Essay from Z.I. Mahmud

Cover of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Title in script font, cover is black with Toni Morrison's face illuminated on the front.

“Anything dead coming back to life hurts” Discuss how Toni Morrison’s Beloved explores remembering and forgetting with reference to this statement.

Analyze the importance of storytelling in Beloved as a novel that grapples with “unspeakable thoughts, unspoken”.
Critically examine the portrayal of slavery in Beloved. How does Morrison show Paul D and Sethe as self-defining agents of their own humanity?
“Slave life; freed life—everyday was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.”

How does Toni Morrison portray the dehumanizing effects of slavery in Beloved?
“This is not a story to pass on.” Discuss the relationship between individual and community, remembering and forgetting with references to the conclusion of Beloved.
“He wasn’t surprised to learn that they had tracked her down in Cincinnati, because when he thought about it now, her price was greater than his; property that reproduced itself without cost.” Critically examine Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of female slavery.

Postmodernist bourgeoise Western tradition satirizes African American historicization of black community through the open-ended perspectives of fragmentations, absence and negation as embodied in the dichotomies and/or antitheses between living and dead, past and present, present and future, freedom and captivity, individual agency and the society. Toni Morrison abstracts as pamphleteer of protest writers epitomizing symbolically oppressive voices  within the marginalized narrative framework of subaltern readings. “Negroes”, “underclass” and “slaves” are implicated to be colloquial idioms to burlesque the psychological as well as spiritual deficiencies bereft of internal intricacies and psychic motifs. Paul D’s contemplative outlook of the substantial perceptivity and critical receptivity in the literary mindscapes of Sethe succinctly explains freedom as accessibility towards desires by the autonomy of the self-empowered will and/or wishes. This fiction chronicles the prosaic challenges of the slave narrative encountered by Margaret Garner whose paradoxical motherly love traumatized by the enslavement of political institutions, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Stamp Paid’s body might be enslaved but his mind was elsewhere alludes to the ex-slave character that uses debt based images. Babby Suggs deconstructs history by disremembering of the bodies that result in the acrimony of one’s flesh: “here”, she said, “in this place, we flesh, flesh that weeps, laughs, flesh that stands on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Babby Suggs’s conviction blooming springfield of racial prejudice that personal empowerment cannot completely transcend the power of unjust societal laws and customs. Sethe’s butchering of Beloved or “crawling already” emanates  the analogies embedded in the  striking extermination of sexual perversities and metaphorical resistance to the perpetuating effectuation of slavery through captive breeding. “Nobody had her milk but me […] The milk would be there and I would be there with it.” Morrison personifies the milk of Sethe’s motherhood as the apropria of monetary worth that resonates slave owners proprietorship of disremembered body appendages. “Beloved was making her [Sethe] pay for the hand-saw […] Sethe was trying to make up for the hand-saw.” Beloved is the embodiment of rememory on the repository of African American cultural heritage as diasporic amnesia—–spirits of the phantom horror genre with realistic skin and eyes resembling naivete and innocence in the exultation of sweet honey in the rock, the trees and the water. Thus, the act of feeding the dead and pouring the libations are meant as symbols of communion, fellowship and renewal. Thus, continuity of genes cannot be dissociated from sustenance of memorabilia of the “living dead” and tragic wrenching of being and/ or non-being as anticipated in the epilogue, “although she has claim, she is not claimed […] it was not a story to pass on.”

Denver is the character of the third generation of the trinity that explores the African American cosmological trajectory of the future and Morrion’s insurmountable thesis of freedom and ownership. Denver will venture out of the yard and encounter the community in the reconstruction era as transvalued by the proclamation of Paul D in cognizance of Sethe: “We had more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” In her final soliloquy in the celebrated “She’s mine” section of the novel Denver reminds us of the perilous effects of disremembering : “I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again I don’t know who it is, but there is something terrible enough to make her do it again. Whatever it is, it comes from outside the house, outside the yard and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to.”  Satya Mohanty’s aphorism in “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity” , “The cognitive task of rememory is dependent on emotional achievement, on the labor of trusting oneself, one’s judgements and one’s companions” revives Valerie Smith’s critique redressal of the “inability of the text to convey the experience of what can no longer be spoken.”

Present epoch unspeakable racism of blackness is equivalent to a usable, marketable body politic as collectivized by narratological and dialogical positioning of Baby Suggs’s language that reveal the metaphor behind “We Flesh” associated with the return of dead bodies. These black bodies are euphemistically emphases of scarred, beaten, burning, pregnant, aged and growing as insidious symbols of commodities and machineries of reproduction in nineteenth century America that effulgently reviews reclaiming of dead bodies by Valerie Smith. Morrison’s politicization of corporeality and spirituality interweave body and spirit to be emphatically integrated by the visceral identity of the flesh sermon in the self-love dialectics of Baby Suggs. “And O my people they do not love your hand. They only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave out.” Critic David Lawerence describes the way in which this gesture of musicality, theatricality and linguistic reclamation put forth through the call of Baby Suggs underpins the connection of the seemingly alienated Sethe to the rest of her community: “This striving to claim self-ownership links Sethe’s own horrifying story to the story of the community. Central to the pursuit of self-ownership is the articulation of a self-defining language that springs from the flesh and blood of physical experience and that gives shape to the desire so long suppressed under slavery.” Baby Suggs’s sermon functions as the open and clear metaphor to relink flesh, desire and narrative. Sethe’s denial of death seems commensurate with the world that Morrison invents. There is a world of difference between Morrison’s insistence on remembering and acknowledging and even temporarily resurrecting the dead. Sethe’s desperate claim that nothing ever dies. In other words, the memoirs of the blackish holocaust must never be overlooked or disremembered. However, Seethe initially denies that anything passes on whether a memory, a feeling or a dead laughter. For Sethe, the static figure of her past is a picture or space into which anyone might offer her a temporary loophole out of loss and mourning and privileges for a denial both of personal responsibility and the inevitability of time itself. As Beloved consumes Sethe, Sethe loses herself to the embodied memory of Beloved until the community’s “sounds that broke the back of words”, snaps this cycle of repetition and returns Sethe to the history and Beloved to the oblivion of her death, in which she is literally dismembered—–”disappeared, some say, exploded right before their eyes.”

Toni Morrison’s depiction of the resurrectionist Beloved spotlights both state of remembering and disremembering through crisis and opportunity, that posits contours profoundly public and communal. Sethe literally becomes the superimposed dark face in Beloved’s self-reflecting gaze: “I see the dark horror that is going to smile at me […]It is the dark horror that is going to smile at me.” The unpunctuated language reinforces the profound desire to merge; the language itself resists separation and differentiation. Amy Denver’s scar as metaphor of Sethe’s back is associated with the chokecherry tree passage: “A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the bark———–it’s red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In bloom. What God have in mind, I wonder.” In this context, Denver’s tree image is not relegated to her own racial imperative since Sethe’s assertion to Paul D: “I got a tree on my back” vindicates the narrative cultural impasse. Claiming her body and claiming her history become tantamount to Sethe’s learning that she is her “own best thing” linked both to community and to the forces of history.

Literary archaeology excavates the memories from the site of memorabilia and antiquaries, depositories, souvenirs and collectibles, which generate an archive of mental images and metaphors. Memories within are the multiaccentuated psychic space of Morrison’s soil embedded in the unconscious realm as the interior recollections of the unspeakable and repressed.  Sethe memorializes the surface imageries that mystifies the language in Beloved: “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms.” That historically and culturally inscribed metaphoricity of articulation subsequently described or divested within postcolonial discourse into the amplification and/ or exemplification of Sethe’s mystery and Morrison’s text. Chokecherry tree the performative metaphor suggests and/or implicates historically and politically matrices of narrative modes of identity-formation as embodied by the textual field to be undergoing binaries in the polarization of African American history, race, gender, slavery, and white dominance/ white supremacy/ white ethnicity and black communal practices.Poisonous and astringent chokecherry mainly indigenous as flora in the landscapes biodiversities of Virginia and Carolinas associate the textual field/ etymological field/lexical field and semantic connotations fostering Beloved’s endeavor to liberate towards a vindictive stance through desperate and possessive longing for love and expiation. Sethe’s altruistic maternal affinity and Paul D’s retellings of slavery when his tongue was held down by an iron but. Morrison extrapolates the metaphor so that fragmentation and dissolution are reciprocated by literalization and performativity within postcolonial space avenues/vistas . Homi Bhava critiques this social and “interpersonal reality … that appears within poetic images as if it were in parenthesis” furthering Judith Butler’s gender identity that argues, “performativity appears to produce that which it names, to enact its own referent […] This productive capacity of discourse, a form of cultural reiterability or rearticulation, a practice of resignification but not  creation ex-nihilo.”

Chokecherry Tree symbolically signifies the disintegrated identity of a regressive past that anticipates the violent consequences slavery but also denotes the ambivalent locus for the production and reproduction of colonial desire, fantasy and fetishism. In other words, both mutilation and dispossession of the black bodies have become Morrison’s unspeakable historicity. Sethe’s own mutilation repeats her mother’s disfiguration through slavery. Sethe’s pregnancy becomes the site of dispossession by the brutality and inhumanness of the schoolteacher allegorically symbolic of the loss of subjectivity, and, therefore, in narrative terms, the absence of metaphor as identity incidental to Sethe’s dehumanization and breast milk thievery. The underworld and the heavens furthermore mythologized as chokecherry tree connects Sethe to the spirit of Beloved and hints at the possessive and desperate relationship between them. Neither Sethe entirely associates nor entirely  dissociates herself from the past[ness] and detachment and estrangement becomes existential crises.

Amy is like the Ariel creature in the context of being half slave, half human, half master, mediator or traitor and full of tales and songs and lackadaisical temperament, full of songs and tales and possessed by her lucrative aspirations —-the struggle for independence. Both Sethe and Amy Denver chronicler of their own story of survival and healing—-the latter points the verbal image of chokecherry tree after being conscious of dehumanization and mutability by the atrocities and ferocities of slavery underwent by the former’s enslavement and/or captivehood. Historical and psychological fragmentation of feminine subjectivity encapsulated in the doubling and divesting processes of metaphor that simultaneously Amy Denver’ aestheticizes performative narrative in so far as the connotations of birth; proselytizes the literal birth of Denver for which Amy Denver acts as a midwife. 

Further Reading
Barbara Christian’s Beloved, She’s Ours, Narrative January 1997, Volume 5, No. 1, pp. 36-49, Ohio State University Press
Cynthia Dobb’s Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Bodies Returned, Modernism Revisited, African American Review, Winter 1998, Volume. 32, No. 4, pp.. 563-578, Indiana State University Press
Heiker Harting’s “Chokecherry Tree[s]”: Operative Modes of Metaphor in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, 29:4, October 1998. University of Calgary Press.

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