Postcolonial Experience in a Domestic Context: Commodified Subjectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

Many of the characters in Beloved are born into slavery and experience the imposed objectivity of its commodifying ideology. Clearly, as we know from historical and slave narratives, such objectivity does not exclude all possibility of experiencing some degree of subjectivity. In Beloved, however, denial and oppression of black identity by the larger slave-owning society leads to an internalization of this colonizing discourse and subsequently to an inability for some, and for others a constant struggle, to develop a self-empowered subjectivity when free from physical slavery. Thus, although the end of slavery signals the beginning of a "post" colonial(1) period for African Americans, their status continues to be defined by slavery's colonial ideologies.(2) The imposed perception of themselves as commodified beings, when internalized, results in their continued struggle to develop an empowered, agentive sense of self.

In Yearning, bell hooks writes about black subjectivity as "an oppositional worldview, a consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle which also opposes dehumanization but as that movement which enables creative, expansive self-actualization" (15). For Sethe, Beloved's central character, self-actualization, or the development of subjectivity, can be realized only outside the limits of a colonial discourse and within a collectively defined alternate discourse signifying individual empowerment. This alternative discourse, I argue, is found in the free black community to which Sethe flees. But her subjectivity is realized only when she becomes a full member of her community. Membership depends on both Sethe's and the community's recognition of internalized ideologies of oppression. Morrison's text, then, can be read as postcolonial(3) because it delineates a process of self-liberation through communal support within the colonial context of slavery.

In a postcolonial analysis of Beloved, the work of Homi Bhabha(4) and Gloria Anzaldua helps us to read Sethe's self-actualization as a resistive process against objectifying colonial definitions of black identity. Anzaldua's definition of "mestiza consciousness"(5) complements Bhabha's definition of the shifting positionalities within the "colonial subject" and the formation of a colonial subjectivity through the colonial fetish and stereotype. For Anzaldua, all women of color have the potential to reflect a mestiza consciousness. As an oppressed woman of color, Sethe has this potential. In Sethe, then, the text develops a mestiza character. Together, the theories of Anzaldua and Bhabha serve to recontextualize Sethe's motivations for murdering her child, the subsequent ostracism by her community, her obsessive love for Beloved, and her final release from the ideological confines of colonial commodification. This recontextualization of Sethe's story defines Beloved as a mestiza text.

Within the postcolonial framework through which I read Beloved,(6) resisting the colonial perception of self as commodified inferior is part of what Satya P. Mohanty terms "decolonization." Developing an empowered subjectivity involves learning to define oneself through a perspective uninformed by dominant definitions of black identity. Acquiring a perspective outside of colonial constructs of inferiorized subject positions subverts these constructs and thus decolonizes the self. The process of decolonization is an important part of this mestiza text because the main character moves from a limiting "counterstance" position, signifying a mere inversion of colonial roles, to mestiza consciousness, signifying an alternative discourse outside colonial ideologies. Significantly, in Beloved decolonization occurs in a communal context. The book's central characters begin to define themselves against a colonially defined and internalized isolation, fear, or even pride only with the support of others who also have experienced oppression. …


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