Example English Literature Essay: Representation of black culture in Beloved by Toni Morrison

Example English Literature Essay: Representation of black culture in Beloved by Toni Morrison
African-American author Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved, describes a black culture born out of a dehumanising period of slavery just after the Civil War. Culture is a means of how a group collectively believe, act, and interact on a daily basis. Those who have studied her work refer to Morrison’s narrative tales as “literature…that addresses the sacred and as an allegorical representation of black experience” (Baker-Fletcher 1993: 2). Although African Americans had a difficult time establishing their own culture during the period of slavery when they were considered less than human, Morrison believes that black culture has been built on the horrors of the past and it is this history that has shaped contemporary black culture in a positive way. Through the use of linguistic devices, her representation of black women, imagery and symbolic features, and the theme of interracial relations, Morrison illustrates that black culture that is resilient, vibrant, independent, and determined.
Published in 1987, Beloved is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that recounts how those who survived slavery healed themselves and reflects on the period of slavery in “a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive” (Morey 1988: 2). It is this rememory as Morrison calls it that helps those considered “others” become individuals. Set in Ohio, the book focuses on Sethe; Sethe’s surviving daughter, Denver; Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs; and the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter, Beloved. Throughout the book, “Morrison communicates an unforgettable sense of the strength, terror and devastation that is part of the black community, whilst skilfully portraying the unalterable connections between spiritual and physical life” (Morey 1988: 1093).

One linguistic device used throughout the novel is the use of songs. Slaves use songs as a way to pass down stories but also to help them maintain a sense of inner strength. Morrison “shows how song defines and affirms slave "personhood" in a world where slave humanity is constantly challenged and denied” (Capuano 2003: 1). Rather than thinking of song in a negative fashion, “it chronicles her characters' endurance and ability to survive during and after these periods of physical brutality and psychological abuse” that they experienced during slavery (Capuano 2003: 2). This illustrates how black culture has resilience and an ability to overcome hardship. Singing is an essential aspect of the characters’ lives alongside food, sleep, and shelter. As the novel related, if Paul D could "walk, eat, sleep, [and] sing," he could survive and "asked for no more" (Morrison 1987: 41). While others may not understand the jargon used in the songs, those singing it and other slaves hearing those songs know what it means, and this is a way to strike some independence and distinct culture for themselves during a period where it is uncommon to think of blacks as even human (Capuano 2003: 4). This community of song enables those within black culture to become stronger. It is “the collective sharing of that information heals the individual -- and the collective” (Morey 1988: 1039). In revisiting Morrison’s overall theme of turning traumatic memories into a positive force, the songs are a cathartic process used to take this memory, which is “vital for revisioning communal and social transformation that is healing” (Baker-Fletch 1993: 4). It is the singing of the women that help exorcise the ghost of Beloved and enable Sethe to break free as if she has been baptized (Morrison 1987: 308). The novel describes Sethe as “running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind” (Morrison 1987: 309).

In addition to songs as a linguistic device, Morrison constantly returns to the word, “rememory” and “disremember” rather than using words, such as “remember” or “forget.” Morrison uses rememory to show how Sethe constantly keeps the past in her present existence because she cannot forget what happened and lives with the ghost of her guilty conscience and moral dilemma for murdering her daughter and living through slavery. For example, Sethe explains how she struggles with the past:

It's so hard for me to believe in [time]. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. . . . But it's not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place-the picture of it-stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world” (Morrison 1987: 36).

Morrison’s creation of her own terms related to how the black culture has to continually deal with its past as though it is a metal neck chain that they cannot unlock. Throughout the book, it seems as though this struggle with rememory is constant for Sethe rather than looking forward to a more opportunistic future: "But [Sethe's] brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day" (Morrison 1987: 70). The other characters in the novel attempt to help Sethe loosen the binds of the past. One of the women in town wants to help Sethe exorcise the ghost of Beloved because she “didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present” because “the past was something to leave behind”

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