In an essay entitled “Composing, Race, and the Distinction it Makes,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. goes over the way in which over the course of history, a binary has actually existed between whiteness and writing, blackness and silence. Summarizing this custom, he composes, “Human beings wrote books. Stunning books were reflections of sublime genius. Superb genius was the province of the European … Blacks, and other people of color, might not ‘write'” (56 ). Assaulting a tradition of European authors including Kant, Hegel, and Bacon, Gates outlines the method which whites asserted their superiority through writing, and preserved that supremacy through the suppression of black voices or “pens.” For example, a 1740 South Carolina Statute made black literary proficiency illegal, thereby preventing blacks from establishing the tools to break out of the intrinsic hierarchy (58 ).
In the last pages of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe pleads, “I made the ink, Paul D. He could not have actually done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271) she alludes to a larger style of the unique, and one with which Gates is extremely worried – the relationship of composing to the institution of slavery. The ink to which she refers is the product of her labors as a slave; it is the compound that Teacher draws from her in order to write a white supremacist discourse and perpetuate slavery. Acts of composing or engraving in the novel, as is true in much of literature, represent assertions of agency. Alternatively, the failure to write represents a loss of company, as does ending up being the object of inscription. By writing Beloved, Morrison gives voice not only to the killed baby, but also to Sethe’s lost ink, attempting to ventriloquize the servant female and offer a way for modern readers to face the problem of slavery. Reviewing a time when whites controlled the power of engraving under the institution of slavery, Morrison initially presents a series of images that dramatize the suppression of black company through inscription – Sethe’s ink, and the scar on her back – and after that presents another series of images that attempt to combat that inscription. By asserting her own black, female identity on the white pages of the novel, Morrison nullifies the process of white engraving that occurred during slavery. Just as the ghost Beloved haunts 124 and the novel as an entire, the novel itself haunts modern society, showing an alternative to the tradition of white inscription.
I need to discuss here that Paul D’s recollections of having the bit in his mouth vividly and effectively signify the assertion of white agency through the silencing of black voice, as does Sethe’s recollection of having actually bitten her tongue while being whipped. Nevertheless, the treatment of speech and voice is beyond the limits of this paper, so I will for today offer solely with the incidents of writing in the novel.
The very first of 2 central pictures of suppression is Schoolteacher’s act of stealing the ink. The ink, like a child, is the item of Sethe’s labor. That ink represents her ability to control her destiny, to rise against the association of blackness with silence and inferiority, and to do what Gates calls “write [herself] out of slavery” (66 ). Schoolteacher does not merely confiscate the ink; he exploits it to write history and perpetuate the white supremacist discourse of slavery. As Sethe regrets at the end of the unique, “He could not have done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271 ). Paralleling the method which white servant masters raped their servants in order to perpetuate the product, Schoolteacher robs Sethe of the fruits of her labor – the ink in order to engrave the discourse of slavery. While Sethe has the potential to compose her own history, that potential is shattered in the robbing of her ink, and the white supremacist engraving that occurs.
Sethe’s scar is the other significant sign of “negative” engraving, and the numerous methods it is interpreted highlights its literariness. Sethe, although declining to take a look at it, accepts Amy Denvers’ interpretation of it as a chokecherry tree, while the storyteller explains it as the “decorative work of an ironsmith” (17 ). While the scar is not so obvious regarding be in the shape of a letter, it is still a type of engraving, and the impulses to interpret it as a signifier suggest its discursive quality. By whipping her, the slave master permanently inscribes her, placing the mark of his white identity on her black skin. Like the stealing of her ink, the permanent scar on her back represents the method which engraving, or the act of composing, is essential to the hierarchy of slavery and its perpetuation.
With the positioning of these images of “unfavorable” engraving, Morrison commences balancing them with more “positive” pictures of engraving, accompanied by the assertion of black agency. The very first of these images is Sethe’s infanticide, which serves to counter Schoolteacher’s act of taking her ink. Remarkably, Sethe’s kid and Morrison’s work have the exact same name. That is, there is a purposeful conflation of Sethe’s and Morrison’s “offspring.” Sethe’s ink, Sethe’s kid, and Morrison’s novel are all items of labor. But whereas Teacher claims the item of Sethe’s labor (the ink) and utilizes it to compose history, Sethe declares the product of her own labor (her child) by murdering it. Through the infanticide, Sethe manages the fate of her offspring, simply as Morrison manages the fate of her characters. By killing her kid, Sethe offsets the ink that has been taken from her, basically composing her own discourse. Ironically, that discourse is composed at the cost of a human life.
In addition, Sethe’s infanticide is enabled only by Morrison’s literal act of writing the book. Her infanticide is a sort of writing in that it is an assertion of her firm, despite her status as an enslaved black female. Morrison’s act of composing actually permits the occasions of the novel to occur, but it likewise asserts her own identity as a complimentary black woman on the white pages of the book. Therefore, the engraving of the book exists as a method to counter the previous acts of racial inscription that have actually happened in the past.
This idea of engraving as retribution for previous offenses is highlighted by three key concepts or images that appear in the book: the inscription of Beloved’s gravestone, the appearance of Beloved’s skin, and the place of the word “Precious” on the extremely last page. In the very first few pages of the unique, Sethe recalls how Beloved’s headstone was inscribed. Morrison writes:
… there it was again. The inviting cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she chose to lean against on tiptoe, her knees broad open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprinkled with glittering chips. Ten minutes, he stated. You got ten minutes and I’ll do it free of charge … Ten minutes for seven letters. (4-5)
The image of “unchiseled headstones” evokes the concept of blank pages, and the act of etching carefully parallels Morrison’s act of engraving the book. However, the inscription of the word “Cherished” on the headstone takes place as the outcome of a sacrifice – here, Sethe needs to give up her body to spend for the engraving. Positioned at the beginning of the novel, this represents a problematic inscription; the engraving itself represents an assertion of black company through writing, yet the act is carried out just as the result of sacrifice.
The description of Sethe with her “knees large open” foreshadows the “birth” of Beloved into the novel, and her look helps neutralize the first series of engravings (the scar on Sethe’s back and the stealing of her ink). Particularly, it is the appearance of Beloved’s skin when she comes to 124 that serves this function. In the very first couple of paragraphs describing her, the narrator remarks that “her feet resembled hands, soft and brand-new” (52) which “her skin was flawless except for 3 vertical scratches on her forehead so great and thin they appeared at first like hair …” (51 ). Beloved’s soft, brand-new, and nearly flawless skin resembles the “unchiseled headstone” – both images have the quality of blankness, like surface areas that wait for inscription. Morrison’s description of Beloved’s skin is cleverly self-referential; it is like a blank canvas, marked by three vertical lines, and carefully looks like the pages of Beloved that await Morrison’s engraving. The blankness of Beloved’s skin directly opposes Sethe’s scarred back, and that blankness welcomes composing – a more favorable form of engraving than the kind that appears on her back. Again, Morrison’s act of inscribing Precious (that is, composing both the character and the book) serves to neutralize the previous instances of racial inscription that have occurred in slavery. Nevertheless, the lines of Beloved’s forehead suggest that inscription is still troublesome, which despite her excellent intents, Morrison can not simply heal the past through writing.
Lastly, the placement of the word “Beloved” at the very end of the unique accentuates the unique itself, and its existence as an example of an alternative form of inscription, indicated to counter the binary that Gates determines between whiteness and writing, blackness and silence. The location of the word “Beloved” as latest thing of the last page recommends that Morrison has actually re-enacted the engraving of the headstone at the start of the novel; to put it simply, Cherished remains entombed in the book. However, I would argue that although Morrison does supply a series of inscriptions – the gravestone, Beloved’s skin, and the unique itself – as retribution for past transgressions – the stealing of Sethe’s ink, and her chokecherry tree scar – she does not suggest to merely insert a black literary voice in the location of white discourse. In his essay, Gates composes, “Whereas I when believed it our essential gesture to master the canon of criticism, to mimic and use it, I now believe that we must rely on the black custom itself to arrive at theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures” (67 ). While he ostensibly writes about literary criticism, he stimulates bigger separatist notions concerning the development of a definitely black literary voice. And although Morrison straight addresses Gates’ ideas of blackness and suppression, brightness and writing, Morrison does not share Gates’ beliefs on reconciling this custom.