Academic Exchange Quarterly Spring 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 2

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Toni Morrison and the Re-imagination of History


John Ambrosio, Ball State University, IN


Ambrosio, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Ball State University.



In this article, the author examines the narrative strategy and style employed in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved and argues that educators can draw useful pedagogical insights from her approach to the re-retelling of history.  The author explicates Morrison’s strategy of revising our historical understanding of slavery by portraying the interior life of former slaves, and how her use of literary devices to create certain kinds of experience opens up the possibility of thinking differently about history and about ourselves.



The purpose of this inquiry is to examine how Morrison’s narrative strategy and style of re-telling history in Beloved can inform the pedagogical imagination of educators.  To this end, I explicate some of the central themes in the text and examine how Morrison’s use of language and her approach to storytelling make the re-visioning of history possible.  


Unpredictable Futures

For Toni Morrison, history is a form of storytelling, a complex process of forgetting and remembering in which we constitute and reconstitute ourselves and others, where the past is viewed “as a resource for new and unpredictable futures.”  Writing history is a way of transforming fragments of historical information into “complex notions of tradition, identity, and community” which are socially relevant to contemporary audiences.  For Morrison, there is a vital link between history, memory, storytelling, and psychic healing, both individual and collective.


In her novel Beloved, Morrison addresses the trauma of remembrance, the problem of how to live with unspeakable memories.  What is important about Beloved, she argues, “is the process by which we construct and deconstruct reality in order to be able to function in it.  I’m trying to explore how a people—in this case one individual or a small group of individuals—absorbs and rejects information on a very personal level about something [slavery] that is indigestible and un-absorbable, completely.”  For her, novels are important because “they’re socially responsible” and can do “precisely what spirituals used to do.  It can do exactly what blues or jazz, or gossip or stories or myths or folklore did,” which is to “help beleaguered communities” survive and sustain themselves in the face of oppression and terror.  Morrison does not seek to “explain anything to anybody,” but to “clarify the roles that have become obscured; to identify those things in the past that are useful and those things that are not; and to give nourishment.” (Taylor-Guthrie, 1994)


The Perfect Dilemma

In Beloved, Morrison addresses the “perfect dilemma” of exploring how former slaves live with impossible memories that are too horrific to either remember or forget.  That is, of how they can “remember the horror in a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive.” (Taylor-Guthrie, 1994)  For Sethe, “the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay,” of  “beating back the past” in order to “disremember” the traumas and humiliations of Sweet Home and the day she killed Beloved to keep her safe from Schoolteacher.  Like Sethe, Paul D was tormented by “rememories” of Sweet Home, of his failed escape from bondage and the chain gang.  They both worked hard at repressing memories, at avoiding dangerous talk that might cause them to re-experience the horrors of their enslavement.  Thus, when Paul D began telling Sethe the story of an experience with Schoolteacher, she stopped him because saying

more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from.  He would keep the rest where it belonged: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be.  Its lid rusted shut.  He would not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him.  And it would hurt her to know that there was no red heart bright as Mister’s comb beating in him. (Morrison, 1987a)

One of Morrison’s primary aims in writing Beloved was to “extend, fill in, and complement slave autobiographical narratives” which deliberately avoided any mention of the sordid details of slavery so as not to offend the sensibilities of their mostly white readership.  Morrison was faced with the difficult problem of how to represent the interior life of slaves, the ways in which slavery constrained, distorted, and subverted the expression of powerful human emotions and desires.  She concluded that “only the act of imagination can help me gain access to the unwritten interior life of these people,” an act that “is bound up with memory.” (Morrison, 1987b)


Morrison’s imaginative exploration of the interior life of former slaves focuses on how they survived the violent suppression of their desire to love, care for, and nurture others—especially the experience of mother-love.  When Schoolteacher’s nephews took Sethe’s breast milk, they not only violated her body, they symbolically and literally took away her future, her ability to express mother-love by nurturing her children.


Loving someone “too much” was a dangerous proposition in a world in which loved ones could be taken away, would disappear forever without notice.  Paul D thought Sethe’s mother-love was too risky.

For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love.  The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit: everything, just a little but, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one...A woman, a child, a brother—a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia…to get to a place where you could love anything you chose—not to need permission for desire—well now, that was freedom. (Morrison, 1987a)

Love that was “took thick,” as Paul D described it, was precisely the kind of mother-love Sethe had for her children, a love that was so fierce and irrepressible that she would kill her children to save them from a life of slavery.  Once Sethe was in a position to love them freely, her mother-love emerged with an extraordinary intensity.

A central theme in Beloved is the issue of how to love others deeply without placing all of the value of one’s life in something outside of oneself.  The “best thing that is in us,” Morrison claims, “is also the thing that makes us sabotage ourselves, sabotage in the sense that our life is not as worthy, or our perception of the best part of ourselves.”  Historically, the problem for black women, she argues, is in “trying to do two things: to love bigger than yourself, to nurture something; and also not to sabotage yourself, not to murder yourself.” (Taylor-Guthrie, 1994)  In Beloved, Morrison explores how the “best thing that is in us” was distorted and subverted under slavery, how “loving bigger than yourself” could lead to the displacement of oneself and to self sabotage—which is precisely the situation that developed between Sethe and Beloved.  When Sethe tells Paul D that Beloved “was her best thing,” he vehemently disagrees, insisting that “you your best thing, Sethe, you are.” (Morrison, 1987a)


For former slaves, accepting that “you your best thing” meant psychically and emotionally reconnecting to bodies that had been violated, devalued, and appropriated by others.  After Baby Suggs gained her freedom, she “suddenly saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling.  ‘These hands belong to me.  These are my hands.’  Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat.  Had it been there all along?  This pounding thing?” (Morrison, 1987a)


Reclaiming and psychically re-inhabiting their bodies was essential to developing self-love, to becoming “their own best thing.”  Baby Suggs implored those gathered in the Clearing to love themselves, physically and spiritually.

Here, in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass.  Love it.  Love it hard.  Yonder they do not love your flesh.  They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick them out.  No more do they love the skin on your back.  Yonder they flay it.  And O my people they do not love your hands.  Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty.  Love your hands! Love them.  Raise them up and kiss them.  Touch others with them, pat them together stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either.  You got to love it, you!…More than lungs that have yet to draw free air.  More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart.  For this is the prize. (Morrison, 1987a)

Developing self-love meant having to revisit and refigure the past.  The past returned to 124 Bluestone Road in the form of Beloved, who represents not only Sethe’s past, but the collective past of all slaves, including the “60 million or more” who perished in the Middle Passage.  Beloved’s appearance signals the impossibility of forgetting, and raises the inescapable dilemma of how to live with an unbearable past.


Narrative Style

Morrison addresses this dilemma by adopting an indirect narrative structure and style that relies on a variety of literary techniques, especially the African American communicative practice of signifyin(g), which includes “metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony.”  As Henry Louis Gates (1988) points out, literary tropes

turn upon the free play of language itself, upon the displacement of meanings…by drawing attention to the signifier.  Meaning is deferred because the relationship between intent and meaning, between speech and its act of comprehension, is skewed by the figures of rhetoric or signification…which creates an undecidability within the discourse that must be interpreted or decoded by careful attention to its play of differences.

To this end, Morrison employs literary practices analogous to signifyin(g) in jazz performances, which depend on repetition, recursivity, and revision for their effect.  In The Bluest Eye, for example, Morrison creates sentence fragments and word strings without connecting syntax or punctuation to disorient her readers, to simulate the experiences of her characters, and to break up and confuse normative representations of universal experience.  In Beloved, Morrison wants the embodied experience of reading the novel to parallel that of slavery, in which the

reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign, and I want it as the first stroke of the shared experience that might be possible between the reader and the novel’s population.  Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from anyplace to another, without preparation and without defense.  No lobby, no door, no entrance—a gangplank, perhaps (but a very short one).  And the house into which this snatching—this kidnapping—propels one, changes from spiteful to loud to quiet, as the sounds in the body of the ship itself may have changed. (Morrison, 2000)

Morrison’s narrative strategy is to “to provide the places and spaces so that the reader can participate.  Because it is the affective and participatory relationship between the artist and the speaker and the audience that is of primary importance.” (Morrison, 1984)  She wants to “restore the language that black people spoke to its original power by using a language which is “rich but not ornate,” that keeps “language quiet” by constructing dialogue without adverbs “so that it is heard.”  Morrison insists that “language has to have holes and spaces so the reader can come into it,” so that “he or she can feel something visceral, see something striking.” (Taylor-Guthrie, 1994)


By shifting contexts and juxtaposing narrative perspectives, Morrison is able to dislodge and destabilize dominant meanings.  That is, by placing signifiers in different interpretative contexts, shifting recursively through time and space, and by signifying inter-textually, she opens up their semantic possibilities and makes it possible for readers to “hear” new meanings.  In this way, Morrison’s novels anticipate and “demand participatory reading,” they compel readers to engage in meaning-making and to actively construct their own interpretations. (Taylor-Guthrie, 1994)



Like Morrison’s narrative style, Sethe and Paul D can only approach their “rememories” indirectly.  When Paul D handed the newspaper clipping of Beloved’s killing to Sethe, she responded by “spinning” around the room, “turning like a slow but steady wheel….circling him the way she was circling the subject.” (Morrison, 1987a)


Sethe thought Beloved’s return would release her from the haunting rememories of the day Schoolteacher appeared at 124 Bluestone Road.  She was relieved to “think about all I ain’t got to remember no more...I don’t have to rememory or say a thing because you know it all.” However, as Amy Denver, a young white woman who helped Sethe during her escape from Sweet Home remarked while messaging Sethe’s swollen feet and legs, “anything dead coming back to life hurts.” (Morrison, 1987a)  Instead of being freed from her rememories, Sethe became psychically trapped by Beloved’s insatiable demands for atonement.  By acknowledging the past, embodied in Beloved, Sethe was given an opportunity to learn to live with her rememories.


Memories, however, are not self-evident and transparent recollections of unproblematic experience, but historically specific reconstructions of “a past that has never been present.” Memories become reconfigured when they are made an explicit object of reflection, the retelling of the story is itself a reconfiguration of the past.  While “reflection involves displacing the same elsewhere,” of recognizing the elements of one story in another, the retelling of a story reconfigures and re-signifies its meaning.


Like the process of transference in psychoanalysis, reenacting traumatic experiences “with a difference” can have a therapeutic effect.  When Sethe sees Mr. Bodwin approaching 124 Bluestone Road she “hears wings” and tries to attack him with an ice pick.  In this way, Sethe reenacts the trauma of Schoolteacher’s appearance, but is able to react differently, with the full-force of her mother-love, to alter the outcome.


Beloved disappears only after being confronted by an assembly of black women from the community intent on casting her out.  Sethe is transformed by the power of their singing.  For her, it was

as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and shimmering leaves, where 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. (Morrison, 1987a)

Sethe was freed from her torment by the voices of black women in her community, whose powerful spirituality, expressed in song, “broke the back of words,” bypassing the circuits of conceptual and rational thought.


Critical Interpretations

As Solomon (1998) notes, a “considerable number of critics who have addressed Morrison’s narrative structure and rhetorical strategies” argue that the “fragmented chronology; elliptical, ambiguous, and repeated descriptions of events; multiplicity of narrative voices; and repeated patterns of images and motifs are central to Beloved’s powerful impact.” (Smith, 1993; Pérez-Torres, 1997; Rodriguez, 2000; Moreira-Slepoy, 2003)  Morrison’s narrative strategy “requires the intensive participation of readers” who must “sort out the characters’ relationships” and reassemble the “details of setting and time.”  Her approach to storytelling in Beloved “works to postpone the reader’s judgment,” thereby opening up the novel’s interpretative possibilities. (Cutter, 2000)  While characters in the story are never absolved of responsibility, Morrison insists that we know something about their life experience before passing judgment.


Pedagogical Implications

Educators who want to disturb and displace narratives of historical truth can draw valuable pedagogical insights from an examination of Morrison’s narrative strategy and style in re-telling history.  By using different kinds of narratives, and juxtaposing them temporally, spatially, and inter-textually, we invite students to participate in an imaginative re-appropriation of history.  While Morrison’s approach to storytelling demonstrates how literature can produce powerful and transformative affective experiences, it can also inform and enrich the pedagogical imagination of educators who seek to make new understandings of historical truth possible.



Cutter, M. (2000). The story must go on and on: The fantastic, narration, and intertextuality in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz. African American Review 34, 1:61-75.


Gates, H. L. (1988). The signifying monkey: A theory of Afro-American literary criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.


Moreira-Slepoy, G. (2003). Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Reconstructing the past through storytelling and private narratives. Post-Scriptum 2, 13 paragraphs. Available at:


Morrison, T. (1984). Rootedness: The ancestor as foundation. In M. Evans (Ed.), Black women writers (1950-1980) (pp. 339-345). Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.


Morrison, T. (1987a). Beloved. New York: Penguin.


Morrison, T. (1987b). The site of memory. In W. Zinsser (Ed.), Inventing the truth: The art and craft of memoir (pp. 103-124). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Morrison, T. (2000). Unspeakable things unspoken: The Afro-American presence in American literature. In J. James & T. Denean Sharply-Whiting (Eds.), The black feminist reader (pp. 24-56). Malden, MA: Blackwell.


Pérez-Torres, R. (1997). Knitting and knotting the narrative thread—Beloved as postmodern novel. In N. Peterson (Ed.), Toni Morrison: Critical and theoretical approaches (pp. 91-109). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.


Rodriguez, E. (2000). The telling of Beloved. In S. O. Iyasere & M. W. Iyasere (Eds.), Understanding Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Sula: Selected essays and criticisms of the works by the Nobel Prize-winning author (pp. 61-82). New York: Whitston Publishing.


Smith, V. (1993). Circling the subject: History and narrative in Beloved. In H. L. Gates and K. A. Appiah (Eds.), Toni Morrison: Critical perspectives past and present (pp. 342-355). New York: Amistad.


Solomon, B. (1998). Introduction. In B. Solomon (Ed.), Critical essays on Toni Morrison’s Beloved (pp. 1-35). New York: G. K. Hall & Co.


                Taylor-Guthrie, D. (1994). Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.