The death of Toni Morrison, which robbed the world of a unique and invaluable voice, reminded me of some notes I made a couple of years ago, when reading her remarkable novel Beloved. Rather than try to arrange them into some kind of essay, I would like to post them here more-or-less as they stand, crude and unrefined. The first part of these notes were made from a reading of the text of the novel. The second part consists of further notes on the way we view, or have viewed, ‘race’ and literacy, and they rely on an important article, from 1985 by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. – one that I have referred to a few times before in these posts, and will do again – which I apply to Beloved.
I was looking specifically at racial hierarchies, or hierarchies where race is a component or a context, and how Morrison ‘flips’ many of them. I identify thirteen. I’ll let that sink in – thirteen. I am still amazed by the subtle brilliance that this evidences. That brilliance is the “si monumentum requiris circumspice” of Toni Morrison.
Please assume descending order in each example. For brevity’s sake only, I am using the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ throughout (pace Gates’s very good point about these being ‘pseudoscientific categories’). Some of the observations I am going to make are intra-racial. Page references pertain to the 1988 Picador edition of Beloved.
1] The most basic and obvious hierarchy when considering race in the United States.
The hierarchies and sub-hierarchies mentioned below fit into this, cannot exist outside this, in the context of the novel. But, importantly, see item 11.
Morrison is not blind to the mindset of the white population of the South, and offers the following paragraph in a very matter-of-fact way:
They unhitched from the schoolteacher’s horse the borrowed mule that was to carry the fugitive woman back to where she belonged, and tied it to the fence. Then, with the sun straight up over their heads, they trotted off, leaving the sheriff behind among the damndest bunch of coons they’d ever seen. All testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred. (Morrison 151)
“[…] Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen […]” (3)
If mobility is an indicator of hierarchy, then in the novel there are plenty of instances where men move away and women stay put. Paul D is restless:
He believed he was having house-fits, the glassy anger men sometimes feel when a woman’s house begins to bind them, when they want to yell and break something or at least to run off […] always he associated the house-fit with the woman in it.
Notice how closely the woman and the house are in Paul D’s mind. It is always a “woman’s house” by virtue of “the woman in it.” The gender hierarchy may be flipped and expressed thus:
- Possessor of the house, governing it – female.
- Possessed by the house, sojourning in it – male.
Is there a way that a man may flip the hierarchy back? “I want you pregnant, Sethe […] And suddenly it was a solution: a way to hold onto her, document his manhood and beak out of the girl’s spell – all in one.” (118) To possess the possessor of the house.
A further delineation is in emotions expressed as opposed to those held inside: “A man ain’t a goddam ax […] Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.” (69)
This hierarchy is adjustable. Baby Suggs lies immobile in her bed when Howard and Buglar run away. Her age gives her knowledge, but also inaction (ibid.). Thus the hierarchy can be reversed entirely.
4] Extended race.
Morrison uses terms like ‘Redmen’ (24) and ‘whitegirl’ (8); as a side issue, it is interesting that ‘-men’ is privileged when denominating a race as a whole. When ‘Redmen’ are mentioned on page 24, they are dead, unnamed, unknown. Paul D wanders through a “cemetery as old as the sky”, assumed to be of the Miami, who are named but “nudged out of […] eternal rest” by the racial top dogs. This extended racial hierarchy may be expressed another way:
- Current – White, holding the power of record, of designating importance.
- Historical – African, but that African-ness is beyond reach in the past, or at best parodied in a carnival when the “Wild African Savage shook his bars and said wa wa.” (48-49)
- Pre-historical – the record of the people who built the stone structure or of those who lie in the cemetery is lost, their names unknown, their culture unfathomable.
One group of Native Americans whose recent history is known, however, is the Cherokee nation. Dispossessed, not even with a benign master or land designated by the government, landless and lawless by choosing almost, the band of “sick Cherokee” (111) can be seen to be below the fleeing blacks in a hierarchy; they await the end of the world, but by cruel irony they are dying before the end comes. But even by that exercise of desperate choice these positions can be flipped.
Morrison challenges the first two categories, by presenting a historical/current record, designating importance. If they no longer have an African history, they have an American one. Her writing bestows currency.
- Not-English – Sixo “stopped speaking English because there was no future in it.” (25). Morrison does not tell us what he started speaking, if he spoke at all. See the epigraph from Bakhtin at the start of Gates’s article.
- Gibberish – “wa wa” (49)
English is the language of the dominant race, and thus is bound up in the hierarchies.
- “Negroes in town” (67) with whom Paul D consults.
- Black people on the land, whether slave or otherwise.
- Bought out
- Born free
You can tinker slightly with the order.
8] The hierarchy of names. Again the exact order can be tinkered with, but here’s how I read it:
- Title and surname, a white privilege to be called “Mr. Garner” as his father was.
- A name taken – the revenant assumes the name “Beloved”.
- A name given.
- A name given because that was all that could be put on a tombstone.
- A cognomen – Stamp Paid, Baby Suggs – to all intents and purposes de-gendering the named (although some of these names, Baby’s for one, are held dear).
- A slave-name. such a name may be intelligible, but it is conferred with no direct link to the surname: “Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner […]” (11)
- A slave name that isn’t even the name someone is known by and prefers, e.g. “Jenny Whitlow”, a “bill-of-sale name” (141-142).
- Nameless, like the ‘Redmen’ who built the stone structure and the Miami in their disturbed graves.
9] A flippable hierarchy of whites and their attitudes to blacks.
Firstly in terms of power:
- ‘Bad’ slave-owners and their agents, maintaining power, catching runaways, etc.
- ‘Good’ slave-owners, paternalistic, allowing buy-outs.
- ‘Good’ whites, aiding freed, bought-out, and escaped slaves.
Then flipped in terms of some kind of superficial morality:
- Anti-slavery whites
- ‘Benign’ owners
- Intractable owners.
The ‘goodness’ or ‘benignity’ is not a matter of Morrison saying “It’s okay, I know there are some good white people too,” because these characters are what they are in a particular context; their ‘goodness’ or ‘benignity’ actually highlights the context. The ‘Jenny Whitlow’ incident is brimming with good intentions!
10] Physical and supernatural.
- The living
- The dead
- The revenant
Again, this can be re-ordered. While Beloved the revenant is active in the novel, she exerts power, and thus the hierarchy reads:
- The revenant
- The living
- The dead
But the presence of the revenant can be exorcised, and this hierarchy flips again.
11] Relevance and importance.
This is a direct flip of item 1, and it is probably the most obvious thing about the novel. Beloved is not about the white characters, who hardly feature, but about the black characters. They are foregrounded and privileged, it’s their story
All the eleven foregoing could be woven into a set of hierarchies with sub-hierarchies and sub-sub-hierarchies. The resulting complex picture, however, actually helps to break them down, to de-construct them, if you like. They are unstable, however, as all the possible flipping shows, which de-constructs them further.
Observations on Gates.
Can we, however, argue thus: When we discuss race at all, or write about it, or try to say whether it does matter or should matter, or matters in literature, or can be traced in literature, we are as captive in our terms and understandings in this regard as we are about matters of sex and gender. Gates cautions that “our conversations are replete with usages of race which have their sources in the dubious pseudoscience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (Gates 4) Have we broken free – can we break free – of the following?
The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term “race” has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. (5)
Does Morrison, either unconsciously or deliberately, fall victim to the existing matrix of language and ideas too?
“Yet we carelessly use language in such a way as to will this sense of natural difference into our formulations.” (ibid.) Who is this “we”? Is this an assumption that can be made no matter what the background of the writer or the subject-matter of the writing? How do these ideas impact “us”?
Western writers in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and English have tried to mystify these rhetorical figures of race, to make them natural, absolute, essential. In doing so, they have inscribed these differences as fixed and finite categories which they merely report or draw upon for authority. (6)
Does styling writers as ‘Western’ fall into a trap of any kind? I don’t know.
It takes little reflection, however, to recognize that these pseudoscientific categories are themselves figures. Who has seen a black or red person, a white, yellow, or brown? These terms are arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality. (ibid.)
And that is where my use of ‘white’, ‘black’, and ‘red’ – for ‘brevity’ – runs aground, of course!
But language is not only the medium of this often insidious tendency; it is its sign. Current language use signifies the difference between cultures and their possession of power, spelling out the distance between subordinate and superordinate, between bondsman and lord in terms of their “race.” (ibid.)
I will venture that this is one reason why Morrison uses these simplistic terms of race, the other being of course that they were in the vernacular of the period she is writing about. To do otherwise would seem sententious [note 1]. “Literacy […] is the emblem that links racial alienation with economic alienation” says Gates (ibid). It is important that Morrison does so, because it foregrounds this vernacular, privileges it as being able to express everything necessary in a major novel, does so in an unaffected way; by doing this, Morrison stakes a claim that it is unnecessary to subject her, or her characters, to the examination of Phillis Wheatley (Gates 7-8). Her characters think and speak in (their owned version of) the masters’ language, but they think and speak self-sufficiently. Even those who cannot or will not speak (the dead Miami, Sixo, the Wild African Savage) are shot through with an eloquence of their own.
The above can be expressed as another flippable racial hierarchy (number 12):
- Literate white.
- Literate black, subject to the judgment of intelligence-demonstrated-by-literacy (the ‘Phillis Wheatley’ process).
- Illiterate black.
The above is hegemonic hierarchy. Here is the rationale for flipping it:
- Oral black – the culture of the people who are privileged in the novel, whose communication is by dialogue, whose unwritten memories are also privileged by the novel.
- Literate black – the language in which Morrison presents the novel; despite its ease and its unaffected style, it is as bound to carry pre-existing meanings as anyone else’s!
- Literate white – no longer the criterion of excellence, hardly featured at all in the novel, and when it is, it is the voice of error.
I believe it was Foucault who implied, in his preface to The Order of Things, that when we start out to create a taxonomy it is an exercise in exclusion rather than inclusion; we define something, in effect, in terms of what it is not [note 2]. When I point to a tree and say “Tree,” I am not simply categorising that object but also creating a far larger category of things that are ‘not-tree’. Applying this to reason/unreason, then:
[…] after Rene Descartes, reason was privileged, or valorized, above all other human characteristics. Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable,” and hence “men,” if – and only if – they demonstrated mastery of “the arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century’s formula for writing. So, while the Enlightenment is characterized by its foundation on man’s ability to reason, it simultaneously used the absence and presence of reason to delimit and circumscribe the very humanity of the cultures and people of color which Europeans had been “discovering” since the Renaissance. The urge toward the systematization of all human knowledge (by which we characterize the Enlightenment) led directly to the relegation of black people to a lower place in the great chain of being, an ancient construct that arranged all of creation on a vertical scale from plants, insects, and animals through man to the angels and God himself. (Gates 8)
Thus we can add another supposed hierarchy, Number 13:
- White reason.
- Black unreason, or childlike, gradual dawning of reason.
It is a petty extension of that ‘reason’ which motivates Mrs. Garner to advise Baby Suggs to use the name ‘Jenny Whitlow’ (Morrison 142). It contends, albeit silently, with Baby Suggs’s own logic – ‘Baby Suggs’ is who she is, how she knows and defines herself and, by extension, defines and excludes everything that is not Baby Suggs, and that includes ‘Jenny Whitlow’! Besides, “[…] how could [her husband] find or hear tell of her if she was calling herself by some bill-of-sale name?” (ibid.) Thus Mrs. Garner’s reason, and by extension the larger hegemonic reason, is shown to be flawed, to be without all the relevant data, and the edifice of that supposed hierarchy of reason can be seen to crumble. The blindness of the top layer to the logic of the bottom layer, and their capability for a different order of sophisticated thinking, subverts and challenges that hierarchy. In fact Baby Suggs’s reason is better, and flips the hierarchy.
- Black – uncomplicated.
- White – over-sophisticated.
William Bosman, David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel, all continued in some way to this particular taxonomy of exclusion (Gates, 9-11), and three of those are major thinkers in Western ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy.
Ironically, Anglo-African writing arose as a response to allegations of its absence. Black people responded to these profoundly serious allegations about their “nature” as directly as they could: they wrote books, poetry, autobiographical narratives. Political and philosophical discourse were the predominant forms of writing. (11)
In effect they replied to the taxonomy of exclusion by adopting the parameters of that taxonomy. This is the danger warned of by Anthony Appiah (Gates 14-15). They created a literary tradition which Morrison cannot help but follow. It is still an ironical bind – Morrison is a Professor emerita, a winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, with books that have entered the ‘canon’ of literature, scaling a hierarchy that puts the ‘popular’ into a lower order. The question now has to be asked, after Enlightenment ideas of literacy appear to have conquered the world, whether this globalisation has been followed by ‘localisation’, whether those who have found themselves colonised by the idea of literacy (privileged ahead of, say, oral tradition) have actually been able to take a kind of ownership of it and have made it their own. Have made it their own rather than have used it to be come somehow ‘acceptable’ to the culture that first devised the taxonomy. Gates goes on to say:
We are justified, however, in wondering aloud if the sort of subjectivity which these writers seek through the act of writing can be realized through a process which is so very ironic from the outset: how can the black subject posit a full and sufficient self in a language in which blackness is a sign of absence? Can writing, with the very difference it makes and marks, mask the blackness of the black face that addresses the text of Western letters, in a voice that speaks English through an idiom which contains the irreducible element of cultural difference that will always separate the white voice from the black? Black people, we know, have not been liberated from racism by our writings. We accepted a false premise by assuming that racism would be destroyed once white racists became convinced that we were human, too. (12)
And “[w]e black people tried to write ourselves out of slavery […]” (ibid.)
On page 13, Gates quotes Derrida, saying that black writers must “master […] the other’s language without renouncing [their] own.” That takes me back to the point I made in example 5, about language, and from there to the point I made about Morrison’s use of the vernacular in an unaffected way.
The Western critical tradition has a canon, as the Western literary tradition does. I once thought it our most important gesture to master the canon of criticism, to imitate and apply it, but I now believe that we must turn to the black tradition itself to develop theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures. (13)
Good luck with that – sincerely – because you’re banjaxed from the start by the hegemonic code of language. If it isn’t one hegemony it’s another – see Gates’s quotation from The Color Purple (Gates 14).
No critical theory – be it Marxist, feminist, post-structuralist, Kwame Nkrumah’s “consciencism,” or whatever – escapes the specificity of value and ideology […] (15)
That is all too certain!
 The analogy I would draw is the mannered acting in the first TV serialisation of Roots.
 “[the] way in which a culture can determine in a massive general, from the difference that limits it […]” perhaps.
Gates, Henry L. Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and
the Difference It Makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1,
1985, pp.1-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343459.
Foucault, Michel. Preface to The Order of Things.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Pan Picador, 1988.
[Please note that due to the idiosyncrasies of the platform I am unable to purge unwanted hyperlinks!]
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