Academic journal article African American Review

The Named and the Nameless: Morrison's 124 and Naylor's "The Other Place" as Semiotic Chorae

Academic journal article African American Review

The Named and the Nameless: Morrison's 124 and Naylor's "The Other Place" as Semiotic Chorae

Article excerpt

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. --Toni Morrison, Beloved (274)

All Willow Springs knows that this woman was nobody's slave. But what was her name?--Gloria Naylor, Mama Day (280)

Naming is an act of creation. The named--whether person, place, or object--is identified or marked by the namer as distinctive, unique, the occupant of a discrete space in the universe. To name is also to claim dominion: naming children, slaves, domestic animals, or real estate is an announcement of figurative, if not literal, ownership of the named, as well as an indication of the namer's relationship to or sentiments about the named. Castles, estates, plantations, and mansions are often named, but ordinary houses are usually unnamed, identified simply by occupant--"Lady Jones's house," "Ambush and Bernice's." If a named house is unusual, even more unusual is a woman without a name, particularly if she is part of a family and thus involved in domestic and communal relationships. Yet these odd constructs are precisely what we find in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day: a named house and a nameless woman. In these two neo-slave narratives, domestic space and patriarchal notions of domesticity are radically interrogated by the creation of a radical, magic-realist female discourse space.

No group in the United States has had as painful or as vexed a relationship with domesticity as African American women. The forced domestication they have suffered has been two-fold--as women and as people of color--and it has been persistent and pernicious. As house slaves and later, as hired domestics (one of the few types of employment available to black women until a full century after the Emancipation), African American women were required to fill the role of angel of someone else's house, cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing, nursing, and raising or even bearing the children of the master/employer. African American women, particularly those who were heads of households, could rarely afford to own a house, and they were frequently forced to neglect their own children while working for their masters or their employers (a pattern that persists even today). A domicile like Sweet Home in Beloved may have been idyllic to its white owners, but Paul D speaks for all of its black inhabitants and especially for Sethe, whose enforced domestic servitude severely inhibited her ability to mother her own children, when he reflects that Sweet Home "wasn't sweet and it sure wasn't home" (Morrison 15).

The "cult of true womanhood" that underwrote the American patriarchy in the nineteenth century (and whose effects, again, are still being felt today) created ideals virtually impossible for black women to attain. In the case of those in domestic service or servitude, success as a domestic in someone else's house doomed an African American woman to failure or, at best, to mere adequacy in her own domestic life, with consequent damage to her self-esteem and individuation. Thus Harriet Jacobs, who at tremendous personal cost and against nearly impossible odds escaped from slavery and eventually secured legal freedom both for herself and her two children, concludes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with, of all things, an apology for her failure to achieve the appurtenances of the domestic ideal: a husband and a home of her own, with her (legitimate) children at her hearth. Marilvn Chandler observes in Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction that American literature reflects "the project of American self-definition wherein house-building, and for women, housekeeping, have been recognized as a kind of autobiographical enterprise-a visible and concrete means of defining and articulating the self" (3). Because keeping someone else's house cannot ever be a truly autobiographical enterprise, African American women, particularly slave women, were denied an important avenue of identity-formation, of self-individuation. …

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