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Former slaves, provided first-hand accounts of their personal experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms; these accounts became known as slave narratives. Slave narratives remain a useful resource for understanding the lives of America's once enslaved population. The narratives capture the very voices of American slavery, revealing the texture of life as it was experienced and remembered; each narrative is unique and taken alone offers a fragmentary, microcosmic representation of slave life. The narratives also allow us to explore some of the most compelling themes of slavery, including labor, resistance and flight, family life, relations with masters and other figures of authority, and religious belief. Toni Morrison's, Beloved makes an excellent contribution to the genre of the African American slave narrative tradition because her style of writing in the novel allows the reader to understand the disastrous impact of slavery on her characters lives and spirits that is usually hidden within classical slave narratives.
Beloved is a neo-slave narrative that follows the lives of many former slaves and focuses on both the characters as a group and individual memories of slavery. Beloved differs from many other slave narratives in many different ways. The first goal of classical slave narratives was to give a representational account of the American slave system; the second goal was to persuade the audience/reader that African Americans were entities/human beings. However, many classical slave narratives were silent on certain issues; they were silent in fear of exposing all of slavery's horrors without alienating or offending their primarily white readership that had the power to create change or abolish slavery. Morrison is very creative in Beloved; she uses the idea of memory to discuss parts of slave life not typically discussed in classical slave narratives. Morrison retrieves aspects of slavery that actually exist within the slave narratives but often remain hidden.
However, while there are many connections between Beloved and classical slave narratives, there are also clear differences. The first difference is of course the fact that, the front page or title page of Beloved does not resemble the title page of most slave narratives. Another element that makes a slave narrative identifiable is the fact that the preface of the book is written by a white person so as to validate a slave's story. This was done because slaves were second class citizens and had no voice. Therefore, for an ex-slave's story to be heard, he or she had to get a white person to validate the truth of his or her story. Slave narratives written by Jacobs, Douglass, Equiano, Northup, etc., all have prefaces that is written and signed by a white person to attest that the content of the book is true; this is not evident in Beloved. Additionally, unlike classical slave narratives, Beloved does not attempt to persuade the White reader of the slave's humanity; the novel can be seen as addressing African Americans past which has either, been repressed, forgotten, or ignored while simultaneously telling the story of an ex-slave.
Classical slave narratives begin with, "I was born", provides information about the slaves parents, siblings, description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of whipping's and numerous subsequent whippings where women are very frequently the victims, struggles to attain literacy, images of slave auctions where families are being separated and destroyed, of distraught mothers clinging to their children as they are torn from them, of slave coffles being driven South, attempts, failures, and successes of escaping, name changes, descriptions of a "Christian" slaveholder and the accompanying claim that "Christian" slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion and general reflections on the institution of slavery. There are differences in form. As autobiographies the classical slave narratives made use of a first person perspective which typically remains fixed and stable throughout the narrative and also the chain of events in the narrator's life. Beloved by contrast, is told from a third person perspective which makes it possible to see different perspectives of the main characters including, Sethe, Paul D, Denver, Baby Suggs, and Beloved herself. The novel is constantly shuffling between past and present, as memories of slavery cut in and out of one another making the read of Beloved very different from reading that of a classical slave narrative.
Even as narratives are written signs of freedom, they were produced and distributed in a literary context marked by constraints which limited representation and divided what could have been said from what could not. Beloved makes a novel contribution to the genre of the African American slave narrative because it is able to dwell much more graphically and at greater length on details of physical and sexual violence but also focuses precisely on the way slavery violates, structures and settles/remains on the minds of black people. There are important distinctions between the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl. Douglass's narrative not only entails the journey from freedom to slavery but also the journey from slavery to manhood; Jacobs's narrative on the other hand, describes the sexual exploitation that challenged the womanhood of slave women and tells the story of resistance to that exploitation. Beloved contains all these characteristics, with several signifying differences.
The themes in Beloved are very similar to that of a slave narrative. For one, Sethe, the protagonist, has experienced life as a slave. I believe Morrison thoroughly studied accounts of former slaves before writing her novel. The first theme presented in the book is pain and sadness. The novel begins with, "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom." Here she is focusing on the grief of an innocent slave baby; Morrison conveys to the reader right away that slavery brought much suffering to blacks. Later on in the novel, Sethe comments on her experiences of being a slave in a series of flashbacks, her whippings and beatings are all accounted for in graphic passages, including the passage in which she is raped. Morrison revisits the rape of black women by white men enslavers; she is ultimately revising the conventional slave narrative by insisting on the significance of sexual violation over any other experience of brutality. Additonally, Morrison depicts rape as a process by which white male slave-owners kept black women in a constant state of fear.
In further conversation, the memories of sexual abuse and exploitation are relevant to each of the characters. For example, Paul D must hide rape's traumatic effects; he seals away the painful, significant events of his past in, "a tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be" (Morrison, 89). The tobacco-tin metaphor is a striking one, making it clear that Paul D sees his ruined heart as a product of slavery, as much as tobacco itself was. His life is restricted by commerce, and it invades his body as well; he cannot be whole with the symbol of his degradation lodged inside him. Additionally, Denver is a hostage in her own home and mind for fear of sexual violation. Nonetheless, the novel's recounting of incidences of sexual exploitation, which is accomplished through a dual structure of memory and live telling, serves primarily to situate the novel's main action, which is Sethe's murder of her own child to save her from violation by white slave owners and the later return of that child to seek revenge otherwise known as Beloved. Sethe killed the two-year-old child so that no white man would ever violate her as did the young men who violated Sethe. As the novel continues however, Beloved's return forces each of the characters to face the dehumanizing effects of the innumerable incidents of sexual violation so that each character can reclaim his/her identity. Beloved highlights on what I think is one of the most important side effects of slavery and that is its negative impact on the former slaves' senses of self or identity. The novel depicts numerous examples of self-alienation. Paul D, for instance, is so alienated from himself that at one point he cannot tell whether the screaming he hears is his own or someone else's. By alienating himself from his emotions, Paul D hopes to preserve himself from further emotional damage. In order to secure this protection, however, Paul D sacrifices much of his humanity by foregoing feeling and gives up much of his selfhood by repressing his memories. Slaves were constantly told that they were not human but chattels to be bought on sold on a market; consequently, Paul D is very insecure about whether or not he could possibly be a real "man," and he frequently wonders about his value as a person. Sethe once walked in on schoolteacher giving his pupils a lesson on her so-called, "animal characteristics." She, too, seems to be alienated from herself and filled with self-loathing. Slavery has also limited Baby Suggs's self-conception by shattering her family and denying her the opportunity to be a true wife, sister, daughter, or loving mother as a reoccurring theme in Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
One of the major themes in many slave narratives is the fear of returning to slavery. In many accounts ex-slaves have claimed that they would rather die than return to the pain and suffering wrought by slavery. Morrison creates Sethe's character to hold the same sentiment, with strong love for her children, and in saving them from slavery; she commits an act of infanticide. Here, it is clear that under slavery a mother best expresses her love for her children by murdering them and thus protecting them from the horrors often associated with female slaves. The scars on Sethe's back serve as another testament to her disfiguring and dehumanizing years as a slave. Morrison constantly focuses on pain in order to keep a background theme in the readers mind throughout the novel. The focus on pain is very similar to that of a first hand perspective as in a classical slave narrative. Many of the slaves interviewed made sure that it was very clear to the person who wrote their dictated narratives, that pain was a constant struggle in their lives. The community in many slave narratives has also played a huge role; as in Jacobs narrative, where her escape could not have been possible without the help of her community and friends. Beloved demonstrates this theme. During Sethe's twenty-eight days of freedom, she becomes a part of the Cincinnati community. Similarly, Denver discovers herself and grows up when she leaves 124 and becomes a part of society. Paul D and his fellow prison inmates in Georgia could have only escaped through a collective force; in the novel they are chained to one another, and Paul D recalls that, "if one lost, all lost." Similarly, the concept of language is also highlighted in Beloved, the characters are able to manipulate language and exceed its standard limits. Their ability to understand language, allows them to use it to their own advantage of making it indecipherable to the white masters who watch them. For example, Paul D and the Georgia prison inmates sing together about their dreams and memories by "garbling . . . [and] tricking the words."
Morrison's, Beloved portrays the hidden lives of the characters in the novel as well as many ex-slaves; she shows the mental attitudes and customs that allowed some slaves to survive and to resist their bondage while others could not. Morrison's job in writing Beloved was not to abolish slavery but to emphasize that wherever slavery exists then people are bound to suffer a loss of identity, as well as a loss of humanity and compassion for others. For this reason, Morrison suggests that the identity of America is similar to the identities of the, novel's characters; an identity that must be repaired. One cannot move forward without fully having an understanding of the past or where one comes from. Just as Sethe must come to terms with her past before she can move on with her life, and just as Paul D is convinced that nothing can pry the lid of his box open; but his strange, sexual encounter with Beloved which can be read as a symbol of an encounter with his past causes the box to burst and his heart once again to glow red. Same as the, the issues associated with slavery's legacy in contemporary problems of racial discrimination and conflict, we must first confront the dark and hidden corners of the past. In Beloved, we learn about the history and representations of slavery from the perspectives of Sethe's, Paul D's, Stamp Paid's, and Baby Suggs's. Lastly, Morrison writes her novel about a people whose voices were once historically denied and ignored even in a literary culture. Beloved recuperates a history that had been lost, forgotten or forced to be silenced; she leaves us with the question of how to deal with slavery's haunting memory; how to recover from the scars it has left of the hearts and minds of black people.