Trauma and Collective Memory in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy

By Shilaja, C. L. | IUP Journal of English Studies, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Trauma and Collective Memory in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy


Shilaja, C. L., IUP Journal of English Studies


Communal identity is an integral part necessary not only for the transcendence of society or for a single private self, but also to reverse the shame and stigma which the system of slavery has inflicted on the African Americans. Sharing stories and exchanging experience is therefore a source of enrichment and healing as we find in Toni Morrison's Beloved and A Mercy. Morrison's African American cultural perspective can be stated as entirely cross-cultural. It is of a culture which is constructed from integrated and mutually influencing African and American cultural strands which together create a new and distinct culture.

Morrison has often been regarded as the foremost American literary voice for both pre-slavery and post-slavery African American culture. In her works, she addresses the position of the African American person in the contemporary world. She is especially concerned with the way the African American individuals and communities are expressive or silenced within a dominant culture which historically has been intolerant of racial difference. Fo r Morrison, to write "about race" is not a matter of parading her characterizations as a way to depict essential traits and universal experiences of African Americans as a unified people. It is admitting that race determines if not how one perceives the world, then at least how one is perceived by the world. For Morrison, race is inextricable from the question of what it means and how it feels to be an individual in a particular time and place.

Through her novels, the silence of black people is broken as she has incorporated black culture into the national cultural narrative. Among the themes of Morrison, 'interrelationships' among blacks concerns Morrison the most. Her novels are rich in black customs, ideas, and values, specifically those of black women. The identity of an individual is inseparable from the individual's place, i.e., his family, household, clan, tribe, city, and nation. There is no 'I' apart from these.

Morrison has always placed the individual within the context of the society. Or rather, the society performed a crucial part in the formation of the individual. Morrison insists that the place inhabited by the community acts as a sustenance. Morrison's novels Beloved and A Mercy stand as examples of how isolation from one's community can threaten the wellbeing of particular individuals.

The novel Beloved portrays the successful development of identity in times when a black person was denied it. It is not until Paul D's arrival that Sethe gains memories of the past. Sethe's heart reawakens after years of emotional repression as her love for Paul D unavoidably revives her love for the daughter she slew. In order to recognize herself as an independent person, Sethe has to take the inward journey. In consequence, Paul D assures her that "Go far inside as you need to, I'll hold your ankles" (Morrison 1997, 46). One of the characters in the novel rightly observes, "Anything dead coming back to life hurts" (ibid., 35). For much of the novel, Sethe is overcome by that love and grief, experienced as a haunting chronicle by a ghost that died under wrong circumstances.

It is not until Paul D stimulates her awareness of a true "self" and a need for "some kind of tomorrow" is Sethe finally able to recover her own identity. During one conversation Paul D affirms, "You your best thing, Sethe. You are" (ibid., 273). Through these words, he attempts to awaken Sethe's self-perception and the need for her detachment from her children. Whereas Sethe continues to regard herself through her children, Paul D strives to build her self-conviction of separateness from them, of her as an independent whole. Sethe's subsequent reply, "Me? Me?"-though hesitant-is nevertheless a crucial stage of affirming her individual separateness.

The development of Sethe's self-value is comparable to Baby Suggs' maturing from the phase of "not knowing what she looked like and not being curious" to the moment of suddenly seeing her (Baby Suggs') hands and thinking with clarity: "These hands belong to me. …

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