Academic journal article African American Review

Object Written, Written Object: Slavery, Scarring, and Complications of Authorship in Beloved

Academic journal article African American Review

Object Written, Written Object: Slavery, Scarring, and Complications of Authorship in Beloved

Article excerpt

In the vast wealth of criticism on Toni Morrison's Beloved--and there is an astounding amount of criticism on Beloved given that the novel is still less than 20 years old--many scholars rightfully and fruitfully devote extensive analysis to Morrison's use of the African American tradition of orality. Contrarily, relatively little criticism has analyzed the equally important examination of writing, which likewise occupies a central place in the novel's construction, as is evident in both Morrison's emphasis on the scarred bodies of slaves as textual bodies and in the yet more obvious fact of Beloved's status as written object. The disproportionate attention allotted to the oral character of the novel subsequently veers dangerously close to a subordination of written to oral, a subordination that can, in turn, close off the many interesting questions about the US literary canon and the Eurocentric/ white examination of the canon that Morrison's metafictional attention to the subject of writing in Beloved raises.

Moreover, this concern is not limited to Beloved alone; in fact, questions about white literature, white American authorship, and white criticism are the primary inquiries of two of Morrison's most penetrating critical works, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature" and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Published in 1989 and 1992 respectively, each of these works appeared shortly after Beloved and wrestles the hardly self-evident issues of identity and African American authorship that the novel, too, addresses in its own illuminating medium. As Morrison writes in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," "the present turbulence seems not to be about the flexibility of the canon, its range among and between Western countries, but about its miscegenation" (205). In her use of the (never apolitical) word "miscegenation," Morrison situates her study of American literature in the context of the irreducibility of identity, suggesting that white American authors (and critics) have constructed their works, their aesthetics, and even themselves as authors in, on, and through the uncertainties of racial identification. (1) Morrison elaborates this uncertainty with greater specificity in Playing in the Dark. As she notes, "Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny" (52). Constructing this sentence in the form of a dichotomous categorization, a polemic in miniature, Morrison elucidates the manner in which white American literature and white American authorship have constructed themselves on the oppositional attributes assigned by whites to the black American population as a means of differentiating, of defining whiteness itself. One can identify the American literary canon as miscegenous, then, through the inextricability of these terms: if whiteness needs blackness for definition, how can whiteness ever fully disentangle itself from blackness?

It is precisely in this white-dominated, Eurocentric construction of American literature--one that takes the presence of African Americans as a kind of blank (that is, of course, never blank) through which whiteness can imagine itself, a key point in Playing in the Dark--that the emergence of African American authorship becomes problematic. (2) In her essay "Language That Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison," Yvonne Atkinson posits the difficulty of "[f]itting the intricate oral tradition of language into a written form" (14). This fit is one facet of the difficulty--that is also, of course, the strength--of African American authorship: "Written language does not contain symbols to represent the inflection, tone, and non-verbal gestures of Black English" (14). …

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