Kyanie Vazquez is the recipient of the Class of 2019 Literature Achievement Award.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is ripe for discourse on the experience of being a Black person in the United States. The titular character of Beloved represents the case of blackness: what is blackness and how should it be represented? Morrison follows Sethe, a former enslaved person, and the life of her daughter, Denver, and her old friend, Paul D. Scholar Fred Moten describes the impossibility, paradox, and fugitivity that is the essence of Black existence. Toni Morrison’s character Beloved encapsulates the confusion and questions brought on by attempting to define the experience of being Black and how the weight of one’s definition — or of being undefined — weighs heavy on the mind of Black people.
Moten’s essay “The Case of Blackness” discusses how Black people are historically and consistently the subjects of scrutiny on the basis of their race. He explores the discourse of Black Pathology, the idea that there is something inherently different about Black people. He quotes Frantz Fanon: “Ontology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” Moten essentially argues that we don’t know how to know blackness.
In an argument similar to Simone de Beauvoir’s, Moten describes how the concept of Blackness is reliant on the existence of whiteness. Blackness is something that battles whiteness. However, what does it mean when we take whiteness away? How can there be Blackness without whiteness to combat? As a result, we are left with a strange hole in the definition of what it means to be Black.
Simone de Beauvoir’s articulation of The Other, especially with regard to gender, also explores gaps in definitions. She writes that the condition of being a woman is simply not being a man. Man is made the default and women is “The Other” option. Again, this leaves us with a paradox. How can something exist independently of something if it is, by definition, dependent on it? It can’t. If it does not exist independently, how does it exist? Both de Beauvoir and Moten argue that it is dangerous and harmful to rely on these definitions to give people identities. How is it then that we are meant to exist? We do not know how to know what it means to be a woman, a Black person, or a member of any group that is seen as The Other.
The concept of not knowing how to know blackness is woven subtly into the plot of Beloved. The novel begins in Sethe’s home, where we quickly learn that she is being haunted by the ghost of a child. One day, the child’s ghost leaves, and on another day a young women appears at Sethe’s house instead. The woman claims her name is Beloved. It is likely that this woman, Beloved, is otherworldly. One night “a fully dressed woman walked out of the water and arrives at Sethe’s door.” It is blatant that Beloved is the spirit of something that has followed Sethe. The question, however, is what is she the spirit of? I believe this ambiguity is the point Morrison is pushing: Beloved’s identity is an anomaly, and so is Sethe’s. The ghosts of her past haunt her, reminding her of the trauma she carries from her days of slavery and her identity as a possession, an object owned by white men. Beloved’s strangeness compliments the strangeness of being Black with no understanding of what that means. We don’t know who Beloved is, and Beloved is Sethe’s ghost. This not knowing reflects back onto Sethe and the ambiguous nature of her blackness.
Morrison not only writes Beloved as a persistent ghost that follows Sethe home, but she also has Sethe reference that she is being followed by memories. An example of Sethe mentioning pervasive memories appears in the novel’s first chapter. Morrison writes, “‘It wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home.’ [Paul D] shook his head. ‘But it’s where we were,’ said Sethe. ‘All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not.’” Sethe utters a melancholy statement about being unable to escape Sweet Home, the plantation both she and Paul D lived on under enslavement. Morrison consistently pushes this theme of post traumatic stress and repressed memories. Soon after, Sethe is confronted with Beloved, who triggers many of Sethe’s flashbacks and reminds her of buried trauma, trauma she carries with her—just like she carries Beloved on her conscience. She attempts to provide for Beloved, taking her in and treating her like she would a child. However, Beloved continues to demand more and more of Sethe until she consumes most of her resources and attention.
Over time, Sethe crumbles under Beloved’s presence, cooking for her and not her daughter, becoming frail and wasting away. Sethe obeys Beloved’s every whim. It is important to remember that Beloved’s existence is a metaphor for Sethe’s trauma following her. Morrison writes, “[Denver] knew Sethe’s greatest fear was . . . that Beloved might leave . . . leave before Sethe could make her realize that far worse than [death] . . . that anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you . . . Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.” Sethe is throwing herself completely into convincing the ghost of her child that the condition of whiteness could turn her Blackness into something to be ashamed of. Her Blackness exists in the presence of whiteness. Whiteness is the default, the norm, and the desired condition, forcing Blackness to become the other, something separate and lesser. Morrison implies that Sethe feels like her existence is dirty. Her “self” has been taken whole. Sethe feels a lack of identity and has no drive of her own. She is enslaved to a ghost, to no one, and to herself.
The problem with defining Blackness is that Sethe is Black when she is among white people. How do we define her existence and explain her experience when she is alone and fighting the trauma of her past? How can she escape the shackles of her lack of identity? She is no longer enslaved, yet she is not yet free. This is the case of Blackness and this is the story of Beloved.