Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

The Debt of Memory: Reparations, Imagination, and History in Toni Morrison's Beloved

Article excerpt

This essay focuses on Toni Morrison's groundbreaking novel Beloved and examines the issue of reparations in economic, affective, and historical terms. Beloved, I claim, addresses these debts via fiction by delving into the recesses of traumatic memory. Debt is the overriding metaphor of our time, a quintessential^ modernizing state and activity that weaves inequalities into the fabric and practice of capital. To incur debt is to enter into an interpolative arrangement in which capital confers recognition through repetitive consumption. Morrison's novel redirects our contemporary dependence on and understanding of debt from a tangible economic figure or amount to a cumulative colonial deficit spanning the space and time of slavery. In this sense, contemporary economic debt functions as a recurring sign in the longue durée of racial history, which calls for layered forms of reparations. When Morrison states, at the end of the novel, "This is not a story to pass on" ( 1987,274), she asks the reader to confront the debt assumed by the traumas of slavery to enable us to transform this inheritance into a beloved future. To pass this story down is to forge a new repository of memory upon which a severely incurred debt-mnemonic, social, and material-can begin to be defrayed. Therefore fiction, for Morrison, compels the reader to reimagine a concealed past as a reparative starting point, which not only summons the ghastly foundations of the Americas but in so doing, initiates conversations surrounding what was lost, established, and still owed.

Indeed, the idea of reparations has seen various iterations since the end of slavery. Not only did President Lincoln favor some sort of reparations for newly freed slaves but several decades later, in 1915, Cornelius J. Jones brought a lawsuit demanding sixty-eight million dollars in reparative compensation for unpaid slave labor. In 1944 Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish economist and Nobel laureate, in his book An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, argued for parcels of former plantations to be made available to ex-slaves through manageable, longterm installment plans. The call for reparations continued in the 1960s, when black activist James Forman, in his controversial Black Manifesto, boldly proposed five hundred million dollars in damages. Moreover, in 1972, in The Case for Black Reparations, Yale Law School professor Boris Bittker asserted that a history of race-based discrimination from slavery to Jim Crow, spanning over three centuries, caused undue social and economic injury to African Americans and suggested the creation of a program to distribute resources to America's black descendants of slaves. Finally, in a more recent text, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson makes the case for a national economic response that would effectively close "the yawning gap between blacks and whites" (Robinson 2000, 204).1 However, Robinson's argument marks a shift from a reductive, if necessary and just, economic discussion to a more wide-ranging cultural, historic, and psychic understanding of debt.2

As he argues: "But only slavery, with its sadistic patience, asphyxiated memory, and smothered cultures, has hulled empty a whole race of people with inter-generational efficiency. Every artifact of the victims' past cultures, every custom, every ritual, every god, every language, every trace element of a people's whole heredity identity, wrenched from them and ground into a sharpe choking dust. It is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims ad infinitum, long after the active statge of the crime has ended" (Robinson 2000, 216). In the absence of economic reparations, Robinson proposes a "black renaissance" (237-47), a dynamic return to knowledge, memory, and creativity as a formula to halt the production of victims generated by the aftereffects of slavery and colonialism. Thus, Robinson compels the reader to confront the varying dimensions of debt as, on the one hand, the virulent conjunction of economic processes-centuries of forced and unpaid labor-and on the other, the imposed erasure of memory and culture. …

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