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Giving blood to the scraps, haints, history, and Hosea in 'Beloved.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)

Let's face it: Toni Morrison's Beloved can only be re-read. But the challenges posed by this novel ought not to be confused with the mere "fascination of what's difficult" that Yeats complains has "dried the sap out of [his] veins." To the contrary, the difficulties of Beloved should set our sap flowing. In her 1989 Michigan Quarterly Review article "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Morrison describes the opening of Beloved as "immediately incomprehensible" and "excessively demanding." She goes on to explain that, for reasons both artistic and political, in the first pages of the book she wishes her reader to experience "compelling confusion ... without comfort or succor from the 'author,' with only imagination, intelligence, and necessity available for the journey" (32). Likewise with her endings--interviewed in 1983, Morrison had this to say about the "deliberate ambiguity" with which she ends Tar Baby and Song of Solomon: I want to shift the ending away from the notion of a novel as "Tell me what I need to know" and "What is the solution to the problem?" I want to shift the emphasis away from our need for a kind of closed door. I want the door open, because I want the reader to think about it. I want him [or her] to take some responsibility for the ending.

Later in the same interview, after noting how blues and jazz leave the listener "always a little hungry ... so you hear it again and again and again," Morrison concludes: I think language can do the same thing. And I want to think a plot can be shaped that way. I don't think it has to be that little pyramid--you know, that little denouement, resolution, end--that we were taught in grammar school. It's just a different structure that is sort of spiral and open at the beginning, and open at the end. (Bonetti)

In other words, from start to finish, Morrison's fiction demands that her readers adopt new strategies of comprehension and interpretation. We shouldn't be surprised, then, if readers who persist in expecting the author to "tell me what I need to know" fail to survive the journey.

With regard to my own first reading of Beloved, all I can say about Morrison's novelistic schemes is that they worked. In fact, as I initially read Beloved, Morrison fully accomplished all three of the goals specified above. First, I was plunged into "compelling confusion," an exhilarating mixture of awe, admiration, frustration, and determination. Second, at no point--least of all at the novel's end--did I feel that Morrison was handing me all I needed to know or offering me easy solutions to the novel's problems; to the contrary, Beloved's "door" seemed to me wide open. Third, and perhaps most important, I found myself spiraling back into the novel, hearing it again and again, rereading it only to find it a text transformed.

This essay tells the story of that rereading: how, the second time around, I grasped certain perplexing facts about the identities of the character Beloved, and how Morrison's tortured crafting of Beloved's identities can teach us a great deal not just about ghosts, or ancestors, but also about us, the novel's living and breathing readers.

The question "Who the hell is Beloved?" must haunt every reader of the novel, just as it hounds the characters Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. Of course Morrison, like any mystery writer, wants us to wonder, and to try to figure it out. But the challenge of decoding and interpreting this spirit is severe, since the section in which Beloved encodes her supernatural autobiography (210-13) is another of those "excessively demanding" and "incomprehensible" passages to which Morrison refers in "Unspeakable Words Unspoken." If, however, we unravel Beloved's identities, then we will better understand Morrison's vision of the ties between what she calls "the incredible spirit world" and "the incredible political world" ("Unspeakable" 32).

The only relatively sure thing about Beloved is her bodily identity. Early on, we recognize the body that "walk[s] out of the water" (50) as the twenty-one-year-old reincarnation of the little girl murdered at age one by her mother, Sethe: Her forehead still bears the scratches from Sethe's fingernails and her throat the scar from the handsaw. Sethe herself is finally convinced by Beloved's knowledge of the little three-note tune which, Sethe observes," 'nobody knows ... but me and my children'" (176).(1) But the spirit that inhabits Beloved's body is more than that child's soul, more than Paul D, Sethe, or Denver ever bargain for.

Although Denver, in her final conversation with Paul D, reveals that "'at time'" she thinks Beloved "'[i]s--more'" (266) than her sister, I can find no earlier evidence that Sethe or Denver ever understand Beloved to be anything other, spiritually, than what she seems to be bodily: their daughter and sister returned from the dead. The questions they ask her, their thoughts about her, Sethe's lengthy explanations and justifications--these all suggest that they see Beloved as the identifiable, individual spirit they have been expecting. Unfortunately, they're mistaken.

And all the ghostly clues about Beloved get readers thinking in the same (mistaken) way: her name, taken from her tombstone; her incontinence (like any one-and-a-half-year-old's); the disappearance of the ghost-wary dog Here Boy; her world-for-word repetition of Sethe's seance invitation to the ghost ("'You may as well just come on'" [74]); her humming of Sethe's private three-note tune (175). All the empirical evidence, in other words, points to a good, old-fashioned, unified spectral identity.

Only when we gain access to her thoughts, with the benefit of the interior monologue beginning on page 210, does this tidy conception fly apart. Like most--but not all--readers of the novel with whom I have discussed this section, I was frankly stumped on my first reading. I simply could not decode such seemingly jumbled segments as "the man on my face is dead his face is not mine his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked" (210).

To my second reading, however, I came fresh from having read David Bradley's The Chaneysville Incident, in which protagonist John Washington aggressively pushes upon his readers fact after grisly fact from the history of Africans enslaved and brought to America. The following section of Washington's narrative came back to me as I re-read Beloved's perplexing interior monologue: ... English traders were accused of having dumped one hundred and twenty-three blacks overboard into shark-infested waters .... [one] captain was so untalented as to have lost one hundred and ten slaves (fifty-nine men, forty-seven women, four children) to various causes (including suicide) ... (Bradley 215-16)

And here was Beloved remembering to herself:

I am always crouching the man on my face is dead ... some who eat nasty themselves I do not eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none ... small rats donot wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in ... we are all trying to leave our bodies behind ... those able to die are in a pile ... the little hill of dead people ... the men without skin push them through with poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of the bread ... they do not push the woman with my face through she goes in they do not push her she goes in (210-12)

Suddenly Beloved was making sense--only not the sense I (or Sethe or Denver) was expecting. Beloved, who never in her brief life left the Ohio River valley, somehow returns from the spirit world twenty years later with vivid, detailed memories of being kidnapped in Africa and surviving the Middle Passage on a slave ship. Only along the way "the woman with her face" (her mother) jumped into the sea.(2)

Is it to redress this loss of some other mother (perhaps generations before Sethe was even born)--not because of Sethe's having dragged a handsaw across her neck--that Beloved comes back? Is it her abandonment on the deck of a slave ship-not her being robbed of the chance to learn how to walk and talk--that haunts Beloved to the very end of the novel? And is it as a replay of this ancient abandonment that Beloved misinterprets Sethe's attack on Mr. Bodwin? Now [Sethe] is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again. Then Denver, running too. Away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. (262; emphasis added)

Remember--having reappeared at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved never asks Sethe, "Why did you murder me?" Instead, she asks Denver such incomprehensible questions as "... why did [Sethe] go in the water in the place where we crouched? Why did she do that when she was just about to smile at me?" and complains to Sethe only that "You forgot to smile" (214-17). These questions and complaints are far easier to comprehend if Beloved's anger stems from a trauma completely different in time, place, and nature from the expected one. Completely different, that is, except insofar as both incidents stem from the social conditions of the American slave industry. In the end, this historical overlap resolves the contradictions among Beloved's identities, for Beloved re-collects the history of all the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (274) who fell victim to the African American genocide.

Where Beloved comes from, we will find no individual spirits; there, identity and time are conflated. Denver and Sethe conjure a particular spirit, and expect it to play by their rules--rules like maintaining a single, unified identity and consciousness. As it turns out, however, in the spirit world our boundaries do not apply. Beloved herself puts it this way: "All of it is now it is always now" (210).

According to Morrison, African Americans can, through storytelling, retrieve their ancestors from the ash heap of American "history." This is the process she calls "giving blood to the scraps," or what Karla F. C. Holloway, reviewing Beloved for Black American Literature Forum, calls "re-membering" history--the lifesaving antidote to an historical and historiographical dis-membering. The result of such re-membering is, unfortunately, uncontrollable. Sethe and Denver don't just get their daughter and sister back; they get a puzzled and puzzling, poly-generational, mnemonically tortured, uncertain spirit whose resurrection brings wildly unpredictable results, such as making a whole woman of the spoiled child Denver, and shattering the woman of iron, Sethe. Go looking for a lost ancestor, suggests Morrison, and you don't get a polite, manageable ghost, you get "Sixty Million and more"' (v) of the "disremembered and unaccounted for" (274). You get trouble.

These truths about ghosts, ancestors, history, and narrative are affirmed in a straightforward way by the novel's epigraph, a citation from Romans 9:25: I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. (vii)

Here, Morrison enlists St. Paul to emphasize that reclaiming an individual also means reclaiming an entire race or cultural group. This communal reclaiming is exactly what happens when Beloved returns to 124 Bluestone Road: Looking for their "beloved," Sethe and Denver get their people, too. All sixty million of them.

This denial of any solid or clear boundary between the individual and the group rubs painfully against the grain of Western and American social mythology, and that is exactly the way Morrison wants it.(3) In an interview published in Mari Evans's Black Women Writers, Morrison articulates her effort, expressly rooted in African culture, to contest Western culture's veneration of individuality: The contemporary autobiography tends to be "how I got over--look at me--alone--let me show you how I did it." It is inimical, I think, to some of the characteristics of Black artistic expression and influence.... I want to point out the dangers, to show that nice things don't always happen to the totally self-reliant if there is no conscious his torical connection. To say, see--this is what will happen. (Morrison, "Rootedness" 339-40, 344)

Currents of this insistence on counterbalancing the individual with the communal run throughout the novel Beloved. In one example, we find that, while Baby Suggs holds her neighbors partly responsible for "the Misery," since they refused to warn her of Schoolteacher's approach, she mainly blames herself for the "disapproval" and "free-floating repulsion" that allowed them not to help: Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess....it [had] worked out, worked out just fine, until she got proud. (138)

In a similar vein, Sethe's haughty behavior at Baby Suggs's funeral guarantees her a bitter and solitary existence. Paul D, believing that he can rid 124 Bluestone Road of twenty years of haunting by smashing up the furniture, underestimates Beloved's power to unravel his ties to Sethe, and so loses the one woman with whom he could have forged a lasting partnership. Each suffers as a result of her or his hubristic "total self-reliance."

We would mistake Morrison, however, if we saw this demand for communality as exclusively punitive. In one of the novel's most powerful metaphors and metamorphoses, the chain which binds Paul D to his forty-five fellow prisoners in Alfred, Georgia, is transformed from a tool for their enslavement into their ticket to freedom. As their underground prison dissolves around them in the relentless Georgia rain, their manacles produce a miracle, changing fetters to feathers. This alchemy can, however, only be achieved on the strict condition of the chain gang's absolute solidarity:

It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. ... Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none .... (110)

Indeed, "one lost, all lost," neatly encapsulates Beloved's communitarian theme. It also calls to mind the title and theme of Alice Walker's poem "Each One, Pull One," in which Walker, having portrayed the interdependence and mutual trust on which Black American writers rely for their survival, concludes, We who have stood over so many graves know that no matter what they do all of us must live or none.(4)

Starting with the epigraph from Paul, and throughout Beloved, Morrison implies that we must integrate our individuality with our place in the social network, our momentary existence with our history. And if, like Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, your people's history has been twisted, suppressed, destroyed, or denied, you recreate it, narrate it, do-it-yourself--through an independent act of historytelling by which you may heal your individuality.

For the benefit of anyone who might need convincing that the history of African Americans qualifies as suppressed, destroyed, or denied, Morrison lays down her evidence before her book even begins, with her dedication of the novel to "Sixty Million or more." In her 1987 interview with Walter Clemons, Morrison explains this figure as "the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery--those who died either as captives in Africa or on slave ships" (75). It is an illuminating fact that those, including Morrison, who want to learn and to teach the history of the African American atrocity are often forced to guess: "Sixty Million or more." Evidently, even though the slave traders were more murderous than the Nazis, they were less bureaucratically meticulous, and their records have only recently come to light in historical studies of the slave trade.(5)

Slave traders cannot, however, bear all the blame for our culture's "forgetting" of the sixty million. In the same interview, Morrison describes the absence from the American cultural record of slavery's full story: I went to slave museums, but they weren't much help: little handcraft things slaves had made. No chains or restraining devices. In Brazil, though, they've kept everything. I got a lot of help down there. (Clemons 75)

The list of gaps and forgettings might go on: How well do our media, our schools, and our history books record this particular genocide?(6) As a nation, we seem to suffer from an ongoing amnesia about what may well be the ugliest part of our past; Beloved, the novel, compels us to remember.

What is true for the novel as a whole, and particularly for Beloved's interior monologue, turns out also to be true for the seemingly simple epigraph from St. Paul: In a spectacular way, it bears re-reading. Having traced some of the relationships in the novel among ghosts, history, literature, and politics, we can return to those brief lines from Romans and wring from them some surprising and disturbing meanings. For while Morrison cites St. Paul's letter as the source of this graceful quatrain, Paul's source is the Old Testament prophet Hosea, who has surprisingly much to say about the goings-on at 124 Bluestone Road.

Hosea's story, like some other sections of the Hebrew Bible, offers a poetic and historical analogy to African American experience. Take, for example, this passage: And the number of the sons of Israel will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where they were told, "You are no people of mine," they will be called, "The sons of the living God." The sons of Judah and Israel will be one again and choose themselves one single leader, and they will spread far beyond their country.... To your brother say, "People-of-Mine," to your sister, "Beloved." (Hosea 3:1-3)

What Hosea presents here is nothing less than a vision of cultural renaissance, the climactic moment of a people's reclaiming its greatness, reclaiming itself. The sister once named "Unloved" is now addressed as "Beloved"; the brother once shunned as "Not-my-people" is reclaimed and embraced; and a previously oppressed nation chooses its own leader and achieves greatness in number and influence. On the far side of the Israelites' Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E., Hosea promises a future of justice, self-determination, brotherhood and sisterhood, and peace. Perhaps Morrison felt that such a story would speak to late-twentieth-century African Americans in their struggle for economic equality and cultural dignity much as the book of Exodus spoke to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Blacks in their struggle for freedom and basic civil rights.

The historical thread does not end there, however. Alongside the historical analogy of Hosea's prophecies, we should place an historiographical analogy. For Morrison's distant evocation of Hosea bears witness not only to the history of an enslaved and oppressed people but also to what can happen to that history. It's not just that St. Paul fails to address the historical context of Hosea's prophecies when he quotes Hosea; it's that Paul suppresses the historical context of the quoted passage in order to use it for his own purposes and directly against the descendants of Hosea for whom and to whom Hosea was, after all, writing. Paul's is a classic case of a writer dehistoricizing a text in order to appropriate that text for purposes that violate, and even contradict, its original meaning.

In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul argues something that he couldn't possibly argue if he were genuinely to honor Hosea's prophecies. After all, Hosea speaks to the enslavement, suffering, and ultimate liberation of his people, the Israelites. But what Paul, writing in the first century C.E., uses Hosea to argue is that non-Jews are now the chosen ones. And once he has the Gentiles neatly ensconced with his misuse of Hosea, Paul goes on two verses later to do similar violence to the prophet Isaiah in order to threaten the Jews of first-century Palestine: Though Israel should have as many descendants as there are grains of sand on the seashore, only a remnant will be saved, for without hesitation or delay the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth. (Romans 9:27)

What we see here is a writer working to oppress people by using their own writers and historians against them. This sort of thing should sound familiar to us: How different from Paul's cooptation of Hosea is, say, the absence of the devices of slavery from museums and books that are supposed to tell the truth about the past? Both are acts of historical distortion and extirpation.

On our first encounter with the novel's epigraph, St. Paul's reference to "my people" and "beloved" may suggest hope and comfort. But what happens when we re-read that epigraph in the context of, say, the catalog of atrocities spilling from Paul D's rusted tin can of memories? iron bits, smiling roosters, fired feet, laughing dead men, hissing grass, rain, apple blossoms, neck jewelry, Judy in the slaughterhouse, Halle in the butter, ghost-white stairs, chokecherry trees, cameo pins, aspens, Paul D's face, sausage or the loss of a red, red heart. (235)

In Beloved's fictional and historical context, St. Paul's words reek of the exploitation of a people's history in order to use it against them. The crucial difference between Paul's vindictive manipulation of history and Denver's or Sethe's healing re-creation of it is the difference between rape and lovemaking, between poison and medicine, between betrayal and promise--a difference with which Toni Morrison and her people are too familiar.

Where Morrison might have quoted Hosea directly, she quoted Paul instead. Perhaps she hoped we might notice what St. Paul was up to and relate it to a central issue of the novel and of contemporary African American cultural work: the struggle to reclaim one's people's history even while others distort, suppress, and deny it. In puzzling out the polygenerational identities of the character Beloved and tracking down the full story of the novel's epigraph, we emulate and participate in the spiritual, historical, and political work of Morrison's book: dragging the history of "Not-my-people" from the mire of the past.

Notes

(1.)Notice, however, that Morrison won't even let us capture Beloved's bodily identity without a struggle. A plausible case could be made that Beloved is, as Stamp Paid hypothesizes, the vengeful escaped prisoner of the "'whiteman over by Deer Creek. Found him dead last summer and the girl gone. Maybe that's her'" (235). Just enough of Beloved's peculiarities (e.g., her incontinence, the scar around her neck, her apparent psychological handicaps) could be explained as the result of lifelong imprisoment, neglect, and abuse to make even the "sure" part of my supernatural explanation uncertain.

(2.)Walter Clemons reached the same conclusion in his Newsweek review of 1987. In the course of his interview with Toni Morrison, Clemons suggests that Beloved "remembers passage on a slave ship, which Sethe's murdered baby couldn't have" (75).

(3.)It might be rewarding to pursue the parallels between Morrison's and other Black Americans' Africanist critique of individualism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Eurocentric, poststructuralist challenge to the free-floating, autonomous subject.

(4.)Thanks to my colleague and friend Maggy Lindgren for bringing Walker's poem to my attention in the context of this essay.

(5.)Professor Robert L. Hall of Northeastern University is currently compiling a cultural and economic history of the Atlantic slave trade. Dr. Hall takes issue with unsupportable claims--both high and low--regarding the number of Africans lost in the slave trade, and notes that orators, visual artists, and writers of fiction seem especially susceptible to overstatement on this question. Although Hall describes Morrison's figure as "conservative" compared to some others (e.g., claims of 100 million or more Africans lost), he finds "Sixty Million" well above what documented historical analysis supports. At the same time, Professor Hall points out that the numbers one produces "depend on what one includes" in one's calculations, and he agrees that the entire question of those "who never even made it into slavery" remains shrouded in uncertainty.

For those who wish to pursue the quantitative question further, Dr. Hall recommends the articles by Richardson and Lovejoy and the books by Curtin and Davidson listed in the Works Cited section of this article.

(6.)E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, which confidently claims to circumscribe "What Every American Needs to Know," omits the term Middle Passage from its famous list.

Works Cited

Bonetti, Kay. Interview with Toni Morrison. New York: Columbia UP/American Audio Prose Library, 1983.

Bradley, David. The Chaneysville Incident. New York: Harper, 1981.

Clemons, Walter. "A Gravestone of Memories." Newsweek 28 Sept. 1987: 74-75.

Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1969.

Davidson, Basil. The African Slave Trade. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, 1980.

Hall, Robert L. Telephone interview. 23 Aug. 1993.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Rev. of Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 179-82.

Jerusalem Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1968.

Lovejoy, Paul E. "The Volume of the Atlantic Slave Trade: A Synthesis." Journal of African History 23 (1982): 473-501.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Random, 1987.

--. "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. 339-45.

--. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (1989): 1-34.

Richardson, David. "Slave Exports from West and West-Central Africa, 1700-1810: New Estimates of Volume and Distribution." Journal of African History 30 (1989): 1-22.

Walker, Alice. "Each One, Pull One." Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful. San Diego: Harcourt, 1984. 50-51.

Yeats, W. B. "The Fascination of What's Difficult." The Poems of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1983. 99.
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Author:Broad, Robert L.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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