Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and the African American Literary Canon

The debate over the role, or even the legitimacy of the existence, of an African American literary canon has historic, contemporary, and determining significance. This canon contains the life’s work of many including Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who explains that the canon, “ in every literary tradition, has served as the commonplace book of our shared culture” (Master’s Pieces 21). In choosing the word “shared” Gates implies that the defining qualities of this canon, in terms of its ability to record culture, must come from its ability to unite. The African American canon was formed as a direct reaction to the Western canon which was, “teaching of an aesthetic and political order, in which no women or people of color were ever able to discover the reflection or representation of their images, or hear the resonances of their cultural voices” (Gates, Master’s Pieces 35). This recurring problem of an accurate representative experience in the literary tradition is the reason that the first anthology of Black French Verse published in 1845 by Armand Lanusse Les Cenelles is criticized by Gates who says that it doesn’t deal with, “black issues” and it treats African Americans like, “Frenchmen”. He also criticizes the 1849 anthology by William G. Allen because of its political motivations in dealing with issues of “blackness” (Master’s Pieces 25). Similarly, the earliest forms of black verse by Phyllis Wheatley were closely scrutinized. She was called before a room of respected men to prove authorship, “This group of ‘the most respectable characters in Boston,’ as it would later define itself had assembled to question the African adolescent closely on the slender sheaf of poems that the young woman claimed to have written by herself” (Gates, Writing Race 52). Upon meeting with Wheatley these distinguished men would publish an attestation with her poems to prove to the white audience that the author truly was a slave. During the Enlightenment the African American’s future became bound to their ability to master Western modes of arts and science, “If they could (prove mastery), the argument ran, then that African variety of humanity and the European variety were fundamentally related. If not then it seemed clear that the African was destined by nature to be a slave” (Writing Race 53). The African-American literary world was controlled from its beginnings by the Western tradition and its writers were forced to ignore their culture and assimilate to the one that enslaved them. Essentially, African-Americans were assumed to be without an identity because they were without a collective history, which was, however, a result of white oppression.

Gates suggests that the slave narratives were a reaction to the presumed lack of history of the former slave. Timothy Parrish quotes Hazel V. Carby who says that, “ex-slaves wrote [their selves] into being through an account of the condition of being a slave” (1). Early on the African-American was forced to prove their existence by mastering the language of the master. This proves that the literary institutions of canon formation are oppressive institutions similar to that of slavery, “these writers implicitly were signifyin(g) upon the figure of the chain itself, simply by publishing autobiographies that were indictment of the received order of Western culture, of which slavery, to them, by definition stood as the most salient sign” (Gates, Writing Race 64). The institution of literary canon formation proves to be just as oppressive in the modern age.

In the 1986 preface to The Signifying Monkey, Gates explains that, “The image of the black tradition has suffered from the lack of sophisticated scholarly attention to it. I would hope that the decades of careful collection and establishment of texts will be followed by decades of close readings, interpretation, and speculation” (xii). One year later in 1987 Toni Morrison published Beloved, which would inspire close readings, interpretations, and speculation, and it is not presumptuous to assume that this dedicated attention will continue for decades.Beloved serves as a direct reaction to the legacy of slavery whose oppressive practices of disconnection to self, community, and past survive with strength, in the literary world of African American canon formation.

Interestingly, in late 1960’s, when “Afro-American” studies were newly emerging, Morrison was one of the custodians of the canon. She was an editor at Random House. Morrison tried to help newly emerging African American writers. She “played an important role in bringing African-American literature into the mainstream” (Morrison, Wikipedia). The literature she submitted for publication didn’t make, “scads of money”. Morrison explains that one of the reasons she left Random House was because there was a conflict of interest between a writer and a publisher sharing identities, due, in part, to the fact that at the time, “acquiring authors who were certain sellers outranked editing manuscripts or supporting emerging or aging authors through their careers” (Morrison XVI). Morrison struggled within the institutions that control the canon from publication to education. She recognized that the control of the canon also meant control over the,” institutional history” (Gates, The Master’s Pieces 34). In the forward to Beloved, she writes:

A few days after my last day at work, sitting in front of my house on the pier jutting out into the Hudson River, I began to feel edginess instead of the calm I had expected. I ran through my index of problem areas and found nothing new or pressing. I couldn’t fathom what was so unexpectedly troubling on a day that perfect, watching a river that serene. I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. I went back to the house to examine this apprehension, even panic. I knew what fear felt like; this was different. Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, eve. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter Beloved (XVI).

Morrison was free of the institutions of history, commerce, education, and the canon. Her reaction to this, at first, disquieting freedom was, “not a story to pass on”, but one to immortalize (323). Because of her choice to step outside of the institutions of oppression, this new found freedom was similar in experience to what she wrote of Baby Suggs and her first feelings as a free black woman: “But suddenly she saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, ‘These hands belong to me. These my hands.’ Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing” (166)? In describing her and Baby Suggs’ experiences of freedom in similar ways Morrison is making the connection between all oppressive institutions that disconnect the African American from their identity, history, and community.

It was Morrison’s experiences as a participant, victim, and member of the institutions of African-American literary canon formation that placed Beloved in the house at 124 Bluestone Road. When Morrison discovers her freedom she realizes that institutions, “are not just something we study they’re also something we live, and live through” (Gates, The Master’s Pieces 35). Although Toni Morrison never lived through the experiences of slavery she experiences the reverberations of this institution in the Western tradition and, “can only reimagine the conditions of slavery, and therefore writes in order to connect the receding past to the living present”(Parrish 1). In Beloved, Morrison makes the connections between the past and present, reconnects the community, who share in its discussions, and embraces her own voice. As Sethe tries to discover an identity outside of the institution of slavery, Morrison secures her identity as a powerful contributor to the canon, transcending African American history.

In Beloved, Morrison demonstrates, through the physical, spiritual, and emotional journey of Sethe, the need for the African-American community to discover their voice. Sethe’s character displays the paradoxical situation of many African-Americans who need to forge their identity inside of, but not exclusively from, their institutions of oppression, all while not relinquishing the culture which sustained them. Morrison explains that, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout” (XVIII – XIX). This suggests that Morrison wished to display the control maintained by the institution of slavery that left the African Americans without control over themselves. She further explains that, “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to say alive” (XIX). This suggests, and is supported by the text, that many African-Americans wished to forget the horrors of their former lives, but without careful memory and examination the people and culture would not be able to transcend the experience. The language she chooses, “herculean” suggests a direct connection to her situation of enslavement to the Western literary tradition, the final lines of this paragraph confirms it, “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get our of the way” (XIX). In other words, in order for the newly freed slaves, as well as the descendents of, to move beyond the atrocities of the past the language of the oppressors must get out of the way and what she puts forth must be enmeshed with the experiences of the culture. She actively gets language out of the way, she resolves to, “invent her thought, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s ‘place’” (Morrison XVII). Timothy Parish suggests that Morrison demonstrates, “how African-American identity was forged in the crucible of slavery, and how that identity continues to be created today” (2). Morrison’s forward confirms that which Parrish suggests, that the trauma inflicted by oppressive institutions continues to plague the subconscious and conscious mind of the descendents of slavery. The story of Sethe that Morrison creates and, “the question of how one connects oneself to (or disconnects oneself from) the experience of slavery has been a preeminent concern for all African-American writers from the time of the slave narratives on” (Parrish 1). Although Sethe’s story is personal it speaks for many.

Sethe can be described as a, “product of a system that required complete conformity and deference”(Fuston-White 6). Sethe’s situation is particularly troubling and confusing because she struggles to step outside of the roles that were forced upon her by the institution of slavery. Fuston- white explains that, “Africans stolen from their homeland were forced to abandon their African language and culture and replace it with a new language and culture of oppression” (6). Like her mother before her, Sethe is marked by the oppression, “‘the tree that grows on Sethe’s back. While the scarred flesh is dead, the tree is ‘growing.’ The cultural text remains alive and continues to speak in a discourse of oppression” (Fuston-White 6). None of the identities that Sethe assumes are chosen, and at times they dangerously give the impression of free will.

In the earliest pages of the novel the narrator makes it clear that Sethe and the other “Sweet Home” slaves are property, “There had been six of them who belonged to the farm, Sethe the only female” (Morrison 11). Despite the fact that the early days at “Sweet Home” were without violence, and the Garners were civilized in their relations to their slaves it was clear that they were still property. Carl Malmgren explains that, “The novel’s treatment of slavery makes it clear that the institution perverts the relation between Self and Other, master and slave, by thoroughly dehumanizing both parties” (6). This confusion plagues Sethe and often displays itself as naiveté. In trying to make comparisons between Mr. Garner and Schoolteacher Sethe and Halle have a conversation that displays the difficulties she has in understanding their relationship with their white owners. Sethe defends Mr. Garner by saying, “they aint like the whites I seen before. The ones in the big place I was before I came here.” When Halle questions her, Sethe responds by saying that, “they talk soft for one thing.” Halle’s response to Sethe’s reasoning shows succinct wisdom, “It don’t matter, Sethe. What they say is the same. Loud or soft” (Morrison 230-231). Like Phyllis Wheatley, who could have praised the “respected” men for the attestation that they wrote to be published with her poems, Sethe does not realize that just because the Garner’s talked soft and refrained from violence that their possession over her was the same as Schoolteacher. She does not realize that from the moment she arrived at “Sweet Home” her fate, and identity was chosen for her. The ownership that the institution of slavery had over its victims was so pervasive because it justified their possession through the use of Western logic and language, a vernacular outside of the understanding of its captives. Schoolteacher serves as an example of this Western logic and language, which claimed ownership of the knowledge and people. Like the Western literary canon that kept the slave experience only on their terms, Schoolteacher sought to justify his ownership. This image becomes clear when Sethe overhears Schoolteacher instructing his students and she is the subject, “ ‘No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right.’” (Morrison 228). Sethe does not know what characteristics means but she does realize that she is being compared to an animal. Because most of the slaves were prohibited from learning the Western traditions many slaves, like Sethe, continued to perpetuate the imposed identities of the institution. Even the other slaves at “Sweet Home” participated in defining her.

The second she arrives she becomes the one woman, and therefore the object of desire. The narrator describes that when she arrives, “The five Sweet Home men looked at the new girl and decided to let her be. They were young and so sick with the absence of women they had taken to calves. Yet they let the iron-eyed girl be, so she could chose in spite of the fact that each one would have beaten the others to mush to have her” (Morrison 12). Hinson would suggest that Sethe becoming the object of desire has a direct connection to the institution of slavery. He argues that in this peculiar institution, “the African American community abandons its traditional values in favor of those of the dominant culture” (Hinson 2). This is confirmed by the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley and others, who abandoned their African heritage, even going so far as to categorize it as “pagan” while embracing Christianity. Wheatley and the slaves of “Sweet Home” are given the illusion of choice, which disconnects them further. The narrator makes it very clear that even the black men “let” her be. Even they decide how she will be treated and they decide to allow her to “choose”. However, the choice was not much of a choice considering that there were only five men. This choice perpetuates the illusion of freedom which continues to isolate Sethe from reality and make it unbearable when she realizes that Schoolteacher defines her as, “the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left” (Morrison 176). The men at “Sweet Home” all allowed Sethe to be on their conditions. Even her safety was contingent on their choice. Their desire for her was so extreme that, “rape seemed a solitary gift of life” (Morrison 12). To Schoolteacher she was a commodity and future earnings. However, when Sethe realizes that her own children would be subject to this life of definition and disconnection she acts. Just like Morrison who in the forward writes, “I convinced myself it was time for me to live like a grown-up” Sethe finally makes a decision to protect her children.

Sethe admits that the only identity she knows is that of mother:

All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me. Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough, or take it away when she had enough and didn’t know it. Nobody knew that she couldn’t pass her air if you held her up on your shoulder, only if she was lying on my knees. Nobody knew that but me and nobody had milk but me (19).

Because Sethe was given the illusion of choosing to keep and nurse her children she has no identity other than that because, “she is tying her identity to them” (Fuston-White 9). This illusion of self becomes stronger when she takes action, and flees to protect them. Sethe explains that, “Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (Morrison 190-191). When Sethe attains freedom it is only in the physical sense, as she admits, there exists no choice in her freedom to love her children. She does not feel her heart beat, like Morrison and Baby Suggs, because she is still enslaved by the institution, in that, she denies herself and therefore in turn denies her history and community.

Carl Malmgren explains that, “Sethe so identifies her Self within the well-being of her children that she denies their existence as autonomous other, in so doing unconsciously perpetuating the logic of slavery” (7). Sethe looks at her children as her identity and decides that they will not be physically enslaved, “Not you, not none of mine, and when I tell you you mine. I also mean I’m yours, I wouldn’t draw breath without my children” (Morrison 240). For Sethe there is no life outside of her children. Therefore, when she saw Schoolteacher coming it was, “Simple. She collected every bit of life she had and made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe” (Morrison 193). For Sethe the decision to take the lives of her children and herself was an act of love and protection. Her children were her identity, so for Sethe, she was making a justifiable and simple decision. Carl Malmgren reminds us that, “the root cause of Sethe’s action is indeed the institution of slavery, whose most terrible legacy is an awful logic of human relationship” (7). When Sethe makes the decision and takes the action to take the lives of herself and her children, she is, “exerting herself in the only way possible in the face of the violence of slavery” (Hinson 1-2). When Sethe does this she kills a piece of herself, which disconnects her from her past and consequently her community. Similarly, the earliest writing done by former slaves usually ignored the atrocities of the slave existence in order to be more palatable to the white audience and, in using the Western vernacular, they alienated themselves from most of their black audience. Like the emergence of African-American literary canon, which demand to be heard, Sethe’s past and its relationship with her community returns to haunt her.

When the ghost of her daughter returns it is clear that she is not alone. As Hinson suggests, “she is the living memory of a race of oppressed and enslaved people” (7). When a person has a philosophy like Sethe, who believes that there is, “nothing better than to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past” (Morrison 86). It is inevitable that when Beloved returns, “the claim she stakes at 124 translates into a violent entrapment in the past” (Hinson 7). When Beloved returns she brings with her all the ghosts of slavery and, specifically the middle passage. Because Sethe worked so hard to forget the past it violently makes itself be known. Robert Broad explains, “Beloved’s anger stems from a trauma completely different in time, place, and nature. Completely different that is, except insofar as both incidents stem from the social conditions of the American slave industry” (3). Beloved threatens to destroy Sethe because she tries to rationalize that past. As Beloved grows larger Sethe diminishes, further demonstrating the notions of continued enslavement. Sethe, like the white oppressors, tries to explain and justify her past all the while making that past stronger and more destructive. There is no explanation for the horrors of the past and especially the horrors of the middle passage, which Beloved brings back with her.

Scot Hinson explains that:

The use of stream of consciousness in Beloved’s monologue further suggest the eruption of memory into consciousness. Reaching centuries into the collective past, Beloved’s monologue describes the passage from Africa, the overcrowding on slaveships, where the dead are left to rot among the living, who subsist on the worst food and with insufficient water and little air to breath (7).

Beloved’s section demonstrates also, that the past is living and a shared experience for all African-American’s. Morrison writes, “All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching the man on my face is dead” (248). Also, in section two the narrative style demonstrates the communal experience. Hinson writes, “At times, it is unclear who is narrating or whose consciousness is being rendered” because of this, “we come to sense that these memories are shared, that the history they refer to is a communal one, important for and belonging to all of the characters. They speak to the history of a people and as such can be said to belong to no one narrator in particular” (7). Also, the style in this section demonstrates Morrison working to get language “out of the way”. She abandons Western literary tradition, and the lack of punctuation, spacing, imagery, and haunting nature represents the history of the oppressed that was never told and previously had no voice in the Western literary canon. Once Morrison establishes the voice as being the voice of many she appropriately demonstrates that the ghosts of the past cannot be exercised without the community.

Despite the fact that many in Sethe’s community looked at her and thought, “I don’t’ know who Sethe is or none of her people” (Morrison 220). They came together to purge the spirit of Beloved. To purge the ghosts of the past the community used its own language and not that of the oppressors:

the voices of the women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut tree. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash (Morrison 308).

In using song, the women were reconnecting Sethe with her collective and personal history. They used the language that sustained them through slavery and was lost but not forgotten. Like Morrison who departs from Western tradition to tell the story and reconnect with the past using a non-linear narrative style these women return to each other for strength. Before Sethe can realize that, “You your best thing” (Morrison 322). She must realize that “freedom does not issue from a white man’s piece of paper; it is the result of the strength and the resolve they discovered together from within their days of bondage” (Parrish 5). Just as in writing this novel Toni Morrison asserts that her freedom too, “does not issue from a white man’s piece of paper”. Morrison leaves readers with a final chapter in which the narrative of a Beloved forgotten but not lost is interrupted with, “It was not a story to pass on”(Morrison 323). This play on Western language firmly asserts that the literary world cannot “pass,” or ignore, this story because it is the story of African-American people past, present, and future. Morrison confirms herself as a link in the chain connected to others like Ellison, DuBois, and Baldwin, immortalizing, “a story to pass on”.

Works Cited

Broad, Robert L. “Giving blood to the scraps, haints, history, and Hosea in

‘Beloved.’ (Black Women’s Culture Issue).” African American Review 28.n2 (Summer 1994): 189(8). Student Edition. Thompson Gale. Fitchburg State College. 23 July 2006.

Fuston-White, Jenna. “”From the Seen to the Told”; the construction of

subjectivity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Critical Essay).” African American Review 36.3 (Fall 2002):461(13). Student Edition. Thompson Gale. Fitchburg State College. 23 July 2006.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “The Master’s Pieces: On Canon Formation and the

African American Tradition.” Loose Canon Notes on the Culture Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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- - - The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1988 (ix – xv).

Hinson, D. Scot. “Narrative and community crisis in Beloved. (Critical Essay).”

MELUS 26.4 (Winter 2001): 147(22). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thompson Gale. Fitchburg State College. 23 July 2006.

Malmgren, Carl D. “Mixed Genres and the logic of slavery in Toni Morrison’s

‘Beloved.’.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36.n2 (Wntr 1995): 96(11). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thompson Gale. Fitchburg Sate College. 23 July 2006.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004.

“Morrison, Toni.” Wikipedia (2 Aug 2006) Online. Internet. 3 Aug 2006.


Parish, Timothy L. “Imagining slavery: Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson. “

Studies in American Fiction 25.n1 (Spring 1997): 81(18). Student Edition. Thompson Gale. Fitchburg State College. 20 July 2006.

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