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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

African American Voices

Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Traditions of the African American Slave Narrative

William L. Andrews

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  • 1 The most detailed study of the Garner case is Julius Yanuck's "The Gamer Fugitive Slave Case", Mis (...)

1Toni Morrison's novel Beloved is in its essence a fugitive slave's narrative, a fiction of factual representation based on perhaps the last, and certainly the most shocking, of all the fugitive slave cases that tore the United States apart in the 1850s. The case of Margaret Garner, a fugitive from Kentucky who killed her daughter in Cincinnati on 28 January 1856 to prevent her from being taken back to slavery, italicized the horror of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 in the blood of a murdered slave girl whose name was never recorded. In Samuel May's antislavery tract, The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims (1861), the details of Margaret Garner's tragedy were preserved by a white man active in the abolitionist movement and the underground railroad. But Garner never had the opportunity to tell her own story. She had to wait for Toni Morrison to voice it for her.1

  • 2 For two discussions of the background to Morrison and the neo-slave narrative, see William L. Andr (...)

2As anyone who reads Beloved knows, however, the novel is not solely concerned with recreating the life of a fugitive slave woman who killed her daughter in order to save her. Beloved also narrates the interconnected destinies of a community of former slaves who settle in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 1870s. Almost all the major characters in the novel are burdened by their memory of bondage and by the need to get free of that burden. Getting free of a similar burden seems to have motivated many former slaves to dictate or write their narratives of oppression, flight, and triumph over adversity both before and after the Civil War. In keeping with this tradition Beloved features many first-person accounts, reminiscences, and reconstructed histories of slave experiences, escape attempts, and struggles for success in the land of freedom. It is important to recognize, however, that while Beloved registers the former slaves' need to recall the past, the novel also testifies to the black community's desire to put the past in the past so as to keep it from dominating the present and perhaps forestalling the future. The extremely conflicted attitude toward the past that keeps the community at odds with itself through much, if not all of Morrison's novel, attests to a longstanding African American struggle, from the post-Civil War narratives of Elizabeth Keckley, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington to the neo-slave narratives of the 1980s and 1990s, to reclaim the slave past in ways that could enhance the viability of evolving ideals of freedom.2

  • 3 See Douglass's The Heroic Slave in Classic African-American Novels, ed. William L. Andrews (New Yo (...)

3What interests me, in particular, as a student of the slave narrative tradition is not so much what Morrison owes to her predecessors as what those predecessors owe to her. At issue in this essay is not how much or what kind of influence the slave narrative may have had on Beloved but rather what kind of influence this novel may have on our reading of the slave narrative. When Douglass wrote the first work of fiction in African American literature, his 1853 novella The Heroic Slave, he justified his effort by stressing the inadequacy of historical information about his hero, Madison Washington, who led a successful slave mutiny on board the slave ship Creole in 1841. Douglass wanted to liberate Washington's story from the "chattel records" of Virginia, where he had been born a slave. Douglass was determined to inscribe Washington as a man, not a thing, in history, the authorized record of human experience and achievement. Unfortunately Washington's past was so "enveloped in darkness" that all a writer could do was extrapolate, via imagination, from what Douglass called the "marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities" that were left of Madison Washington. Douglass's point was that he could not realize this man except by fictionalizing him, since history had closed all avenues to his actions, thoughts, and desires except those "marks, traces, possibles, and probabilities" whose elucidation were traditionally the province of the writer of romance.3

4By the same token Morrison's novel Beloved, whether by intention or not, draws one back into the African American narrative tradition, back into the contingencies and ambivalences, the half-articulated and the partially-repressed dimensions of the slave narrative, sometimes to unveil, sometimes to complicate even more the "traces", the "possibles", and the "probabilities" of the ex-slaves' discourse. I want to point to a few aspects of this provocative novel that seem to me to constitute an intertextual relationship between Beloved and the slave narrative. One might envision this intertextuality in terms of a call and a response, in which the nineteenth-century slave narrative calls for a means of expressing the inexpressibly horrible and/or beautiful — and a novel like Beloved responds through re-calling that longing, re-expressing that desire, and re-vising what can possibly be said about the African American past.

5Let me begin by looking at Paul D Garner, the figure in Beloved whose career and character seem most clearly to hark back to antecedents in the slave narrative tradition. At the end of Morrison's novel, Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men from Kentucky, surveys his life and understands it to have been patterned by a series of escapes, five of them, from various kinds of bondage, in the North as well as the South. Through Paul D, the novel invokes the fundamental theme of the nineteenth-century black American narrative tradition — the theme of the quest for freedom. By the time he comes to Cincinnati Paul D is convinced that "he has seen and felt it all", and he has learned to keep all his bitter memories to himself, in what Morrison calls "the tobacco tin lodged in his chest", which, he is sure, nothing in this world could pry open (113). Yet his experience with Sethe, the wife of his fellow slave Halle Suggs at Sweet Home, and with the almost otherworldly Beloved opens up this man to more hope and more despair than perhaps he has ever faced before. In the last chapters of the novel, after walking out on Sethe in a shocked reaction to knowledge of what Stamp Paid calls "the Misery", Paul D ponders his pain and tries to trace it back to its source. Did it come from his first failed escape from Sweet Home, the one that led to Sixo's murder and Paul D's consignment to the hell of Alfred, Georgia? Or did it go farther back than that, to the decision by his first master, Mr. Garner, to call his slaves men and thus create within a man like Paul D a powerful unresolved obligation to a white oppressor for his original sense of manhood?

6For the nineteenth-century male slave narrator, confirmation of that elusive essence known as manhood is a strong motivation for telling the story of enslavement, a story laden with so many memories of humiliation. Slave narrators like Henry Bibb and William Wells Brown did not easily reimmerse themselves in the memory of the beatings their wives suffered or the sale of their sisters which they could neither stop nor revenge. That they did write of these things is testimony to the fact that most male slave narrators did not equate manhood with macho. Still, it is not coincidental that the most celebrated slave narrative of them all, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, reaches its climax in a violent contest between a slave and a slavebreaker whose goal had been, in Douglass's words, to transform a man into a brute. After successfully defending himself against Covey, Douglass writes, he felt within himself a revival of "a sense of my own manhood." This new "self-confidence" wrested from the white antagonist sustains Douglass through the rest of his narrative. Once he has earned his manhood through first mental and then physical resistance to white oppressors, Douglass pictures himself as securely on the road to freedom, certain of who he is, what he wants, and how to get it.

  • 4 Kimberly W. Benston, "'I Yam What I Am': Naming and Unnaming in Afro-American Literature", Black A (...)

7What makes Morrison's novel so revealing, against the background of Douglass's Narrative, is its revisionary treatment of the theme of the slave's quest for manhood. Paul D Garner did not have to fight his master for his manhood; the white man readily granted him that status — in fact denominated him and his fellow slaves as men even before they had thought of the ways they might claim that title for themselves. This had the effect, Paul D begins to see by the end of the novel, of forestalling any effective rebellion of the slaves against the master and of denying the slaves the opportunity of defining their own manhood according to their own existential standards. As a consequence Paul D has never doubted that he has done many "manly things" in his life, "but was that Garner's gift or his own will?... Did a whiteman saying it make it so?" (220). Morrison's novel invites us also to turn the question around and ask whether a black male's testimony to his own manhood is enough to make him a man, especially in the eyes of whites? Awarenesss of the power invested in nominative speech acts pervades the slave narrative tradition, wherein we find over and over again slaves who decide among their first acts as freemen to rename themselves and thus reclaim their identifies for themselves.4 For Paul D Garner, however, whose manhood as well as his name have already been spoken for by a white man, the problem of self-reclamation is not as simple as some nineteenth-century slave narrators made it look. Maybe this is why Paul D Garner does not reject his slave name: maybe he senses that behind all names, indeed behind the very concept of manhood itself, there is the master — the Man — whose discourse gives that concept its original meaning and value and whose control over that discourse severely inhibits not only the power but also the very linguistic terms with which a black person's saying something could make it so.

8How, then, will Paul D Garner ever get free of his doubts about his manhood — whether he owes it to Mr. Garner or whether he created it himself? The answer lies in the assertion about black experience that Ella, a minor but important figure in the community, makes late in the story: "Slave life; freed life — every day was a test and a trial" (256). Up until the time when he moves in with Sethe and her daughter Denver, Paul D has lived in such a way as to avoid testing the full depth and breadth of his humanity. The test of physical survival as a black man in the post-Civil War era is challenge enough for him. But when he takes up with Sethe and enters her haunted life, he finds himself urging her to trust him more than he trusts himself, to believe in their prospects more than he has ever believed in his own future, and to "go as far inside as you need to" (46), in defiance of his own rule never to open up the tightly closed lid of his heart.

9Sethe takes him up on his offer. She who has lived emotionally self-imprisoned inside her haunted house, alienated from everyone but her daughter Denver, accepting the pain, the drabness, the barrenness of her existence at 124 Bluestone Road and refusing to search for an alternative — Sethe Suggs decides to accept his "temptation to trust", to "go ahead and feel", to "go ahead and count on something" (38). Thus from the outset of the novel both Paul D and Sethe put themselves to the severest of tests: a commitment to the humanity of the other, a commitment, on Paul D's part, to support Sethe no matter how far she wants to go inside in quest of herself; a commitment, on Sethe's part, to trust and feel for and count on Paul D and his capacity to be there when she emerges from her interior struggle. Only through this commitment to Sethe and her need to recover herself from all that the haunted house and ultimately Beloved represent — only through this act of faith in Sethe's humanity can Paul D finally reclaim his own.

10Through the middle chapters of the novel, the two former slaves open up to each other via the sharing of many long-buried memories of their humiliations, sufferings, and outrages at the hands of whites. Whitout planning on it, Paul D finds himself telling Sethe why her husband Halle did not join her and the children when most of the slaves of Sweet Home managed to escape to the North. Sethe's response to Paul D's revelations about the past is instructive. In a sense she feels violated by Paul D's narrative of slavery; in another sense she feels self-betrayed by a mind "loaded with the past and hungry for more" (70). "I don't want to know or have to remember that" (70), she says bitterly. To Sethe Paul D's narrative of slavery offers no liberation — it threatens to engulf her in the past to the point where she would have "no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day" (70). As a result we see in Morrison's novel the ex-slave resisting, not welcoming, the narrative of the ex-slave. Instead of receiving Paul D's story as her liberation from the past, Sethe would rather reject that story, and the knowledge of the hitherto unknown tragedies embedded in it, in the name of her sanity, her self-preservation. In dramatizing this reaction of Sethe's, Morrison suggests to us in ways that are not articulated in the 19th-century slave narratives, the lacerating ambivalence that must have attended many ex-slave narrators in their return through memory and imagination to their own pain-filled past. There must have been a tremendous social and cultural imperative, reinforced by a dauntless faith in the necessity of looking backward in order to step forward, that kept ex-slaves, especially after emancipation, telling and retelling, writing and publishing their narratives long after there was much evidence that white people, the original major audience for the slave narratives, were interested in reading their stories.

11Although Paul D's revelations about the past, and particularly her husband's fate, cause Sethe to recoil from the ex-slave and his narrative, she is saved from the danger of self-isolation by her realization that he must talk his way through the horrors of his memories. He needs her to ask him about the most humiliating, the most terrifying of his experiences, that of being bridled, of wearing a bit between his teeth like an animal after having been apprehended in the escape attempt. And so she does, reassuring him that although the slaves she'd seen '"who'd had the bit always looked wild after that,'... when I look at you... there ain't no wildness in your eye nowhere'" (71). In this way Sethe tries to bolster the sense of manhood in Paul D that schoolteacher, the personification of the objectifying intellect of white racism, tried to destroy by forcing him to wear the bridle. Up to a point she is successful in helping him reclaim himself through his excruciatingly painful slave's narrative. But he remains fearful:

Saying more might push them both to a place they couldn't get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be... He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him (74).

12This episode in the novel seems to me particularly suggestive as we seek to understand the psychodynamics of the narrating of slave experience by black autobiographers in the nineteenth century. One of the most unnerving features of so many of the slave narratives, at least for me, is the dispassionate way in which the narrators reconstruct the monstrous enormities of their experiences in slavery. When I first began to read the slave narratives, I was prepared, from my reading of some so-called critics of the genre, to encounter stories reeking with sentiment and blatantly melodramatic, studded with obvious exaggerations and overstatements. I did discover such narratives, but in the main they had been edited, i. e., in many cases ghostwritten, by white people. Only in rare cases were black-authored narratives given over to displays of strong feelings. Typically slave narrators promised not to reveal all that they felt or to tell all that they knew out of deference to their white readers' sensibilities and credulity. What would these narrators have said, I often wondered, and how would they have said it, if they had felt secure in their audience, if they believed that their audience believed in them? Morrison's novel offers some insight into this question by portraying the struggle inherent in the telling of the slave past even when the audience is black, even when the audience empathizes, even when the audience is disposed to accept and believe. Paul D's attempt to tell his story to Sethe founders ultimately on his fear of shame, even though Sethe has indicated that she is in no way ashamed of him. It is Paul D who is ashamed of Paul D, or at least fears shaming Paul D by revealing all that he has been through. Out of a fear that he has somehow lost that "red heart" within, and all that that "red heart" signifies about his manhood, Paul D bridles himself verbally, and thus perpetuates his own pain and self-distrust.

13Later in the novel it becomes Sethe's turn to tell her story, not just of slavery and escape but, most importantly, of resistance to the slavecatchers who pursue her all the way to 124 Bluestone. When Sethe tells Paul D about her escape from Sweet Home, it becomes clear that she was just as much empowered by getting herself and her children out as Paul D was handicapped by his failure to escape. Paul D worries that the punishment he suffered at the hands of Schoolteacher' "changed me,'" so that "'wasn't no way I'd ever be Paul D again, living or dead"' (72). By contrast the change that Sethe underwent by successfully escaping with her children transforms her sense of identity in very positive ways.

"I did it. I got us ail out. Without Halle too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own... It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between" (161).

14This sense of enhanced selfhood, exemplified in Sethe's feeling that "there wasn't nobody in the world [she] couldn't love if [she] wanted to", (161) strikes a responsive chord in Paul D "He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose — not to need permission for desire — well now, that was freedom" (161).

  • 5 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1798) an (...)
  • 6 See Benjamin Botkin, ed. Lay My Burden Down (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945): p. 154.

15What Paul D cannot understand, of course, is how Sethe can reconcile this capacity for love with her equally self-justified decision to kill her oldest daughter, Beloved, rather than give her up to schoolteacher and slavery. He is not only shocked by the knowledge of what Sethe is capable of doing; he is also appalled by her moral confidence born of the immense pride that becomes her chief support after virtually everyone in the black community ostracizes her. And well he might be shocked, for Sethe's is plainly the most radical form of resistance to enslavement imaginable. The slave narrative tradition offers many examples of slaves who committed suicide rather than accept their lot.5 But the killing of one's children to save them from slavery is, at least as far as I know, never spoken of in the nineteenth-century American slave narrative. In The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe states that slave mothers had been known to kill their offspring in order to save them, and that "a case of this kind has been recently tried in the United States" and had been alluded to in a speech by Congressman Joshua Giddings on the floor of the House in 1853. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the mixed-race slave woman Cassy admits to having killed one of her children, a son, in her desperation over her condition in slavery. And in the Works Progress Admisnistration oral histories collected during the 1920s and 1930s, one can find brief mention of at least one slave woman who, after having her infant children repeatedly taken from her for sale, poisoned her last child.6 But, as far as I can recall from my reading of nineteenth-century slave narratives, this act remained unspeakable and unnarratable. I suspect that the image of a slave woman who might go to this extreme to fight back against slavery was regarded by the ex-slave community as simply too powerful and too scary to white readers. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs went as far as the nineteenth-century female ex-slave would go in challenging the cult of true womanhood. Jacobs would admit to using childbirth, illegitimate and miscegenate childbirth, as a means of fighting back against a despotic slave master. But if even Jacobs's grandmother, a former slave herself and one of Jacobs's firmest defenders, could be scandalized and alienated by her grandaughter's pregnancies, how much more would genteel white northern women be repulsed by a black woman or man who might try to justify what Sethe did with her children?

16By narrativizing Sethe's act, and then by giving Sethe the voice to articulate her justification for that act, Morrison once again opens up a blocked channel to nineteenth-century ex-slave consciousness. In fact, we might argue that through her novel Morrison is trying to unseal this channel at both ends, from both the point of speaking origin and the point of hearing reception. That is, Morrison is just as concerned with how Paul D receives Sethe's narrative as with how Sethe actually speaks it. Paul D's chief test in the novel — the greatest challenge to his manhood — becomes his response to Sethe's narrative. For in the act of narrating her past, Sethe reveals to Paul D a new Sethe, not the woman he thought he knew, a woman who lived within the borders of her haunted house "in helpless apologetic resignation because she had no choice" (164). This woman knew all about making heart-rending, bone-cleaving choices. And "more important [to Paul D] than what Sethe had done was what she claimed" (164).

17What she claimed, of course, was the absolute moral right to decide her daughter's fate — and to claim in addition the Tightness of her disposition of that decision. To Paul D, a man tender-hearted enough to help a chick out of its shell when its mother had deserted it, there is something "too thick", too elemental in Sethe's all-or-nothing love. He wants to believe that there must have been another way out of Sethe's maternal dilemma; in his crucial statement, "'You got two feet, Sethe, not four "' (165), he seems to be saying that as a rational being, a human being, not a four-legged, instinctual animal, this woman should have been able to find an alternative between death and slavery for her daughter. The search for just such an alternative has kept Paul D alive despite the worst that schoolteacher and the concentration camp keepers at Alfred, Georgia, could devise. But Sethe hears in Paul D's "You got two feet, Sethe, not four", only a ruthless condemnation in terms that recall the lingering humiliation of hearing schoolteacher use her as exhibit A in a demonstration of the animality of black women (193).

18After this exchange, Sethe and Paul D become emotionally estranged, to the mutual pathos and impending tragedy of both. Paul D is convinced he does not know the woman to whom he has opened up so much of himself, and Sethe is convinced that she had been mistaken about the man who claimed to be strong enough to listen and understand when she opened up so much of herself. As Paul D follows a downward spiral into a desperate isolation towards the end of the novel, he finds his path to the reclamation of his own manhood blocked by his fear of Sethe and his denial of her womanhood. Without Paul D's love to help her reorient herself, Sethe also follows a downward spiral into a desperate and perverse dependence on Beloved. Denver, seeing the consequences of her mother's bondage to the past, breaks out and escapes from what would enslave her to her mother. Denver is saved by the realization, traditionally affirmed in the slave narrative, that she has "a self to look out for and preserve" (253). Sethe, as we know, is also ultimately saved by Ella's mobilization of the black community against the terrible otherness that has taken possession of Sethe. "Ella didn't like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present" (256). Thus in the name of the preservation of the present and the possibility of the future, she resolves to liberate Sethe from her past, to make it "stay behind", and to "stomp it out" if it didn't leave when bidden.

19What the black community, epitomized in Ella, is intent on, as it marches on 124 Bluestone in the climax of the novel, is not a denial or repression of the past, but rather an affirmation always of the priority of the present over the past. Sethe, as well as Paul D, must face each other's past, for only in the reflection of that unquiet mirror can they recover themselves and discover their capacity to live and to love as complete human beings. The great risk of facing the past, as both Sethe and Paul D demonstrate, is becoming effaced by the past. This the community must not allow to happen if the community is to hold together and perpetuate itself. By preventing Sethe from killing Bodwin, the community, through Denver, restores her to the present and simultaneously recommits Beloved to the past where she belongs.

20Much earlier in the novel, when Sethe first feels the ghostly hands of Beloved choking her, the ex-slave woman realizes how much she needs and wants Paul D in her life. "Her story was bearable because it was his as well — to tell, to refine and tell again" (99). At the end of the novel, when he returns to Sethe at 124 Bluestone, Paul D acknowledges that "he wants to put his story next to hers" (273). In this emphasis on the mutuality of their stories, and maybe even an impending marriage of their narratives, if not their persons, Morrison suggests the ultimate restorative power of storytelling for men and women of the black community. Ultimately the stories of Paul D and Sethe are not at odds with each other; they are complementary, reciprocally significant, and an indivisible foundation for the building of a black community. Theirs are the stories that must be passed on together, if not through autobiographical preservation then through novelistic recreation.

21But what of Beloved's story which, we are told in the final words of the novel, "was not a story to pass on" (275)? Why should Morrison disobey the injunction of the community and pass this story on? Perhaps because only a novelist, only a black novelist, maybe only a black female novelist, can do it. Sethe has Paul D to hear her story; Paul D has Sethe; but there is no one at the end of the novel to speak for or listen to Beloved's. The community has willfully "disremembered" her. The community has purposefully unnamed her. Yet she is always already there, all the more for the denial of her presence. What Morrison's novel does, for me at least, is restore to the process of memory what the collective communal unconscious has lost as a consequence of what Sethe might call dis-rememory. As a result every reader of Beloved, like every child and adult in that Cincinnati community, can place his or her feet in the footprints that come and go down by the stream in back of 124 and ponder the unanswered question at the heart of the novel: "why did you leave me who am you?" (216).


1 The most detailed study of the Garner case is Julius Yanuck's "The Gamer Fugitive Slave Case", Mississippi Valley Historical Review 40 (June 1953): 47-66. For a briefer contemporary discussion of the case, see Samuel May, The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims (1861): 50-62. For Morrison's own knowledge of the Garner case, see Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison, "A Conversation": The Southern Review, 21 (1985).

2 For two discussions of the background to Morrison and the neo-slave narrative, see William L. Andrews, "The Representation of Slavery and the Rise of Afro-American Literary Realism, 1865-1920", in Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, eds., Slavery and the Literary Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989): 62-80; and William L. Andrews, "Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Elizabeth Keckley and Frederick Douglass", Black American Literature Forum 23 (Fall 1989): 5-16.

3 See Douglass's The Heroic Slave in Classic African-American Novels, ed. William L. Andrews (New York: New American Library, 1990).

4 Kimberly W. Benston, "'I Yam What I Am': Naming and Unnaming in Afro-American Literature", Black American Literature Forum 16 (Spring 1982): 3-11.

5 The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1798) and William and Ellen Craft's Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860) offer representative accounts of slaves who committed suicide.

6 See Benjamin Botkin, ed. Lay My Burden Down (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945): p. 154.


William L. Andrews is Joyce and Elizabeth Hall Professor of American Literature, University of Kansas. He is the author of The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980): To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986) and the editor of The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, with Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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