Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Slavery, Race, and the Figure of the Tragic Mulatta, or, the Ghost of Southern History in the Writing of African-American Women

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Slavery, Race, and the Figure of the Tragic Mulatta, or, the Ghost of Southern History in the Writing of African-American Women

Article excerpt

"I am afraid that I am destined to die at my post. I have no special friends in the North, and no home but this in the South. I am homeless and alone." (1)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted (1892).

I loved history as a child, until some clear-eyed young Negro pointed out, quite rightly, that there was no place in the American past I could go and be free. (2)

Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose (1986).

Sadness was overtaking Lena 's feeling of fear. She wanted to tell Rachel, "I'm just a little girl. I don't want to hear all of this. I don't want to know all of this. Please don't tell me any more. "But Rachel just looked at the child's big brown eyes welling up with tears and slipped inside her head and thoughts again.

"Child, "she said softly. "Do you know how long I been waiting for somebody like you to come along so I can tell them all of this, so I can share some of this. You l'in I'm not gonna tell you now I got you here on my beach?" (3)

Tina McElroy Ansa, Baby of the Family (1989).

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted fro; she cannot be lost because no one is looking for beg, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don't know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed....

It was not a story to pass on....

So they forgot her. Like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep....

This was not a story to pass on. (4)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987).

THE WRITINGS OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS ABOUND with the ghosts and memories of a Southern history that anchors their own and their people's experience even as it challenges their ability to represent their own and their foremothers' sense of self. Like the Russian peasants' proverbial rat, Southern history has stuck in the throat of African-American women writers, who can neither swallow it nor spit it out. Toni Morrison's novel Beloved poignantly reminds us of the difficulty. How--in what voice--may a woman tell of women's experience of slavery? How may she represent the worst toll that slavery exacted from enslaved mothers and their children? Morrison represents those difficulties through the figure of a ghost, Beloved, that embodies the residue of what cannot be told. As the ghost of the murdered, "crawling already?" baby, Beloved dances though the pages of the text, yet ultimately remains disremembered and unaccounted for. No one is even looking for her. Murdered by her own mother, she cannot rest and must, like all disremembered slave children, devote herself to (as Baby Suggs puts it) "worrying someone's house into evil" (p. 5). Baby Suggs knows that there is "not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief," and she tells Sethe to consider herself lucky that "this ghost is a baby," not an adult man (p. 5).

Like Baby Suggs, Sethe knows that memories--rememories--persist, even if you do not remember them yourself. What she does remember "is a picture floating around out there outside my head," and even if "I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened" (p. 36). Those thought pictures, she tells her daughter, Denver, lie in wait, and one day you bump into one of them. You may think that the thought that enters your mind belongs to you, but it is really "a rememory that belongs to somebody else" (p. 36). Thus, even a picture of events that are "all over--over and done with"--will, if you go and stand in the place where the events occurred, "always be there for you, waiting for you" (p. 36). Even if Sethe does not think the thought picture, even if she dies, it will remain out there, waiting for someone to bump into it. Worse, as Beloved suggests, the most painful thought pictures do not remain bound to the place in which the events occurred, but migrate, permeating the entire country so that there is no place where one can escape them. …

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