Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, and professor emeritus at Princeton University. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved (1987). The work examines the destructive legacy of slavery as it chronicles the life of a black woman named Sethe, from her pre-Civil War days as a slave in Kentucky to her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873. A neo-slave narrative a term coined by Ishmael Reed while working on his 1976 novel Flight to Canada is a modern fictional work set in the slavery era by contemporary authors or substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effects of enslavement in the New World.
Morrison’s understanding of race and its role in both history and contemporary culture allows her to write about the importance of remembering and how it factors into our daily lives. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, it was because she “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.
” The essential aspect is, of course, blackness. In each of her works Morrison manages to find a new way to think about and look upon blackness as it stands in American life. As Carolyn Denard has aptly said in her book “In Morrison’s works, she strips away the idols of whiteness and of Blackness that have prevented Blacks in the United States from knowing themselves and gives them their own true, mythical, remembered words to live by. She takes on the whole culture and seeks to restore the mythos and the ethos that will clarify the meaning of the journey of African-Americans in the United States.
She is healer and prophet; she is nurturer and guide; and because she achieves these tasks with such grace, such love, and such confidence, courage, and skill, Morrison holds an indelible position of prominence in African-American history and in the history of great writers throughout the world.”
The novel is set in Cincinnati in 1873 and narrates the history of a Black past from a new perspective. It uses a series of events to create a kind of historical narrative which does not rely solely on melodrama or didacticism. According to Morrison, the novel brings together elements of history and imagination. Though the novel is based on the real story of Margaret Garner. This history is different because it is much more than a simple chronicling of the past and questions a categorical history. It is also a fractured history in the sense that the novel consists of fragments of memory of the characters which the author seams together to create a collective memory. The traumatic memories of victimization were still present in the lives of the former slaves, disconnecting them from their past. Thus, for Morrison there is a need for ‘rememory’ so that there is no more detachment between the past and the present. The author presents the African-American socio-historical reality which is fragmented yet offers a new perspective on the lives of the Blacks, who were not entitled to the minimum dignity. She rewrites the past of a people who has not been able to come out of a traumatic experience of slavery. Revival of the past is necessary because it is through this revival that they could move forward. In dedicating her novel to “Sixty million and more”, she refers to those who could not survive and locates the unheard and unacknowledged voices. The novel works to discover a painful past in which the characters are formed and deformed by their experiences in slavery.
Morrison’s narrative style has also been referred to by some as a “neo-slave narrative.” Morrison was not impressed with most nineteenth-century slave narratives as she felt they were written primarily for those who were not black, downplaying the actual slave experience in order to be more palatable for the white reader. Neo-slave narratives, however, attract a different audience and convey a far deeper message. Authors whom employ this genre place tremendous emphasis on the body, wherein their characters strive to become disembodied, separated from their race and gender that discredits their very humanity.
At its core, Beloved is a novel about a mother and her children, centred around the relationship between Sethe and the unnamed daughter she kills, as well as the strange re-birth of that daughter in the form of Beloved. When Sethe miraculously escapes Sweet Home, it is only because of the determination she has to reach her children, nurse her baby, and deliver Denver safely. Similarly, Halle works extra time in order to buy the freedom of his own mother, Baby Suggs, before seeking his own freedom. The strength of mother-child bonds are further illustrated by the close relationship between Denver and Sethe, upon which Paul D intrudes. In the mother-daughter relationship, we see the mother and both the daughters trying to possess one another. “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine”; “Beloved is my sister”; “I am Beloved and she is mine”. There is memory, love and pain in this bonding. It is through this complex relationship that Sethe begins to realize the importance of her conscience and her people’s past. It is, however, Baby Suggs who is the mother figure to Sethe and the community who ties the thread of the narrative as she guides them towards a future. But, within the novel, the strength of motherhood is constantly pitted against the horrors of slavery. In a number of ways, slavery simply does not allow for motherhood. On a basic level, the practice of slavery separates children from their mothers, as exemplified by Sethe’s faint recollections of her own mother. Since it is so likely for a slave-woman to be separated from her children, the institution of slavery discourages and prevents mothers from forming strong emotional attachments to their children. The conflict between motherhood and slavery is perhaps clearest in the central act of the novel, Sethe’s killing her own daughter.
Hamilton states, “What Toni Morrison does in Beloved is to escape from the limitations of the traditional slave narrative by using modernist techniques within the framework of another generic tradition, the gothic, to extend and critique its range.” The classic slave narrative tells the story of enslavement, resistance and the campaign for abolition. Even though slave authors articulate their voices through these narratives, they are still entrenched in the white ideological framework. They remain affected by the power dynamics of an unequal relationship while trying to claim control over their lives. The need for prefaces by white authors in such narratives is evident of the fact. These writers had to follow societal conventions in order to tell their stories to the world. Thus, the limiting structure of these narratives prevents them from being actually free.
In Beloved, the past is revealed through memory evoked by actions in the present, the novel gradually patches together the different past of the different characters. It is through the stream of consciousness technique that she explores the intricate human relationships and their inner experiences rather than portraying only the testimony. She clearly shows the dominating side of the whites, but at the same time offers redemption within the Black community through a collective sense of identity.
Thus, as Lucy McKeon claims, we can conclude that “Morrison’s neo-slave narrative works as a kind of “rememory” that goes beyond the authentic testament of the slave narrative, a form of memory where language, eventually, gets in the way. Recovery is important, and the repetition, recitation, and retelling in Beloved is a haunting process that is healing” Morrison thus achieves an unprecedented level of story-telling through her fragmented narrative and establishes Beloved as a neo-slave narrative.
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