Academic journal article African American Review

The Mother-Daughter Aje Relationship in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Academic journal article African American Review

The Mother-Daughter Aje Relationship in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt


Toni Morrison has often expressed disappointment with critical analyses of her art. In an interview with Thomas LeClair she said, "l have yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it. I don't care if the critic likes or dislikes it. I would just like to feel less isolated. It's like having a linguist who doesn't understand your language tell you what you're saying" (128). To my reasoning, Morrison is calling for an analysis that complements the art, one that is grounded in the artist's culture, language, worldview, and milieu. My goal with this essay is to attempt to address Morrison's critical challenge by using an Africana theoretical perspective centered on a force called Aje to interpret the intricacies of the mother-daughter relationship in Beloved.

Aje is a Yoruba word and concept that describes a spiritual force that is thought to be inherent in Africana women; additionally, spiritually empowered humans are called Aje. The stately and reserved women of Aje are feared and revered in Yoruba society. Commonly and erroneously defined as witches, Aje are astrally-inclined human beings who enforce earthly and cosmic laws, and they keep society balanced by ensuring that human beings follow those laws or are punished for their transgressions. These women, honored as "our mothers" (awon iya wa), "my mother" (iya mi), and the elders of the night, are recognized as the owners and controllers of everything on Earth (Drewal and Drewal 7). Aje's suzerainty comes from the fact that it is considered the origin of all earthly existence, and women of Aje are euphemistically called "Earth" (aye).

Oduduwa, the tutelary Orisa (Select Head) of Aje, is heralded as the "Womb of Creation" (Fatunmbi 85) and is symbolized by the life-giving pot of origins and also the "wicked bag" or earthen tomb in which all life forms find eternal rest and also regeneration. Aje the "daughters" of Oduduwa, are said to oversee creation and destruction, divination, healing, and the power of the word. Given its female ownership and administration, it is fitting that Aje's terrestrial source of birth, actualization, and manifestation is the womb. Owners of Aid are said to control reproductive organs, and they are bonded through the cosmic power and the life-giving force of menstrual blood. Importantly, Aje can be genetically passed from mother to child.

Aje "sister systems" are found throughout Africa, and Aje also survived the Middle Passage to exert marked influence on neo-African communities. However, while a Yoruba proverb asserts, "Kaka ko san lara aje o nbi omo obinrin jo eye wa nyi lu eye" ["Instead of the Aje changing for the better, she continues to have more daughters, producing more and more 'birds'"] (Lawal 34), Africana literature is not overly reflective of the mother-daughter Aje relationship. Most writers depict Aje as a controlling matriarch who uses her power, forcefully or gently, to guide her family and often the community. Another depiction is that of the young Aje who is misunderstood by a mother who denies or is incognizant of her daughter's force. In this case, it is often a surrogate mother Aje who guides the young woman towards self-actualization. This surrogacy is apparent in Indigo and Aunt Haydee's relationship in Ntozake Shange's novel Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo; in Peaches's connection to Maggie in Toni Cade Bambara's short story "Maggie of the Green Bottles"; and to a more intricate extent, in Shug Avery's mentoring of the adult Celie in Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

Narrative/protagonist control also affects concurrent mother-daughter Aje interactions. To forestall full conflict between the mother and daughter, many works depict a mother Aje who is nearing death or has a waning force while the daughter's Aje is latent, as is the case with Janie and Nanny in Their Eyes Were Watching God. If both women are simultaneously active, they usually find separate spheres of existence and expression, as is apparent in Amos Tutuola's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which an uninitiated Aje" daughter flees her initiated Aje" parents and lives alone honing her force (114-18). …

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