"Postmodern Blackness": Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' and the End of History

By Davis, Kimberly Chabot | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

"Postmodern Blackness": Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' and the End of History


Davis, Kimberly Chabot, Twentieth Century Literature


When they asserted that our postmodern society has reached the "end of history," theorists Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, and Francis Fukuyama launched a compelling debate that has persisted for over a decade. They argue that we no longer believe in teleological metanarratives, that our concept of history has become spatial or flattened out, and that we inhabit a perpetual present in which images of the past are merely recycled with no understanding of their original context. In short, they think that postmodern culture has lost a sense of historical consciousness, of cause and effect. Jameson, in particular, sees literary postmodernism as a by-product of this new worldview. Such a controversial stance has, of course, provoked numerous antagonists to speak out. Linda Hutcheon, for example, has written two studies of "historiographic metafiction," suggesting that much of postmodern fiction is still strongly invested in history, but more importantly in revising our sense of what history means and can accomplish. My project is to examine how Toni Morrison's acclaimed historical novel Beloved (1987) enacts a hybrid vision of history and time that sheds new light on issues addressed by Jameson and Hutcheon in their theories of the postmodern - topics such as the "fictionality" of history, the blurring of past and present, and the questioning of grand historical metanarratives. I argue that while the novel exhibits a postmodern skepticism of sweeping historical narratives, of "Truth," and of Marxist teleological notions of time as diachronic, it also retains an African American and modernist political commitment to the crucial importance of deep cultural memory, of keeping the past alive in order to construct a better future. Morrison's mediations between these two theoretical and political camps - between postmodernism and African American social protest - enable her to draw the best from both and make us question the more extremist voices asserting that our postmodern world is bereft of history.

Since the term postmodern has been at the center of many highly charged cultural debates, I am aware that describing Beloved as such, even as a "hybrid" postmodern novel, is a gesture that might draw criticism. Clearly, the novel's status as part of the African American tradition of social protest, and Morrison's investments in agency, presence, and the resurrection of authentic history, seem to make the novel incompatible with poststructuralist ideas at the root of postmodernism. Morrison herself has spoken out against a postmodernism that she associates with Jameson's terms. In my view, however, Morrison's treatment of history bears some similarity to Hutcheon's postmodern "historiographic metafiction," but her relationship to this discourse is affected by her aim to write "black-topic" texts. Morrison acknowledges that history is always fictional, always a representation, yet she is also committed to the project of recording African American history in order to heal her readers. Instead of a playful exercise in deconstructing history, Morrison's Beloved attempts to affect the contemporary world of the "real." While the novel should not simply be assimilated into the canon of postmodernism, Morrison's work should be recognized as contributing a fresh voice to the debates about postmodern history, a voice that challenges the centrism and elitism of much of postmodern theory. Beloved reminds us that history is not "over" for African Americans, who are still struggling to write the genealogies of their people and to keep a historical consciousness alive.

The relationship of African American writers and their work to the discourse of postmodernism has been hotly contested, and there has unfortunately emerged a dichotomy that I would like to question. This relationship has become even more vexed since the Nobel Prize committee bypassed postmodern guru Thomas Pynchon to select Toni Morrison as their 1993 literature winner. …

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