In an essay entitled “Writing, Race, and the Difference it Makes,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. goes over the way in which over the course of history, a binary has actually existed between brightness and writing, blackness and silence. Summarizing this custom, he writes, “Humans composed books. Beautiful books were reflections of sublime genius. Sublime genius was the province of the European … Blacks, and other people of color, might not ‘write'” (56 ). Attacking a tradition of European writers consisting of Kant, Hegel, and Bacon, Gates details the way in which whites asserted their supremacy through writing, and kept that superiority through the suppression of black voices or “pens.” For instance, a 1740 South Carolina Statute made black literary proficiency unlawful, therefore preventing blacks from developing 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 done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271) she mentions a larger theme of the unique, and one with which Gates is incredibly worried– the relationship of composing to the organization of slavery. The ink to which she refers is the item of her labors as a servant; it is the compound that Teacher takes from her in order to write a white supremacist discourse and perpetuate slavery. Acts of composing or inscription in the unique, as holds true in much of literature, represent assertions of firm. Alternatively, the failure to write symbolizes a loss of agency, as does becoming the item of engraving. By composing Beloved, Morrison gives voice not just to the murdered infant, but likewise to Sethe’s lost ink, attempting to ventriloquize the slave female and offer a way for contemporary readers to challenge the concern of slavery. Revisiting a time when whites managed the power of engraving under the organization of slavery, Morrison first presents a series of images that dramatize the suppression of black agency through engraving– Sethe’s ink, and the scar on her back– and then provides another series of images that attempt to neutralize 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 throughout slavery. Just as the ghost Cherished haunts 124 and the novel as an entire, the unique itself haunts modern society, demonstrating an option to the custom of white engraving.
I should discuss here that Paul D’s recollections of having the bit in his mouth clearly and successfully signify the assertion of white company through the silencing of black voice, as does Sethe’s recollection of having actually bitten her tongue while being whipped. However, the treatment of speech and voice is beyond the limits of this paper, so I will for today offer entirely with the incidents of composing in the book.
The very first of two main pictures of suppression is Teacher’s act of stealing the ink. The ink, like a kid, is the item of Sethe’s labor. That ink represents her capability to manage her fate, 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 simply take the ink; he exploits it to compose history and perpetuate the white supremacist discourse of slavery. As Sethe laments at the end of the unique, “He couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the ink” (271 ). Paralleling the method which white slave masters raped their slaves in order to perpetuate the commodity, Teacher robs Sethe of the fruits of her labor– the ink in order to engrave the discourse of slavery. While Sethe has the possible to compose her own history, that capacity is shattered in the robbing of her ink, and the white supremacist engraving that takes place.
Sethe’s scar is the other significant symbol of “unfavorable” engraving, and the numerous ways it is translated underscores its literariness. Sethe, although declining to take a look at it, welcomes Amy Denvers’ interpretation of it as a chokecherry tree, while the narrator 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 form of engraving, and the impulses to analyze it as a signifier recommend its discursive quality. By whipping her, the servant master completely inscribes her, placing the mark of his white identity on her black skin. Like the stealing of her ink, the long-term scar on her back represents the way in which inscription, or the act of writing, is important to the hierarchy of slavery and its perpetuation.
With the positioning of these pictures of “negative” inscription, Morrison approaches balancing them with more “positive” images of inscription, accompanied by the assertion of black company. The first of these images is Sethe’s infanticide, which serves to counter Teacher’s act of stealing her ink. Remarkably, Sethe’s child 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. However whereas Teacher claims the product of Sethe’s labor (the ink) and utilizes it to write history, Sethe claims the product of her own labor (her kid) by murdering it. Through the infanticide, Sethe manages the fate of her offspring, simply as Morrison controls the fate of her characters. By killing her child, Sethe makes up for the ink that has been stolen from her, essentially writing her own discourse. Ironically, that discourse is composed at the expense of a human life.
In addition, Sethe’s infanticide is made possible just by Morrison’s actual act of composing the book. Her infanticide is a type of composing in that it is an assertion of her agency, despite her status as an enslaved black female. Morrison’s act of composing actually permits the occasions of the novel to happen, however it likewise asserts her own identity as a totally free black lady on the white pages of the book. Therefore, the engraving of the book exists as a way to counter the previous acts of racial engraving that have occurred in the past.
This idea of inscription as retribution for past offenses is underscored by three essential ideas or images that appear in the book: the inscription of Beloved’s gravestone, the look of Beloved’s skin, and the location of the word “Cherished” on the really last page. In the first couple of pages of the unique, Sethe remembers how Beloved’s headstone was etched. Morrison writes:
… there it was again. The welcoming cool of unchiseled headstones; the one she selected to raid on tiptoe, her knees wide open as any grave. Pink as a fingernail it was, and sprayed with flashing chips. Ten minutes, he said. You got 10 minutes and I’ll do it free of charge … Ten minutes for 7 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 inscribing the book. However, the engraving of the word “Cherished” on the headstone takes place as the outcome of a sacrifice– here, Sethe must give up her body to pay for the inscription. Put at the beginning of the unique, this symbolizes a troublesome engraving; the inscribing itself represents an assertion of black firm through writing, yet the act is performed only as the outcome of sacrifice.
The description of Sethe with her “knees wide open” foreshadows the “birth” of Beloved into the unique, and her appearance helps neutralize the very first series of inscriptions (the scar on Sethe’s back and the stealing of her ink). Particularly, it is the appearance of Beloved’s skin when she arrives at 124 that serves this function. In the very first couple of paragraphs describing her, the narrator comments that “her feet resembled hands, soft and new” (52) which “her skin was flawless other than for three vertical scratches on her forehead so great and thin they appeared at first like hair …” (51 ). Beloved’s soft, new, and nearly perfect skin resembles the “unchiseled headstone”– both images have the quality of blankness, like surfaces that wait for engraving. Morrison’s description of Beloved’s skin is skillfully self-referential; it is like a blank canvas, marked by 3 vertical lines, and carefully looks like the pages of Beloved that wait for Morrison’s inscription. The blankness of Beloved’s skin directly opposes Sethe’s scarred back, which blankness welcomes composing– a more positive type of inscription than the kind that appears on her back. Again, Morrison’s act of inscribing Precious (that is, writing both the character and the book) serves to counteract the previous circumstances of racial inscription that have happened in slavery. Nevertheless, the lines of Beloved’s forehead suggest that inscription is still bothersome, and that regardless of her great intents, Morrison can not simply heal the past through writing.
Lastly, the positioning of the word “Cherished” at the very end of the novel accentuates the novel itself, and its presence as an example of an alternative kind of inscription, suggested to counter the binary that Gates recognizes between whiteness and writing, blackness and silence. The place of the word “Precious” as the last word of the last page suggests that Morrison has actually re-enacted the engraving of the headstone at the start of the book; simply put, Cherished remains entombed in the book. However, I would argue that although Morrison does offer a series of engravings– the gravestone, Beloved’s skin, and the unique itself– as retribution for previous transgressions– the stealing of Sethe’s ink, and her chokecherry tree scar– she does not mean to merely place a black literary voice in the location of white discourse. In his essay, Gates composes, “Whereas I when believed it our most important gesture to master the canon of criticism, to imitate and apply it, I now think that we need to turn to the black tradition itself to arrive at theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures” (67 ). While he ostensibly blogs about literary criticism, he evokes bigger separatist notions concerning the development of a clearly black literary voice. And although Morrison directly addresses Gates’ concepts of blackness and suppression, brightness and writing, Morrison does not share Gates’ sentiments on reconciling this custom.