Blessed Beloved

This year I read that book – the one that impacts you beyond all reason, and you dash around like a headless chicken telling all your friends their life will not be fulfilled until they have lapped-up the pages, felt their beauty and blood.  Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best book I have ever read (okay top five, but still).  I could not put it down, I could not erase it from my mind, I could not forget the music woven through the words.  I finally managed to process the experience into something constructive – stemming from Yvonne Atkinson’s view of the Black English Oral Tradition, here is what I consider to be the best academic book review of my writing thus far.

Other examples of the Black English oral traditions that Morrison uses are the references to the music that serve as filler and background in her texts: Baby Suggs’s allusions in Beloved: “Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more” [86, emphasis added]; the song Halle hears that signals the time for them to escape: “Hush, hush. Somebody’s calling my name. Hush, hush. Somebody’s calling my name. O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?” [224], and Sixo’s death song [225]. These songs are sacred songs, songs that are emotional and historical sites. They are a communal discourse about life. They are also part of the oral tradition of Call/Response.

[Yvonne Atkinson, “Language that Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison” 26]

Atkinson notes numerous examples of actual songs that Morrison melodiously writes into Beloved to emphasise her use of Black English oral traditions. Beyond this, Morrison uses every literary and language tool at her disposal to create, elaborate on, and weave the Black English oral tradition into Beloved. In her introduction to the novel, Morrison writes: “To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.” These black musical and oral traditions combined with influences from blues, jazz, soul and gospel music [originating with Slaves], actual songs, lyrical words, poetical prose and rhythmic way of speaking are used by Morrison in so many intertwined and innumerable ways, that the book itself becomes a sacred song, a sermon. Beloved itself is a ‘call’ offered up to the reader for their own digestion and dissection, and ultimately response – a sacred slave song furthering still the Black English oral tradition and specifically that of Call/Response.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” slaves who suffered due to the decades of the slave trade and slavery, throws into light and question the deep wounds left long after slavery was abolished. Morrison’s incorporation of musical and oral qualities are by her own admittance neither new nor unique to her writing, nor by any means accidental [McKay, 427], deliberately writing with an aim to catch that sound – what makes something “black”, art or otherwise – and the effort of “hanging on to whatever that ineffable quality is that is curiously black” [McKay, 427]. Beloved is a striking example of the expert use of song to give the novel soul – weaving music into the text, creating a communal discourse through song to draw the reader into the unbearable and often unimaginable world of Slaves in an effort to comprehend it and thus begin to heal.

Morrison directly and deliberately strives to incorporate what she regards as Black art into her novels. In her critical essay, “It’s OK to say OK”, Sandi Russell notes how Morrison “identifies her art as a novelist with the ancestral tradition that is still alive in black music and religion,” unabashedly writing “for black women” [McKay, 44 & 46]. In specifically writing about the history of black women, Morrison uses their traditions of music, orature, song to encapsulate the ineffable essence of the rooted history, innate emotion and ‘soul’ of black people, culture and slavery – rendering her writing as not only accessible to her intended audience, but allowing ‘the other’ reader access to these sacred, historical and emotional sites through the universal medium of music.

Hans Christian Anderson poetically noted, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Beloved journeys with the reader to a time and place in history that is only too terrible on the surface and unfathomable below, and asks us to bear witness to the ‘unspeakable’ and ‘unspoken’ multifaceted devastation caused by slavery. We are shown this power of song at poignant, pivotal moments in the book, a notable example being when the women gather in song outside 124 in solidarity with Sethe, causing Beloved to finally vanish.

In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like … the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. [305]

The significance of song here is paramount, firstly taking us back to “the beginning” and the rooted foundation. Secondly, the proverbial ‘silence’ is finally broken – of the women and of the topic of Slavery, again returning all concerned to “the beginning” and hence a new start. Thirdly, Morrison goes on to state how Sethe feels that the Clearing has come to her, thus referencing her experiences of church, religion, faith, the power of community and innately linking this, the spiritual, with song. The song is a wordless communal discourse that leaves Sethe with a religious/spiritual sense of cleansing and renewal.

In addition to this, the song of the women serves as a religious ritual, effectively ‘exorcising’ the ‘evil’ from 124, the ghost that is Beloved. In her aptly entitled essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Morrison explains that: “[the novel] should have the ability to be both print and oral literature … to make you stand up and … feel something profoundly in the same way that a black preacher requires his congregation to speak … to make that connection” [Evans 340]. This further identifies Beloved with the traditions of ‘Negro Spirituals’, “charismatic” or “gospel” churches – gospel deriving from the old English gōdspel, meaning gōd ‘good’ + spel ‘news, a story’ [Concise Oxford Dictionary, 615] – and the fervent style of black English and black American religious singing, to which the Call/Response tradition is intrinsic. Judylyn Ryan notes that “Call-and-response structures, inherent in spirituals, the blues, sermons, folktales, and so on, anticipate and require a response that may extend, challenge, revise, clarify, or transform any previous utterance, and they outline a generative sequence in which the response becomes the new call.” [Ryan, 154]. Morrison supports this saying: “In the same way that a musician’s music is enhanced when there is a response from the audience … to have the reader work with the author in the construction of the book – is what’s important. What is left out is as important as what is there… To construct the dialogue so that it is heard.”

As music makes use of silence to create and enhance the sound, Morrison’s silences are as audible as her songs. In a direct comparison to the healing communal music that vanquishes Beloved from 124, the reader is also shown the negative isolation induced by silence after Sethe takes the life of her “crawling-already baby girl.” Although there is a crowd gathered outside for both significant events, after Beloved’s death and holding baby Denver in her arms “Sethe walked past them in their silence and hers.” Here we are struck by the uncomfortable and disconcerting weight of silence – a silence felt by the Sixty Million and More. A silence caused by the chasm of what they were forced to leave, forget, then endure and accustom to. The unnatural, disconcerting and painful effect of this multifaceted silence is drawn to our attention in Sethe’s most vulnerable moment, the silence signifying that things have changed, that something is amiss:

“Otherwise the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house on Bluestone Road. Some cape of sound would have quickly been wrapped around her, like arms to hold and steady her on the way. As it was, they waited till the cart turned about, headed west to town. And then no words. Humming. No words at all.” [179]

This articulates the protective, stabilising and soothing power of music felt boundlessly and universally – sound being capable of transcending across all means of social, cultural, racial and language barriers, succeeding in clearly expressing human emotion without more than a sheer cry.

It is important to note how the ability to create art with nothing more than the physical body we possess was essential to the Slaves, who literally had nothing other than themselves. Slaves were snatched from their homes, families, their cultures, customs and traditions, and left with nothing but themselves in a state of utter human right’s debauchery. Stripped of everything down to their mother language, isolating them from their very selves, Slaves were forced into many different kinds of ‘silence.’ Even instruments, such as drums that are steeped in African culture, were not permitted, banned along with anything that might allow people to gather together in a communal conversation, or unthinkably an uprising. This foundational gaping hole is part of what is addressed by Morrison, music being sufficiently and sensitively emotionally charged to go to these painful places of loss beyond loss, deeper than grief, to a place where the silence is deafening.

Margaret Atwood draws an interesting form of parallel here – in Oryx and Crake where humans are scientifically stripped of all ‘negative’ qualities that make them the ‘perfect humans.’ Although the ‘superior’ Crakers are free from negative traits down to jealousy, there are two qualities that are found to be impossible to separate from sheer ‘human-ness’ – dreams and song. “They understood about dreaming, he knew that: they dreamed themselves. Crake hadn’t been able to eliminate dreams. We’re hard-wired for dreams, he’d said. He couldn’t get rid of the singing either. We’re hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were entwined.” [Atwood, pg. 411]. The comparison is an interesting one – both Crakers and Slaves stripped of everything, but the sense of the innate spiritual power and soul cannot be taken away, no matter what. The first question Baby Suggs poses to herself regarding herself and “what she was like” being “Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?)” [165], indicates further the fundamental and foundational base place from which music originates within us.

The two consecutive sections written from Beloved’s perspective [248-252; and 253-256] provide two very differently musical passages. The first chapter is filled with physical ‘gaps’ in the novel’s text, but also with ‘gaps’ from the story’s narrative – as Beloved expounds, “how can I say things that are pictures” [248]. Morrison emphasises the many ‘silences’ to us here – the silence on the topic of slavery, the silence Black culture was forced into, numerous and deafening silences. There are also ‘chorus lines’ of “a hot thing, a hot hot thing” and expressive lines such as:

“                      again    again    night day         night day         ” [251].

The breaks left in the text again speak to what is physically and literally missing, the gaps, along with the metaphorical and the silence – the gaps between events blurring, that Morrison is literally showing us. The second chapter contains a duet between Beloved and Sethe, where it is not entirely clear who is speaking at a given time, but the three-page ‘song’ is continuous with the call/response pattern of Black musical orature, and the line “You are mine” repeated over and over as a chorus [253-256].

The importance that music held to Slaves is phenomenally articulated by Paul D. regarding his experience of “chain-dancing” [128] in shackles on the chain gang. With Hi Man’s cries of “Hiiii!” and “Hoooo!” signalling each day’s beginning and end, the men “danced two-step to the music of hand-forged iron” [127], relying on this rhythmic action to get them through the day, keep them persevering.

With a sledgehammer in his hands and Hi Man’s lead, the men got through. They sang it out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood; tricking the words so their syllables yielded up other meanings. They sang the women they knew; the children they had been; the animals they had tamed themselves or seen others tame. They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life. They sang lovingly of graveyards and sisters long gone. Of pork in the woods; meal in the pan; fish on the line; cane, rain and rocking chairs.  And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again … they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr Death, they smashed his head. [128]

This illuminating passage illustrates how fundamental music was to Slaves psyche and survival – acting as their only outlet, therapy, medicine and way of getting through tough times – expressing a conglomeration of contrasting emotions, all heightened by loss. Anger as well as love, happiness with sorrow and the pain both can cause are intertwined into emotive sound – nothing else is necessary.

Aside from the numerous actual songs written into the text, the very way and manner in which Morrison’s characters talk, as well as their demeanour, is interlaced with lyrical qualities – Paul D. is described as “a singing man”; Beloved’s voice is described as “low and rough” [62], ‘gravely’ like a blues singer; additionally her speech is strangely songlike [“tell me your diamonds”], and the chapters written from Beloved’s perspective allude to a poem, or story-like song. Furthermore, character’s actual speech is poetic, for example Sixto’s “She gather me man, the pieces I am..” Individual words are given a lyrical note, the most notable of which is the repeated use of “rememory” – a combination of ‘remember’ and memory,’ also used in “You rememory me?” [254], giving a musical quality and encompassing depth, roundness to what Morrison is saying.

Morrison uses the traditions of black English orature, including call/response traditions, to build a multi-layered and haunting song – each character contributing their voice and verse – building different notes of experience together to give us the rounded song, story of Beloved. Emphasising this, the three sections of the book can arguably be deemed as the book’s three ‘verses’ – beginning with “124 was spiteful”, “124 was loud”, and “124 was quiet” respectively. This is connotative of a hymn, selectively repeating and slightly altering the same line, the same message. This further illustrates Morrison’s use of the book as a whole as a song sung out to the reader, a call and a cry seeking a response.

Toni Morrison’s writing genius, the sheer beauty and power of her novels, is not solely rooted in in her difficult subject matter, but how she breathes life into it and shows beauty in the most desperate of situations. Morrison’s novels have long been acclaimed for truly engaging with the hardships and enduring difficulties experienced particularly within the African-American sphere – in Beloved, tackling the ‘unspeakable’ and unspoken history of slavery. Beloved is truly heart- and gut-wrenching. The emotional experiences Morrison calls on the reader to grapple with and process [centrally being a mother driven to kill her own child in the pursuit of freedom] provoke emotional reactions that are difficult to place – but we are not alone, we have the communal song to guide and aid us. In the same way that music has the ability to soak deep into our being beyond words, the emotive effect evoked by Morrison’s use of such rich traditions renders the reader as a listener to the song of Slaves, engages us in the black musical traditions of call/response, seeking our response to the entire tragedy to heal on a broad scale. Two things are certain – the music of Beloved will never be forgotten, and remains playing long after the last page has been turned.

This was inspired and made possible thanks to these resources:

  1. Atwood, Margaret. 2003. Oryx and Crake. Great Britain: Clays Ltd.
  2. Evans, Mari. ed. 1984. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. New York: Doubleday, Anchor Books.
  3. Furman, Jan. 1996. Toni Morrison’s Fiction. United States of America: University of South Carolina Press.
  4. McKay, Nellie Y. ed. 1988. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. United States of America: Library of Congress.
  5. McKay, Nellie Y. & Earle, Kathryn. ed. 1999. Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.
  6. Morrison, Toni. 2005. Beloved. United Kingdom: CPI Bookmarque.
  7. Morrison, Toni. 1988. Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature [The Tanner Lectures on Human Values]. Delivered at The University of Michigan [07-10-1988]. pp. 123-163.
  8. Morrison, Toni. 1995. The Site of Memory. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 2d ed., ed. Zinsser, William. pp. 83-102.
  9. Morrison, Toni & McKay, Nellie. 1983. An Interview with Toni Morrison. Contemporary Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4. pp. 413-429. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1208128 [Accessed 25/03/2014].
  10. Rigney, Barbara Hill. 1991. The Voices of Toni Morrison. United States of America: Ohio State University Press.
  11. Smith, Valerie. ed., 1995. New Essays on Song of Solomon. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
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