A Web Case Book on BELOVED by Toni Morrison © 2007 English Department, Millikin University, Decatur, IL http://www.millikin.edu/english/beloved/Baynar-historical-essay1.html
Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Institutionalized Trauma, Selfhood, and Familial and Communal Structure by Klay Baynar
Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved is, in fact, a historical novel. It is based on a documented event involving fugitive slave, Margaret Garner, who was arrested for killing one of her children rather than returning her daughter to the dismal life of a slave. Readers might ask themselves why an African American woman would choose to focus her writing on a devastating act of violence within an African American family as opposed to focusing on the white aggression that ran rampant throughout the time period of the novel. However, by focusing Beloved on the infanticide committed by a newly freed black mother, Morrison is able to communicate a strong message, the importance of which spans from the Reconstruction era in the antebellum South to racially charged issues in modern America. Morrison implicitly shows throughout the novel that the psychological effects of slavery on the individual, as well as the whole slave community, were far more damaging than even the worst physical sufferings. In Beloved, Morrison uses symbolism to depict the atrocities of white oppression that caused the loss of African American humanity while also focusing on how the African American community came together to deal with the traumas of the past, thus reclaiming their selfhood. The African American “veil” acts as a strong symbol of a white dominant society throughout the novel. During the Reconstruction era, black Americans were forced behind this “veil” that allowed them to only see themselves from the white man’s point of view. Hofstra University’s James Berger cites W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, writing “…the American Negro, ‘born with a veil…’ can achieve ‘no true self-consciousness’ but can only ‘see himself through the revelation of the other [i.e. white] world’” (410). Morrison herself recognizes this veil by noting “…that slaves narrators, ‘shaping the experience to make it palatable’ for white readers, dropped a ‘veil’ over ‘their interior life’” (Rody 97). This “veil” represents the unyielding ideologies of white oppression that were exercised throughout the period of slavery and the
Baynar 2 period of intense racial tension that followed the Civil War. In Beloved, Morrison writes a false removal of this veil for both Sethe and Baby Suggs. This removal is foreshadowed by the imagery of the Book of Revelation (four horsemen) in the beginning of the infanticide chapter (Berger 409). When Sethe sees the “four horsemen” coming to retrieve her and her children and return them to slavery, Morrison reveals the thoughts of a black mother when faced with returning to slavery: And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nono. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had 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 192) Due to continuing white oppression after slavery, Sethe believed that the only way to make her children safe was through death. In killing her daughter, Sethe frees her from living a life of dehumanizing slavery. However, this act of violence did nothing to remove the veil. What makes the infanticide a false removal of Sethe’s family from oppression is that the very event that was meant to remove the façade of “free and equal” blacks (infanticide) actually trapped Sethe’s family in a state where no subjective self could ever be achieved. This familial meltdown stopped history in its tracks. It forces Sethe and Denver into a repressive state in which past traumas are lost. When Denver...