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La couleur du temps dans la culture afro-américaine

Claudine Raynaud

II. L'écriture aux couleurs du désir

Toni Morrison’s Art of “Pondering Color” in Beloved

Wendy Harding


L’étude des couleurs dans Beloved montre la façon dont Toni Morrison reconfigure les diverses couleurs dans des ensembles plus complexes que l’opposition, idéologiquement marquée, entre le blanc et le noir. Bien que l’on trouve de nombreuses références au blanc et au noir, les deux extrêmes du spectre revêtent des connotations inattendues. Paradoxalement, elles tendent à effacer plutôt qu’à renforcer les oppositions raciales, tout en complexifiant les référents raciaux auxquels elles sont traditionnellement associées. En fait, dans Beloved, on découvre un spectre beaucoup plus large. L’étude des associations entre les différentes couleurs, événements, modalités et cadres du roman permet de cerner avec plus de précision le symbolisme des couleurs chez Morrison. L’importance des couleurs chez Morrison réside dans la façon dont elle les laisse coexister : elle les associe comme s’il s’agissait d’un « patchwork » ou d’une étoffe bariolée; elle les combine comme les plantes dans le jardin de Sethe (toutes ces images sont des icônes métafictionnelles) de façon à ce que les couleurs entrent en relation les unes avec les autres. Finalement, Morrison délaisse ces modèles métafictionnels au profit de la narration. Beloved « n’est pas une histoire à transmettre », comme un héritage familial, mais une histoire à reprendre et à relire.

Texte intégral

1Studying color in Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a historical context might seem at first to place readers in the position of contemplating the opposition between black and white that has divided American society since the days of slavery. Certainly, the problem of the “color line” that W.E.B. Du Bois saw as central to the twentieth century looms large in African American writing. In the case of Morrison’s novels, though, it would be inaccurate to presume that this opposition might obliterate the rest of the color spectrum, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Beloved. The novel invites readers to follow the example of Baby Suggs and to “ponder color” in order to discover how Morrison reconfigures color references into a far more complex scheme than the ideologically determined black and white opposition. Though the novel contains numerous references to black and white, they have unexpected connotations. They tend, paradoxically, to efface rather than sharpen color distinctions as well as to complexify the racial opposition that they conventionally stand for. In fact, a much wider spectrum is present in Beloved where color comes to constitute a kind of language. Looking at the way colors are associated with different events, moods or settings allows us to better understand Morrison’s color symbolism. Yet it is not enough to study colors in isolation. The importance of Morrison’s treatment of color seems to lie in the way she makes colors coexist, how she stitches them together on the model of quilts or clothing, or combines them on the model of Sethe’s garden (motifs which can be seen as metafictional emblems) in order to put colors into relation with one another.

1. Black and white

2The binary opposition between black and white certainly represents an important mental framework in a racially divided culture and it functions on both sides of the color line. Indeed, in Beloved, the black community’s reluctance to trust whites amounts to a survival strategy. However, the characters’ habitual identification of whites as the oppressors and blacks as the oppressed does not always prove accurate. It is troubled, for example, by the unusual relationship formed between Sethe and Amy Denver. If the black / white opposition is evident in Sethe’s resolve to attack the “whiteboy” she thinks she hears as she lies in the woods (31), it is nuanced by her reading of the set of Amy’s mouth: “She said there ain’t nothing to go by with whitepeople. You don’t know how they’ll jump. Say one thing, do another. But if you looked at the mouth sometimes you could tell by that” (77). And if Amy voices her fear of being haunted by Sethe’s “ugly black face hankering over [her]” (82), she can still empathize with the pain of her wounds and her decision to run.

3In Beloved, not only can whites be helpers, but blacks can be opponents as well. Indeed, Ella’s inability to believe that Sethe was helped by a “whitewoman” partly justifies her reluctance to come to her assistance later (187). Moreover, Beloved’s black skin makes her difficult to recognize as Sethe’s oppressor. Paul D does not question Beloved’s acceptance into the house on Bluestone road because she is a black woman who seeks shelter at a time and place in which racial conflict rages:

He had been in Rochester four years ago... [...] The War had been over for four or five years then, but nobody white or black seemed to know it. Odd clusters and strays of Negroes wandered the roads and cowpaths from Schenectady to Jackson. [....] Silent, except for social courtesies, when they met one another they neither described nor asked about the sorrow that drove them from one place to another. The whites didn’t bear speaking on. Everybody knew. (52-3)

4Only very gradually does the community realize that Sethe’s black guest menaces her life.

5The novel does not wholly vindicate the conviction shared by most of the former slaves in Beloved that the whites are unspeakable. The narrative seems to be heading in this direction when Sethe rejects her youthful faith in her ability to “discriminate among them” (188) and opts for Baby Suggs’ wholesale rejection. However, when she finally turns her murderous hand against a white man instead of her beloved daughter, the other women rally to stop her. Her lack of discrimination becomes a joke for the black community, reflecting their own uneasiness about responding with violence to white oppression:

“Yeah. Damn. That woman is crazy. Crazy,”
“Yeah, well, ain’t we all?”
“Every time a whiteman come to the door she got to kill somebody?”
“Good thing they don’t deliver mail out that way.”
“Wouldn’t nobody get no letter.”
“Except the postman.”
“Be a mighty hard message.”
“And his last.” (265)

6Indiscriminate vindictiveness toward whites is recognized as a shared impulse (“ain’t we all?”), but one that should not be acted on because it would simply reproduce senseless violence, cutting off the possibility of communication or change symbolized by the postman’s letter.

7As well as dichotomizing black and white in the minds of the characters, the novel represents the two colors in combination. These combinations call into question the binary opposition posited in racist ideology. Such is the case with the depiction of Edward Bodwin, one of the few helpful whites in the Cincinnati community. His equivocal nature is suggested by “the theatricality of his white hair and big black mustache” (260). Moreover, his Abolitionist politics earn him the oxymoronic insult, “bleached nigger” (260). Like Amy Denver, he is not beyond racism; a grotesque representation of a black servant sits on a shelf near the back door of his house as a reminder of the place blacks occupy in his household. Nonetheless, he is another character whose duality suggests the necessity for the black community not only to exercise caution in regard to whites but also to distinguish degrees of racial prejudice among them rather than making blanket judgments.

8If black and white in combination alert us to complexity, black or white as well as light or dark alone are associated with erasure or absence. Denver discovers that Beloved disappears in either light or dark: “A magical appearance on a stump, the face wiped out by sunlight, and a magical disappearance in a shed, eaten alive by the dark” (123). Either extremes of the color spectrum end in obliteration, as if thinking polemically, in terms of black and white contrasts, produces the extinction and not the clarification of difference.

9Portraying “characteristics” in black and white, human and animal, is, of course, Schoolteacher’s reductive science. Perhaps Sethe’s pathetic confession to Paul D that she “made the ink” (271) admits her contamination by this way of thinking. Whereas she used to admit moral gradations among white people, Sethe finally denies distinction, choosing an extreme and solitary response that paradoxically makes her act of maternal protection difficult to distinguish from the oppressor’s violence: “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her” (200).

10To vindicate blackness over whiteness is simply an inverted imitation of racist ideology, not an answer to it. Sethe’s eyes in the woodshed where she murders Beloved have “only black in them—no whites” (228). This radical effort to blot out the intruders appears as a failure of vision: “Since the whites in [her eyes] had disappeared and since they were as black as her skin, she looked blind” (150). Whiteness obliterates in a similar way. When Sethe shuts herself and her two daughters off from the community on Beloved’s return, there is a lyrical description of their games in the white winter landscape. As the three of them skate and then return to the house in the snow: “Nobody saw them falling” (174-175). This celebration of the female triad ends with Sethe gathering “her blanket around her elbows and ascend[ing] the lily-white stairs like a bride. Outside snow solidified itself into graceful forms. The peace of winter stars seemed permanent” (176, my emphasis). This study in white sounds a warning. The clock seems to have been magically turned back to a time before the murder, but the illusory nature of this apparently timeless moment is signaled by the words “like” and “seemed.” The whiteness of the stairs and of winter obscures the complexity of living in time.

11In fact Morrison refuses to represent racial violence in black and white contrasts. She views history as more complex than ideology, as demonstrated by her decision to base her novel on the story of Margaret Garner, the fugitive slave who killed her own children. In Beloved blacks and whites are implicated in both opposing and permitting the violence of slavery. Sethe is helped by Amy Denver as well as Stamp Paid. Moreover, Schoolteacher’s incursion into the Cincinnati community is abetted by the Fugitive Slave Law and also the angry silence of the black community. Locked into a dichotomous way of thinking about black and white, Baby Suggs fails to read the mixed omens of disaster conveyed by all her senses: “smelling disapproval, feeling a dark and coming thing, and seeing high-topped shoes that she didn’t like the look of at all” (147).

2. The meanings of color

  • 1 Bonnie Shipman Lange’s 1983 study of color symbolism in the novels written before Beloved affirms t (...)

12If the binary opposition of black and white can be seen to oversimplify reality, to falsify history and to obscure perception, there seems to be an alternative epistemological model offered in the practice of “pondering color” (4). Baby Suggs’ “appetite for color” (4) signals the range and significance of Morrison’s color palette in this novel.1 Along with black and white, a variety of “dark” and “muted” colors makes up the usual backdrop of the characters’ lives (38). Hence, when color enters the almost monochrome world of the “gray and white house on Bluestone Road” (3), it stands out “like life in the raw” (38), commanding attention like the two orange patches in Baby Suggs’ quilt. Readers are consequently encouraged to “ponder color” in order to discover alternatives to the reductive black and white opposition.

a-Blue, yellow, green, gold and silver: the colors of safety?

13Baby Suggs’ concentration on color springs from her desire “to consider what in the world was harmless” (181): “Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither” (179). Indeed, these colors are associated with safety and with the soothing beauty of the natural world. When Sethe crawls with Amy Denver to a sanctuary in the woods, and they share a moment that defies social custom or law, they are described as being “way above [the valley] in blue Kentucky light” (82). Similarly, when Denver is born, the “two women struggled under a shower of silvery blue” (84). This shimmering blue reappears when Denver enters the Bodwins’ house: “All around her was thick, soft and blue. Glass cases crammed full of glistening things. Pearl white lamps with shiny metal bottoms” (253). Here, the silvery blue effect is produced by manufacture, not by nature, and thus is more ambivalent, but it seems to associate the Bodwins with the positive, life-affirming forces attending Denver’s birth.

14The other house that welcomes Denver in her rebirth into the world is associated with the color yellow: “She would have known it anywhere... The stone porch sitting in a skirt of ivy, pale yellow curtains at the windows...” (246); and the woman who welcomes her is “mixed. Gray eyes and yellow wooly hair...” (247). In Beloved’s monologue, Yellow is also the color associated with a time before the eruption of violence. Yellow flowers remain as a memory of existence before the separation from her mother, either back in Africa or in America.

15Finally, blue combined with yellow would produce the green of Denver’s boxwood retreat. In its “emerald light”, she is “closed off from the hurt of the hurt world...” (28). Green is also the color of the Clearing, “the green blessed place” (89) in the woods, set apart from the town, where the ex-slave community goes to renew itself under Baby Suggs’ guidance. Yet these safe colors are associated with withdrawal and denial. The “harmless” colors appear in the blue and gold chariot on the whiskey bottle with which Paul D attempts to comfort himself after leaving 124 (234). Moreover, Denver’s womblike boxwood shelter is regressive, an emblem of her infantile refusal to engage with the outside world.

16Indeed, the “safe” colors promote a false sense of security. Baby Suggs is defeated by her discovery that her meetings in the Clearing can do nothing to stop the incursion of the whites: “The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway... (180). The green clearing can restore the slave community, but it cannot protect them from the world beyond. Similarly, the perfect summer day that follows the celebration at 124 offers no guarantee against the return of Schoolteacher: “The sky was blue and clear. Not one touch of death in the definite green of the leaves.” (138). If anything, this beauty distracts Baby Suggs from the coming danger. Retreating into nature, seeking security in its blues, yellows and greens, amounts to a withdrawal from historical time with its exigencies and conflicts.

b-Red: violence, suffering, and renewal

17Of course one of the primary colors is noticeably absent in these pastoral moments, and it explodes into the novel as the symbol of violence and pain. The blue and green summer day ends with the red puddle of blood spilled on the woodshed floor (152). The blossoming trees guiding Paul D northward lead him to Sethe with her “tree” of scars and to the “pool of pulsing red light” beyond the threshold of her house (9). Red appears in Beloved as a reminder that African Americans can never count on being safe, neither before nor after 1865.

18Red stands for the suffering that marks African American existence. From Sixo, described as “Indigo with a flame-red tongue” (21), to Beloved whose “rubies of blood... [are] made brighter by her midnight skin” (250), to the caricatural grinning blackboy on the Bodwins’ kitchen shelf with “the gaping red mouth” (255), the iconography of blackness is marked with red. All the characters have to confront this symbolic color, despite their efforts to avoid it. So Stamp Paid finally comes to understand Baby Suggs’ need to find refuge in the harmless colors when he discovers stuck to his boat: “a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp” (180). Ironically the boat associated with voyages to freedom becomes the vehicle of a reminder that violence against blacks continues.

19Red is therefore the symbol of the return of the repressed knowledge and memory of violence. Paul D exorcises the pulsing red light at 124 and mistakenly believes “he had made it safe, had gotten rid of the danger” (164). His mistake lies in believing that the danger is external, that somehow it does not concern him. In fact, the violence and suffering that Beloved embodies is also in Paul D, locked in “the tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (113). Beloved revives these repressed memories for Paul D, who admits that: “She reminds me of something. Something, look like, I’m supposed to remember” (234). When she comes to him in the cold room, he attempts to protect himself by focusing on a safe color: “As long as his eyes were locked on the silver of the lard can he was safe” (117). Nevertheless, his defenses collapse; neither the lard can nor the tobacco tin resist, and he is woken up by his own voice “saying ‘Red heart, Red heart,’ over and over again” (117).

20Yet, if red is a reminder of violence and suffering, it is also, paradoxically, a sign of life and growth, as suggested by the association of red with heart in the iambs imitating a heart beat. Thus, seen through Amy Denver’s eyes, Sethe’s bloody wound becomes a tree “A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk—it’s red and split wide open, full of sap...” (79), while Baby Suggs sees “Roses of blood blossom[ing] in the blanket covering Sethe’s shoulders” (93).

21Since red cannot be ignored, it has to be accepted as a fact of existence. Life is renewed and rescued starting from the admission that violence and suffering are part of it. Thus, Denver finally accepts that there is “no defense” and leaves the yard to rescue her mother (244). When she does so, perhaps for the first time in the novel, she sees the color red in combination with the “safe” colors in a harmonious picture: “The third house had yellow shutters on its two front windows and pot after pot of green leaves with white hearts or red” (245). Her excursion beyond 124 brings colors back into association and objects back into proportion: “She was shocked to see how small the big things were” (245). This change in proportion is not only due to the way the eighteen-year-old Denver’s sense of perspective differs from the seven-year-old’s, it also suggests that the facts of violence and suffering have at last been integrated into her world picture.

3. Patchworks, carnival clothes and gardens: colors in combination

  • 2 The “quilt of merry colors” under which Sethe lies after having retired to Baby Suggs’ bed at the e (...)

22As I have shown, the separation of colors in Beloved draws attention to their symbolic significance. Equally important are the ways in which colors are put into relation with one another. Though Baby Suggs meditates on colors separately, she also sees them in association in the quilt which is passed on first to Beloved (78), and finally to Sethe.2 Critics have rightly seen the symbolic possibilities of the quilt motif. For Joanne Megna Wallace, quilts are representative “of wholeness, of healing and reconciliation, and of the community and shared heritage” (65). For Janice Barnes Daniel, the quilt is more than a symbol; it also functions as a narrative device, with the change in owners from Baby Suggs to Beloved to Sethe signaling the forward movement of the story.

23In this reflection on color, however, quilts need to be considered alongside other combinatory visual emblems, like the bright “carnival clothing” that Sethe sews for herself and her daughters, as well as the garden that she plans (201; 240) and cultivates for them (270). The association of quilt and garden as assemblages of color inevitably recalls Alice Walker’s meditation on her African American foremothers’ artistic impulses which found their only expression through “the only materials [they]could afford” (239), the scraps of cloth that they made into quilts and the flowers with which they composed their gardens. Could it be, then, that the flower garden and the two quilts—the subdued one with its patches of orange and the carnival quilt which overwrites the original cover like a palimpsest—are offered as metafictional emblems?

24The answer to this question is rather equivocal, since, in Beloved, neither quilt nor flower garden is ultimately satisfactory. Sethe’s garden is eye-catching and perhaps also aesthetically pleasing, but what “amaze[s]” Paul D is “the riot of late-summer flowers where vegetables should be growing” (270). The garden lacks what is essential to survival. The quilts are deficient in a similar sense; they serve more to die under than to live with. Baby Suggs goes to bed defeated. After concluding that “there was no bad luck in the world but white people... she... pulled up the quilt and left them to hold that thought forever” (104). At the end of the novel, when Paul D sees Sethe lying in Baby Suggs’ bed under the “quilt of merry colors,” he fears that she too will give up and die like the old woman. In Beloved, these emblems of poor women’s artwork are thus symbolic of surrender rather than survival. Merely piecing together from inherited scraps is shown to be unsatisfactory and regressive. Baby Suggs’ fixation on colors and Sethe’s preoccupation with their combination into assemblages lead to a conservation of tags, limits, and differences, thus obscuring the more important objective of creating a fraternity to assure the future rather than replicate the past.

25In this context the contrasting responses to trauma adopted by Sethe and Denver in the novel become significant. On the one hand, Sethe loses her sense of color, becoming “as color conscious as a hen” until Paul D’s return makes her see the barrenness of her existence (38-39). On the other hand, Denver sees color intensely, but she is unable to hear or speak. In this regressive state, she seeks comfort in the emerald “womb” and remains obsessively fixed on the story of her own birth. In this, she suffers from an extreme case of the trauma symptoms affecting the whole community with its unspeakable memories of slavery. The work accomplished in the course of the novel is not simply that of patching up the past or stitching it together, but of uncovering it in order to share stories.

26Yet even if the quilt is not wholly adequate as a metafictional symbol, it serves to reach a more satisfactory understanding of the originality of Morrison’s use of the image, thus privileging storytelling over gardening and quilting. As Denver and Beloved lie under their grandmother’s quilt, Denver pieces together the story of her birth, assembling fragments into a satisfying whole, “giving blood to the scraps her mother and grandmother had told her—and a heartbeat” (78). Similarly, when Paul D stares at the carnival quilt at the end of the novel, fragments of memory come back to him, and “[h]e wants to put his story next to hers” (273). The form of the quilts suggest the way in which the novel is composed by the piecing together, the plotting and combining of the separate stories of many characters.

27However, unlike looking at a quilt or a garden, listening to a story or reading a novel is a participatory process involving a narrator and a narratee and occurring in time more than space. Moreover, Morrison’s fiction has a deliberately open, partial and unfinished quality. Beloved rewrites history not as a totality, but as a collection of individual, fragmentary stories. Stories replace colors because they require exchange not discrimination. They demand tolerance and collaboration, not perception and distinction. The characters’ stories can be placed next to one another, but they have to be experienced and re-experienced in time. Beloved “is not a story to pass on” like a family heirloom, but a story to retell or reread, and perhaps to put beside other, unwritten stories.


Works Cited

Daniel, Janice Barnes. 2000. “Function or Frill: The Quilt as Storyteller in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Midwest Quarterly 41 (Spring): 321-30.

Lange, Bonnie Shipman. 1983. “Toni Morrison’s Color Code.” Critique (Spring): 173-181.

Megna-Wallace, Joanne. 2001. “[Re]covering an African Self and Piecing an African American Identity: Writing the Quilt in the Works of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton.” Constructions of Memory in Contemporary American Literature. Eds. Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin. Profds américains 13 (2001): 57-66.

Morrison, Toni. 1988. Beloved. New York: Plume.

Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ.


1 Bonnie Shipman Lange’s 1983 study of color symbolism in the novels written before Beloved affirms that Morrison’s color code is “consistent [and]traditional in that red suggests alarming experiences, green creates feelings of tranquility, and silver represents betrayal. Such traditional use of color imagery provides a universal connection, because scientific research reveals that all people relate to color in the same way” (173). Though in some respects the essay is enlightening, I am wary of applying blanket generalizations to all four novels, just as 1 am reluctant to accept that Morrison’s color symbolism is “traditional.” In any case, I hope to establish that Beloved represents its own, original color code.

2 The “quilt of merry colors” under which Sethe lies after having retired to Baby Suggs’ bed at the end of the novel (271) is the same quilt. Beloved and Sethe alter it by tacking scraps of brightly colored cloth to it (241).


Professeur d’anglais à l’Université de Toulouse-le Mirail, Wendy Harding est co-directrice du Groupe d’Etudes Nord-Américaines (le G.E.N.A.). Elle a obtenu un doctorat de l’université du Connecticut, U.S.A. en 1985 et une HDR à l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne en 1999. Elle a publié dans les domaines de la littérature du Moyen Age anglais et des nouvelles littératures américaines. Son livre, A World of Difference : An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison’s Novels, écrit en collaboration avec Jacky Martin, est paru en 1994 à Greenwood Press. Elle travaille actuellement sur les concepts d’hybridité, de métissage et d’altérité dans la littérature américaine contemporaine.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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