs the lives of her mother, her sister, Denver, her two brothers, Howard and Buglar, and her grandmother, Baby Suggs. A psychological topos infused with painful memories, the house is emblematic for any home belonging to former slaves, as suggested by Baby Suggs: “not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief” (5). Moreover, the house is quite singular, since its special type of “rage” isolates it from the community and places it into a marginal position, which is correlated with the marginal(ized) identities of its inhabitants. The house-tomb epitomizes a threshold over which the others refuse to cross, a world turned upside down, in which the sphere of the living and that of the dead coexist.
Since most of Morrison’s novels can be seen as “ceremonies of proper burial” (Matus 1998, 2), Beloved has the function of unearthing the missing gaps of an African American history that is reconfigured by means of remembrance.18 The process of storytelling has an anamnetic function, being undertaken both by Sethe and her lover, Paul D. They have the role of catalysts for each other, since they can make each other talk about his or her difficult earlier period. Gradually, they attain the courage and patience to entrust each other with their own painful memories, first more guessed or suggested, then, circularly told from a multiplicity of perspectives that also gather the voices of the other characters in the novel.19 Therefore, Sethe’s circular movement in space is paralleled by her mental spinning around the unspeakable significance of her story that could not be approached directly.20
The return of the past and its living memory are exquisitely caught by Morrison in the concept of rememory, a combination of memory andremember. Many critics have suggested that Morrison coined the word in order to encompass the reiteration of historical and personal events. As Philip Page specifies, “to remember is also to re-member, that is, to put oneself back together, which is what Sethe’s remembered stories finally accomplish” (1995, 150). Using (re)memory as a means of self-reconstruction, Sethe moves from an imprisoning condition obsessed with her past (infused with traumatizing images) to a state of mental independence (characterized by self-reliance and self-expression).
In the process of rememory, Sethe and Paul D have also the role of mirror-characters for each other. They project images about of how they used to be in the past, counterbalanced by how they are in the present, so that their identities continuously shift. The illiterate Paul D knows how to read Sethe’s past and present face:
The one with iron eyes… a face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched-out eyes. Halle’s woman. Pregnant every year including the year she sat by the fire telling him she was going to run… Her eyes did not pick up a flicker of light. They were like two wells into which he had trouble gazing… Now the iron was back, but the face, softened by hair, made him trust her enough to step inside her door smack into a pool of pulsing red light (9).
As a character-witness, Paul D is the only one in the novel who knows the reality of a plantation in Kentucky ironically named Sweet Home,21 and how Sethe used to be there. Reflected in Paul D’s eye, Sethe’s past image and present identity are placed in a mise-en-abyme. When she meets him again after a span of eighteen years, both her physical appearance and her mental state seem to change, to regress toward another younger age. While Paul D stands by her, she experiences a feeling of liberation, of being able to pass to someone else her troublesome burden—the responsibility of her life-story.
In this sense, remembrance may also represent a means of redefining the characters’ identity as autonomous by performing an escape from the unspeakable past. Unlike in the nineteenth century slave narrative in which the quest for freedom is paralleled by a quest for literacy, Morrison’s heroes never learn to write, but use remembrance as a means of achieving psychological freedom. Sethe and Paul D do not master the written language, but the spoken word. The remembrance of their life-story is vital for their own spiritual survival, as well as for the awakening of their people. As in African American oral tradition, Sethe and Paul D pass on their private stories to the readers who play the role of listeners.22 Crossing the haunted threshold of Morrison’s story, the audience sympathizes with the painful experience of the characters, so that “an affective and cognitive connection” is established with the victims of slavery (Bouson 2000, 137).23
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
“Overdetermined from Without:” Sethe, Eliza, and Cassy
Sethe’s attaining of an independent identity is representative for Morrison’s ongoing literary reconstruction of the black female image. Taking into account that the colonial subject is always “overdetermined from without” (Fanon 1967, xiii), Sethe’s running away produces a dangerous fissure in the Procustean norms of a repressive system, signalizing flaws and weaknesses in its forceful determinism.24
In Sethe’s case, escape from slavery is triggered by her maternal feelings, by her desire to liberate her children from slavery. This is also the case of Jacobs’ story, as shown above. And this is also the case of two female characters to be found in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Eliza and Cassy. In Stowe’s book, both Eliza and Cassy design and put into practice two different ways of escaping slavery for their children. While Eliza liberates herself and her child by running from her master’s plantation, Cassy can only think of escape through death, by killing her baby. Importantly, both of Stowe’s characters are conflated in Sethe’s image—a fugitive and a murderer.
Sethe’s representation as a runaway thus finds its counterpart in Eliza. If Sethe runs pregnant, Eliza flees with her boy, rather than seeing him sold and alienated. In both cases, the Ohio River offers a way of escape. For Eliza, it is the boundary between slavery and freedom, as she crosses it carrying her boy, and jumping from one piece of ice to another. For Sethe, it represents not only the gate to liberty but also a cradle of life, as she gives birth to Denver there. It is important to notice that in the vicinity of rivers both heroines encounter white people that have the role of helpers: Eliza finds refuge in Senator Bird’s house, while Sethe is healed and aided by Amy Denver, the white girl.
In the context of the nineteenth century fight for abolishing slavery, Stowe had her reasons for introducing her audience (a predominantly female white audience) to the peaceful home of Senator Bird. Senator Bird’s home is just one of the “compendious galley of homes” that Stowe depicts in order to strengthen the cult of domesticity (Fiedler 1992, 32). By depicting the Birds’ house as exemplary, Stowe urges the reader not only to attain the same domestic harmony, but also to identify with their abolitionist ideas. It is Stowe’s mission to demonstrate that Eliza’s running away with her child symbolizes an act of preserving the family ties and unity. Eliza’s pathetic question—“Have you ever lost a child?”—arises the sympathy of Mrs. Bird, whose drawer hiding the clothes of her dead child unlocks the void of maternal grief. Speaking also for herself (as Stowe lost “the most beautiful and loved” of all her children), Stowe addresses the maternal feelings of her female readers as the main reason for abolishing slavery.
In Beloved, Morrison intentionally alters Stowe’s text, designing a different script for her story: Sethe is not hosted by any white family, and in fact, she is escaping a white family’s house, Sweet Home. By intersecting Sethe’s story with that of a white girl, Amy Denver, Morrison demonstrates that the quest for freedom has a transracial meaning, that at that time oppression was a common reality for both black and white women. There are common points between Amy and Sethe: both of them are orphans (neither of them knows her father); both of them occupy a marginalized place in society (one as a slave, the other as a servant). Their desire to transgress their inferior social or racial status initiates their development of an autonomous identity. If Sethe’s aim is gaining liberty by arriving to the house of her mother-in-law, Amy’s desire is going to Boston, representing the Eldorado where she can find velvet—a symbol of a better social order: “Velvet is like the world was just born. Clean and new and so smooth” (33).
Sethe’s decision to name her newborn bay after Amy Denver is not a meaningless act.Indeed, Amy is the only white person in the novel who treats Sethe on an equal position,25 so that a female bond can be established between them. Later, when Sethe tells her story to her daughters, Denver and Beloved, she stresses how without Amy’s help, she would not have been able to survive and Denver would not have been born. The white girl carefully makes a bed of leaves where the tired runaway slave sleeps; she massages and brings back to life Sethe’s swollen feet; most of all, Amy talks and sings to Sethe, so that the not-yet-born baby may keep quiet.
One step further, when Sethe arrives at the house of her mother-in-law in Cincinnati, Morrison creates the model of a black home as a counterpart of the white domestic harmony presented by Stowe. Here Morrison introduces us to the African American wise woman, the emblematic figure of the black mother: Baby Suggs. She is invested with a positive halo as she receives her exhausted daughter-in-law with open arms. She feeds and bathes her body in a cleansing ritual and she also takes care of the children (the two brothers, the “crawling-already? girl,” and the newborn Denver). Significantly, Baby Suggs is a free person, since her son Halle, a slave himself, worked hard to pay the money for liberating his mother.26
In Baby Suggs’ emblematic character several images are juxtaposed. She is not only the emblematic black mother, but she is also the “unchurched preacher” for her community. During the gatherings in the forest clearing,27 far from the madding crowd of the dehumanizing racial system, she teaches her black people what freedom represents. Under Bay Suggs’ roof and during the religious meetings in the forest clearing, Sethe learns how to cope with her newly acquired freedom: “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (95). Silent and comforting, Baby Suggs’ words of prayer come in a ritual teaching the Blacks that freedom means love for themselves and love for the others. Her words have the special mission of bridging gaps in a traumatized history:28
She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it… ‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize’ (88-89).
Baby Suggs’ message is part of Sethe’s understanding of motherhood. During her twenty-eight days of freedom in Cincinnati, Sethe learns how to handle her newly acquired freedom in its most powerful manifestation as love. This explains Sethe’s reaction during the dramatic episode when Schoolteacher and his men attempt to recapture her and her children.
In the scene describing Sethe’s capture and her desperate act, Morrison subtly makes us aware that the community also bears a part of the guilt.29 It is the community that does not let Sethe know about the arrival of the white men. This is due to the fact that the community feels that Baby Suggs has excessively displayed her wealth and happiness, when throwing a feast for ninety people in celebration of Sethe’s arrival—a hybris for which Baby Suggs’ family has to pay.30 When the white men enter the shed where Sethe has found refuge, they cannot claim anything, but can only stare at the dramatic scene: “two boys bled in the sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other” (149).It is Stamp Paid who appears from nowhere and saves Denver, the baby whom Sethe is trying to kill. Reacting to the bloody picture in front of his eyes, Schoolteacher sees Sethe and her children as white man’s property—a lost property. His gaze has inherited the pragmatism of countless slavers in the course of history, that were accustomed to consider the “black soul” to be the “white man’s artefact” (Fanon 1967, 16).
Beyond Sethe’s gesture is hidden a whole history of dispossessed women who have seen their babies carried away from them, sold, or killed.31 In this line, Sethe’s act reiterates Cassy’s infanticide in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cassy stands for the tragic mulatta, whose light skin makes her the sexual target of her white masters, while her status as a slave denies her the social safety of marriage. Similarly to Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, Cassy is an educated woman, in spite of the fact that she is a slave. Moreover, similarly to William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Cassy is the quadroon who has relations with white masters that simulate marriage. Without the marital status of a white woman, Cassy is dispossessed of her most precious possessions: her children. In a significant scene, she tells Uncle Tom about the way in which she killed her baby so that it won’t be taken into slavery:
But I had up my mind,—yes, I had. I would never again let a child live to grow up! I took the little fellow in my arms, when he was two weeks old, and kissed him, and cried over him; and then I gave him laudanum, and held him close to my bosom, while he slept to death (521).
To suit the Christian sentimentality, Stowe transforms Cassy into a madwoman, thus mitigating the consequences of her act. Slightly mad, Cassy is no longer to be held responsible for her murder.32 Departing from Stowe, Morrison makes Sethe fully responsible for her acts, thus drawing on the real story of Margaret Garner, who affirmed in an interview that she committed her act while keeping her reason.
In both Cassy’s and Sethe’s acts, motherly love triggers the expression of their own free will. Commenting upon the deep interrelation between liberty and affection, she tells Paul D about the exciting feeling of love that she calls “selfishness”—a feeling suggested by the powerful metaphor of open hands:
I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my hands all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I could not love em properly in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love” (162).
“Risky, thought Paul D, very risky. For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled down to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little more left over for the next one (45).
Sethe’s conscious choice of escaping is a manifestation of her love for her children, which is seen as dangerously “too thick” by Paul D (164). Sethe’s answer encompassing her courageous expression of love—“thin love ain’t love at all”—defies the slave system out of which she want to drag herself and her children (164).
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
An Emblematic (Non)Presence: “The Return of the Repressed”
Most of nineteenth century African American narratives end with the protagonists’ liberation. In Beloved, Sethe’s story tells us that the difficult road toward achieving freedom does not presuppose only physical escape from slavery. Sethe’s quest continues even after her liberation, when she has to resurrect the haunting events of her life in order to reconstruct her own autonomous image.33 Even if the novel depicts events that happen after the Civil War and Sethe is a freed slave, her mind is still enslaved by her traumatic past. According to Cathy Caruth, “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image of an event” (1995, 4-5). Sethe feels the effects of the “post-traumatic stress disorder syndrome,” because a terrifying moment of her past does not seem to be integrated into her cognitive scheme (Caruth 1991, 418).34
Sethe’s memory is possessed by the Medusa gaze of that petrifying event and is set free only when she comes to terms with the past. In acknowledging Beloved as her daughter, Sethe strives to attain an independent character by taking possession over her own alienated life story: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing” (200). Repossessing the image of her daughter, Sethe thinks about her act of nursing her child—a way of asserting her authority over her own body, as well as over her children. Her milk is seen as her own property and not as the white master’s: “Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my children” (200). Through Beloved’s appearance, she is able to re(en)vision reality and see the colors that vanished at the death of her daughter, being cured of her symbolic daltonism: “Now I can look at things again because she is here to see them too” (201).
Besides, Beloved is more than a figment of Sethe’s tormented subconscious: her appearance is also an allegoric memento of the female slave, the quintessence of the mistreated African American woman.35 She exemplifies the abused slave woman raped by the white men (“who called her beloved in the dark and bitch in the light” (241)), or the slave daughter in search for her mother (from whom she had been separated), or the captive African woman (on a slave ship that takes her to America), or the slave wanderer (travelling the roads after the Civil War).36
The image of Beloved as an emblematic victim correlates Sethe’s personal story with the collective history of the African Americans. Half-human, half non-human, she acts the perplexing figure of the resurrected heroine who comes to relive the past and reshape the others’ present. Mae Henderson shows that “the return of the repressed” may be seen as the central theme of the novel (1991 a, 74). Beloved’s delirious words do not recall only her actual murder, but also the psychological murder committed on more than sixty million Africans who were forcefully taken away from their native lands and had to undertake a self-erasing Transatlantic journey.37 Giving voice to her grief, Beloved speaks in the place of every slave woman who suffered the most unimaginable atrocities during the Middle Passage, when the white masters (“the men without skin”) placed them like cattle in a ship, where there is no boundary between the human and the nonhuman, between the living and the dead: “She said when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat. Ghosts without skins stuck their fingers in her” (212).38 Morrison herself speaks about the overwhelming task of writing about these nameless sufferers:
Beloved was also—and it got to be very exciting for me then—those black slaves whom we don’t know, who did not survive that passage, who amounted to a nation, who simply left one place, disappeared and didn’t show up on the other shores. I had to be dragged, I suppose by them, kicking and screaming, into this book, because it is just too much (Morrison, in Amanda Smith 1987, 51).
Coming from nowhere, having no relatives, and mostly having no name, Beloved is an anonymous (non)presence. Her portrait is mirrored differently by the others, in accordance with their own needs and feelings:39 Sethe is touched by her name and remembers its sad story, while gradually identifying her with her lost daughter; Paul D is both puzzled and attracted to her; Denver is completely rapt with Beloved, being happy that there is someone upon whom she could project her love, whereas later she understands Beloved’s destructive love toward their mother whom she strives to protect.
Significantly, Beloved appears on a carnival day, when the limit between the world of the living and that of the dead is surpassed. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s view, the carnival turns the world upside down and reverses the hierarchic spatial and temporal order (1981, 81). Uncontrollable and mysterious, Beloved ignores the whole notion of chronology, of everydayness, as she keeps away from the external world. Her definition of her contradictory nature (akin to both the sunlit cracks and the darkness) implies two metaphors that suggest her dual relationship with the world of the living and that of the dead.
Beloved’s lack of mobility in space is opposed to her eagerness to move in time. Hearing or telling stories about the past, she steps freely into the “watertime” condition in which temporal boundaries are transcended.40 In this sense, the episode of Beloved’s appearance is interconnected with Denver’s birth through the symbol of water signifying life and death, extinction and regeneration. When Sethe approaches the Ohio River, accompanied by the white girl, “it looked like home to her, and the baby (not dead in the least) must have thought so too” (83). When Sethe gives birth to Denver, she enters the “watertime” condition that abolishes temporality, making it cyclical, sacred, and repetitive. In her turn, Beloved surfaces from the river, she sits on its bank for a whole day, unable to move, trying to get used to her new condition; the first thing she does when she arrives at Sethe’s house is to drink cup after cup of water, as thirsty as if she had crossed a desert.
In the floating fragments of the novel’s interrupted narrative thread, Sethe’s biography resurfaces. Beloved’s (lack of) ontological status is defined in this way via negativa: a “non-self” who consumes the others’ stories in order to become herself (Matus 1998, 115). Out of these scattered fragments, the reader constructs the image of Beloved’s multiple identity as a strange mixture between a child and a fully-grown woman, a sister and a daughter, a soothing presence and a voracious vampire:
You are my sister
You are my daughter
You are my face; you are me
I have found you again; you have come back to me
You are my Beloved
You are mine (216).
Beloved’s contradictory subjectivity is suggested by the inter-play between sadness and desire. On the one hand, her sadness should be linked with her unuttered longing to be or become something or somebody; hence, her striving to absorb the presence of others, especially the presence of her mother whom she desperately needs. On the other hand, her sexual desire is expressed in her love-hatred relationship with Paul D, as well as in her “shining” and “burning:” “No given chore was enough to put out the licking fire that seemed always to burn in her” (120).41
“Claiming Ownership of That Freed Self”
Remembering the Unspeakable in Toni Morrison’s
“An Act of Willed Creation:” Exorcising Past Images
In her Oxford Amnesty Lecture on Human Rights (2001), Eva Hoffman raised an essential issue regarding the legacy of the past. “How can we deal with this legacy? How can we speak about events in the past that have become the object of collective memory?” To these questions she offers three solutions: firstly, the recognition of victims; secondly, the identification of causes and effects; thirdly, the necessity to escape the past. The last point is of absolute importance, because otherwise we run the risk of letting the past engulf our present and future actions. Like Hoffman in her Oxford Amnesty speech, Morrison draws our attention to the importance of properly remembering the past and to the necessity of separating it from the living present.
Beloved’s shifting image serves as an embodiment of those historical events whose resurfacing hurts as much as heals. Beloved seems to embody a Lady Lazarus, an allegory of the unforgiving past that returns to haunt the present. At the same time, Beloved’s appearance initiates Sethe’s process of healing, so that memory functions as “an act of willed creation” (Morrison 1984 a, 385). More than a real character, Beloved signifies the living memory of the unspeakable past that both imprisons and liberates—an ambivalent character that both harms and cures, in hellishly unaccountable tenderness.
In order to reestablish the balance between the past and the present, Morrison employs at the end of the novel the voice of the community42—a powerful presence that manages to place an unnatural event on the right axis. In a symbolic act, the community’s black women gather in front of Sethe’s house and become conscious of the great difference between the ordinariness of their peaceful homes and this haunted place—an empty screen at which they gaze in lack of recognition. In reaction to the evil spirit, they experience different forms of exorcism that combine religious and pagan rituals, so that their praying, hollering, and singing produce an initial sound that drives the pregnant and beautiful “devil-child” out of the house.
The question remains open whether Beloved was forced to leave by the others or she left willingly when her mission was accomplished. In Trudier Harris’ interpretation, this scene evokes Fraser’s Golden Bough: “The voices raised serve the same function as the sticks and pans villager of pretechnological cultures might have used to dive evil spirits from their midst” (1991, 162). For Sethe, the voice of the community instills movement, awakening from a lethargic state in which she has lately fallen. Released from her past, Sethe takes action. In her vision, the arrival of Edward Bodwin (the white man that wants to help them) acts as reenactment of the pre-Civil War events, when the slaveholders came to capture her and her children and take them back into slavery. As the supreme proof of love for her children, she attacks the white man whom she considers to be Schoolteacher.43 Sethe’s violent act of protecting her (ghost)child exemplarily reveals how she has learned to claim ownership of her freedom.
Through Sethe’s life story, Morrison ultimately offers a multifaceted representation of a polytropic character, an unconventional heroine whose autonomous identity appears in her double gesture of escaping not only from the unspeakable state of slavery, but also from the memory of the haunting past.Through Sethe, Morrison stresses the necessity for the black woman to become aware of her self-importance, to put together the shattered images of her identity and reconstruct a future:
‘Sethe,’ [Paul D] says, ‘me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.
‘Me? Me?’ (273)
This poem in prose functions as an epitaph to the narrated events. It spins around a leitmotif—“It was not a story to pass on” (274-75)—which makes us pay attention to the difficult mission of the author who had to pass on,to transmit these terrible events. Morrison stresses here the unsayability of a story that can be either remembered or forgotten by “those to come.” The last paragraph makes us realize once more that the marks of African American history can be lost into oblivion. As the author warns us, any child or adult can either step into Beloved’s “footprints” or choose to never recall “the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for” (274). By rewriting and retracing the past, Morrison suggests that, like her characters, readers must learn how to claim ownership of their freed self.