Truth in Timbre: Morrison's Extension of Slave Narrative Song in Beloved

Article excerpt

His voice was faint. A rustle of leaves. Then Reb lifted his head and began to croon in a tongue incomprehensible to me. Another mourner began to sing. Then another. The sound swelled, expanded, ate space, filled the woods like a splash of wind, blended with the air, turned and touched off, one by one, the different voices of the others, then Reb sang louder--or, better, bellowed like a steer. Abruptly, they stopped, my own face was hot and thick, the tears flew back into my nose when I sniffled and burned my throat. It was then, as Reb drove home the first nail to seal his son's casket, as I felt the sound of metal ring on metal in the deepest coils of my ears, that a voice behind me, toadlike, said:

"At least he was spared the mines, eh, Andrew?" (Charles Johnson, Oxherding Tale)

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In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison acknowledges and even borrows from Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, but she also makes a resolute break from its rhetorical and political objectives. Historical differences between the audiences of Douglass and Morrison account for a large part of their contrasting styles, particularly in their treatment of slave song. Since Douglass composed his Narrative as a fugitive slave in the early 1840s, he was aware of his principally white audience and also of his precarious task of presenting an attack not on white America, but on the institution of slavery itself. Douglass's judicious decision to report the bleakness of slavery with austerity of tone allows him to present this attack successfully. He relies heavily on factual evidence, rather than on the tremendously emotional slave songs, to present the most appalling scenes of brutality endured by the slaves in his narrative.

This shrewd emphasis on the factual enables Douglass to navigate between the specific facts and the general nature of slavery in a way that informs rather than offends his audience. In 1845 Douglass could not afford to focus repeatedly on the "ineffable sadness" of slave songs or on the songs' reflection of "souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish," even though he reports early in the Narrative that "every tone [is] a testimony against slavery" (58). As readers, we learn the importance of slave song at the outset, but we learn far more about the exact number of Colonel Lloyd's slaves, horses, and plantation acreage throughout the remainder of the narrative. We come to know the exact assignments involved in Edward Cove/s wheat-fanning operation with a precision that leaves us unsatisfied with the important but brief description of the songs reverberating through the pinewoods of the Great House Farm at the outset of the narrative. Despite this, Douglass's task of uncovering the truth of slaver/s brutalit y without mitigating that truth with indignant protestations has proven to be at once inhibiting and fecund. The awareness of this predicament limits his treatment of slave song in the 1845 Narrative, but it also creates a colossal paradigm of song's importance for many contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson, who explore similar topics.

Morrison's Beloved responds deliberately and exhaustively to the description of slave song that appears at the outset of Douglass's 1845 Narrative. The fact that Morrison is not inhibited by the pressing need to abolish slavery allows her to explore the specificity of the slave songs to a degree that Douglass simply could not risk in 1845. The essential goal of Douglass's Narrative in 1845 was to inform what William Lloyd Garrison dubbed a "stubbornly incredulous" white audience of slaver/s politically sanctioned barbarity (40). Since Morrison is not inhibited by the socio-political exigencies taken on by Douglass, she is free to focus more on song as a point of access into the reverberating effects of slavery's horrors--the same horrors that Douglass relates to his readers with a conspicuous deficit of emotion. …