Postcolonial Experience in a Domestic Context: Commodified Subjectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

by Mary Jane Suero Elliott

Many of the characters in Beloved are born into slavery and experience the imposed objectivity of its commodifying ideology. Clearly, as we know from historical and slave narratives, such objectivity does not exclude all possibility of experiencing some degree of subjectivity. In Beloved, however, denial and oppression of black identity by the larger slave-owning society leads to an internalization of this colonizing discourse and subsequently to an inability for some, and for others a constant struggle, to develop a self-empowered subjectivity when free from physical slavery. Thus, although the end of slavery signals the beginning of a "post" colonial(1) period for African Americans, their status continues to be defined by slavery's colonial ideologies.(2) The imposed perception of themselves as commodified beings, when internalized, results in their continued struggle to develop an empowered, agentive sense of self.

In Yearning, bell hooks writes about black subjectivity as "an oppositional worldview, a consciousness, an identity, a standpoint that exists not only as that struggle which also opposes dehumanization but as that movement which enables creative, expansive self-actualization" (15). For Sethe, Beloved's central character, self-actualization, or the development of subjectivity, can be realized only outside the limits of a colonial discourse and within a collectively defined alternate discourse signifying individual empowerment. This alternative discourse, I argue, is found in the free black community to which Sethe flees. But her subjectivity is realized only when she becomes a full member of her community. Membership depends on both Sethe's and the community's recognition of internalized ideologies of oppression. Morrison's text, then, can be read as postcolonial(3) because it delineates a process of self-liberation through communal support within the colonial context of slavery.

In a postcolonial analysis of Beloved, the work of Homi Bhabha(4) and Gloria Anzaldua helps us to read Sethe's self-actualization as a resistive process against objectifying colonial definitions of black identity. Anzaldua's definition of "mestiza consciousness"(5) complements Bhabha's definition of the shifting positionalities within the "colonial subject" and the formation of a colonial subjectivity through the colonial fetish and stereotype. For Anzaldua, all women of color have the potential to reflect a mestiza consciousness. As an oppressed woman of color, Sethe has this potential. In Sethe, then, the text develops a mestiza character. Together, the theories of Anzaldua and Bhabha serve to recontextualize Sethe's motivations for murdering her child, the subsequent ostracism by her community, her obsessive love for Beloved, and her final release from the ideological confines of colonial commodification. This recontextualization of Sethe's story defines Beloved as a mestiza text.

Within the postcolonial framework through which I read Beloved,(6) resisting the colonial perception of self as commodified inferior is part of what Satya P. Mohanty terms "decolonization." Developing an empowered subjectivity involves learning to define oneself through a perspective uninformed by dominant definitions of black identity. Acquiring a perspective outside of colonial constructs of inferiorized subject positions subverts these constructs and thus decolonizes the self. The process of decolonization is an important part of this mestiza text because the main character moves from a limiting "counterstance" position, signifying a mere inversion of colonial roles, to mestiza consciousness, signifying an alternative discourse outside colonial ideologies. Significantly, in Beloved decolonization occurs in a communal context. The book's central characters begin to define themselves against a colonially defined and internalized isolation, fear, or even pride only with the support of others who also have experienced oppression. Attempts at self-liberation fail when they are not founded on mutual trust between individuals or support from community.

Furthermore, decolonization is not only an individual process within a communal context, but also a collective occurrence. The text's emphasis on "rememory" as collective(7) as well as individual theorizes a process of collective decolonization.(8) Linda Krumholz's definition of slavery begins to address the idea of collectivity as conceptualized in Beloved. She defines slavery, and thus implicitly the nation's colonialist history, as a "national trauma" (396) not limited to individuals or to African Americans. I read Krumholz's concept of national trauma as specifically informed by a colonialist past and a neocolonialist present. The national, historical process of healing and rememory identified by Krumholz becomes, in my definition of rememory, a process of collective decolonization.

Morrison's text implicitly speaks to the need for collective decolonization in its focus on rememory and the necessity of confronting the past's unresolved issues. A postcolonial reading highlights the implications of the text for alternative conceptualizations of national history.(9) Reading slavery explicitly as a colonial institution forces a certain kind of rememory: slavery is a historical reality for every U.S. citizen, not just for contemporary African Americans. Importantly, Morrison's historical revisioning, which calls for collective rememory, defines the U.S. as an oppressive colonialist nation, thus challenging official historical narratives of democratic benevolence. It also places the U.S. as a nation in a parallel position to Sethe and slavery; Sethe and her relationship to slavery as a colonialist institution embodies in microcosm a specifically postcolonial facet of Morrison's historical rememory. In this equation, Sethe represents national identity as defined by colonial constructs. Just as the colonialist nature of national history manifests itself through the institutionalization of slavery, Sethe's act of infanticide manifests her internalization of the oppressive ideologies that justify her enslavement. As a result, her story is about learning how to resist effectively, how to develop an empowered rather than a destructive subjectivity. Just as she needs to confront unresolved issues in her past, the nation, in an act of collective decolonization, also must confront the colonialist past in order to change the neocolonialist present.

Morrison's revisioning, read within a postcolonial framework, is radical in its conclusion to the national narrative embodied in Sethe's story. Her decolonized subjectivity does not signify power over others, but empowerment within a context of communal support. Thus Morrison, in creating an alternative outside binary colonialist constructs for Sethe's developing subjectivity, also creates an alternative for U.S. history. She not only rewrites the past, but in a reading of Sethe as representative of an alternative national identity, Morrison offers an alternative for the national future. By this logic, the U.S. need not follow the colonialist trajectory it has been simultaneously following and creating. Morrison thus denaturalizes ideologies of nationhood that require an oppressive, strictly boundaried stance. Morrison's concept of rememory, read as postcolonial, challenges and begins to redefine traditional definitions of nationhood, of an isolated yet dominant imperialist power, one boundaried both internationally and domestically. Sethe learns she cannot be truly "free" without undergoing a process of decolonization, defined by the novel as contextualized, necessarily, in her African American community. If Sethe learns to decolonize herself through and within a communal context, then in the parallel between Sethe and national identity, the nation must re-think its position in an international context. At the very least, Morrison's historical revisioning speaks to the need to alter national self-definitions, representations, and positionings in a global "community."

The novel emphasizes Sethe's contact with slavery's commodification that results in psychological, emotional, and spiritual damage. Bhabha's concept of the "colonial subject" helps theorize the specific nature of this system:

 The construction of the colonial subject in discourse, and the exercise of 
colonial power through discourse, demands an articulation of forms of
difference--racial and sexual. Such an articulation becomes crucial if it
is held that the body is always simultaneously (if conflictually) inscribed
in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse,
domination and power. (67)
Because in the colonial economy, of slavery the black woman, both metaphorically and visually, embodies the interconnection between "the economy of pleasure and desire" and "the economy of domination and power," she also represents the "difference" demanded by colonial discourse. In Morrison's text, Sethe, the black female slave, represents this difference as racial and sexual "other." This difference, once created to justify colonial domination, must be continuously reiterated in order to rationalize colonial force. This constructed difference is re-enacted through Sethe's body by the schoolteacher and his nephews:

 I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my 
breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and
writing it up. I don't want to know or have to remember that. I have other
things to do: worry about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age
and sickness not to speak of love. But her brain was not interested in the
future. (70)
Here we have white othering of a black woman and the resulting damage of a fetishized identity. The schoolteacher observes Sethe's rape and makes it a discursive act, exploiting Sethe as a racial and sexual other in order to re-write her identity as that of a subhuman creature, bestial rather than human. Sethe, then, experiences the fetishization of herself and her body by the schoolteacher and his nephews. In having his nephews act out, on Sethe's body, the constructed degradation of one racially and sexually othered, the schoolteacher reinforces slavery's colonial discourse through his own, simultaneously enacted, discursivity. Sethe's personhood, as it has been allowed to exist under slavery, is reduced further to animality. Bhabha differentiates between the sexual fetish and the sexualized "fetish of colonial discourse" (78), locating the latter in the ambivalent space (72) occupied by the colonized. This space is "in between" an imposed identity and the reality of their humanity for the colonized and between the recognized and the disavowed, between fear and desire for the colonizers. The tropes of the sexual fetish are present in the colonial fetish, but syncretized with certain tropes of colonialist experience and identity to embody the larger socio-political context of colonial relations. In this context, the white schoolteacher inhabits the in between space of the colonizer, thus needing to rationalize slavery's dominating and oppressive ideologies in a discursive act that also serves to justify his position within these ideologies. For Sethe, the fetishization of her body by the white schoolteacher and his nephews causes psychic fragmentation that continues to thwart the development of her subjectivity after she leaves slavery. Sethe wants to concentrate on her future; however, her commodified status, dramatized fetishistically, forms a barrier which prevents her from resisting objectifying colonial influence.

Sethe's community both perpetuates the legacy of slavery, demonstrating a collective internalization of the commodification discourse, and plays an important role in the process of the development of her subjectivity against colonial lessons of disempowerment. Morrison explains:

 Sethe had had twenty-eight days ... of unslaved life.... Days of healing, 
ease and real-talk. Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty
other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done: of
feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better....
All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with
the day.... Bit by bit ... along with the others, she had claimed herself.
Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was
another. (95)
Sethe lives an "unslaved life" for only twenty-eight days, although she never returns to literal slavery. Consequently, Morrison defines an unslaved life as a life with the freedom to develop one's subjectivity. This process is closely bound to inclusion in and participation with one's community. Sethe frees herself, but she does not "claim ownership of that freed self" alone. The past does not hold the power to frustrate the growth of her subjectivity when development is part of a collective endeavor. Her people "teach" her how to be herself because, until this moment, she learns, through coercion, lessons of invisibility and silence. The necessary reciprocity of communal living and the continuous learning experience of constant communication with others help Sethe learn to see herself as an empowered subject within a supportive community rather than the inferior other within colonial ideology. Morrison, however, does not portray a simplistic image of communal perfection. She writes instead about the warped codes of morality that eventually cause a collective desertion of Sethe when she most needs support. Because the generous invitation to a bountiful feast at Baby Suggs's is taken as a sign of pride, the community hopes and waits for Sethe's downfall. The community, therefore, begins to withdraw its enveloping and empowering support the day after the party:

 nobody ran on ahead.... to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode 
in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize .... Like a flag
hoisted this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip,
the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them ... some
... thing--like ... meanness let them stand aside, or not pay attention.
The people of the community tacitly withdraw their support by denying Sethe, without warning, access to a system of communication developed by and for the community. Because of the chronological order of events--the party, the silence of the community, the appearance of the white schoolteacher at 124, Sethe's murder of her daughter, and the subsequent ostracism of Sethe from the community--we can isolate the moment when Sethe's troubles begin as the moment when the community decides to withdraw its support. As Charles Scruggs points out, "Somehow the members of the black community imagine that Baby Suggs has not suffered in slavery as they have suffered, and this ignorance of their mutual history makes mutual trust impossible" (103). Mutual trust is essential for the collective formation of an empowering alternate discourse. Their mutual distrust both reflects the internalized lessons of commodification and negates the mutual support necessary for the development of individual and communal subjectivity. Because the concept of history is linked closely in this text to slavery and the specific context of a colonized past, a denial of the collective nature of this experience keeps them from challenging and restructuring definitive ideologies as a community. Moreover, the community's need to see a successful black family's downfall indirectly causes Sethe to perform the act for which it cannot morally forgive her.

Why does Morrison so carefully outline and emphasize the communal responsibility at which the community fails? Anzaldua's concept of borderlands, which parallels the text's theorization of the relationship between self and community, helps address this question. According to her definition, border culture is created by "the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third[,] ... a border culture." Anzaldua explains:

 [a] borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional 
residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of
transition.... The only `legitimate' inhabitants are those in power, the
whites and those who align themselves with whites. Tension[,] ...
ambivalence[,] and unrest reside there and death is no stranger. (3-4)
The community in which Sethe lives is similar in several important aspects to the "borderland" defined above. The free black community in the nineteenth century represents a borderland between two more established cultures: the black slave culture and the free white slave-owning culture. Like Anzaldua's borderland, the free black community in Beloved has no fixed, institutionalized, organized moral and social codes of behavior and thought. It can be defined as an "unnatural boundary" because it is a relatively new community with no social precedents, whose vulnerable existence is compounded by unrelenting white hatred and disrespect. Living "in between" two conflicting cultures results in the tension, ambivalence, and unrest that Anzaldua describes. Anzaldua also describes how "[t]ribal rights over those of the individual insured the survival of the tribe.... The welfare of the family, the community, and the tribe is more important than the welfare of the individual. The individual exists first as kin--a sister, a father, a padrino--and last as self" (18). Beloved's free black community can be compared to Anzaldua's tribe, to a culture that needs to protect itself from, while existing within, a dominant colonial culture. Compounding this problem is the fact that the colonial culture legitimizes only the selfless state of slavery for blacks. The community, therefore, struggles constantly for the right, the opportunity, and the freedom to exist. Paradoxically, it must continue the process that the dominant culture has begun--the suppression of black individual subjectivity--in order to validate its position in society and the choices it has made. Thus, as I will argue below, Sethe is punished severely for trying to assert her own and her daughter's rights to subjectivity by a community still operating within a ruling ideology that commodifies black personhood.

Morrison articulates another motivation behind the communal ostracism of Sethe in the following excerpt:

 Whitepeople believed that ... under every dark skin was a jungle.... In a 
way ... they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying
to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human ...
the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn't the
jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable)
place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. (198-99)
The continued internalization of being labeled "other" leads to the denial of black individual voice and subjectivity, thereby twisting the free black community's moral code to the point where it will turn on one of its own. Internalization of white fear and hate intensifies the tension and ambivalence that Anzaldua describes as part of a border culture. Because of the internalization of a white colonial morality and the constant ambivalence of a border culture, the free black community self-destructively measures and judges Sethe by a morality that denies subjectivity. The fact that Sethe's community operates under an internalized system oppressive to black identity informs her motivations for killing her child. Because her community chooses to withdraw its support, it denies Sethe the opportunity to escape from the schoolteacher as he rides to 124 with the sheriff. The community's inaction forces Sethe to try to save her children from a life of imposed silence and denied selfhood by some other means. Sethe "flew, snatching up her children like a hawk on the wing ... her face beaked ... her hands worked like claws ... she collected them every which way ... into the woodshed" (157) where she tries "to kill her children" (158). When Paul D learns about Sethe's act, he is repulsed. He cannot understand that infanticide is the only possibility, the only course of action open to Sethe within a colonial discourse. Her internalization of the lessons of commodification encourages Sethe to act, in a highly problematic attempt to save her children from commodification, as if they are not only extensions of herself, but also her possessions. In an internal dialogue with Beloved, Sethe thinks,

 Some other way, he said. Let schoolteacher haul us away, I guess, to 
measure your behind before he tore it up? I have felt what it felt like and
nobody ... is going to make you feel it too. Not you, not none of mine, and
when I tell you you mine, I also mean I'm yours. I wouldn't draw breath
without my children.... My plan was to take us all to the other side where
my own ma'am is. (203)
By killing Beloved, Sethe refuses to allow her daughter to be objectified and commodified by a colonialist culture. To Sethe, killing her child saves her not only from the physical suffering of slavery but also from its "measuring," which signifies an appropriation of discourse and an oppression of black identity. Despite its protective motivation, however, Sethe's act effectively denies her daughter the chance to live. It signifies her appropriation of the potential of her daughter's yet unrealized subjectivity. Bhabha's theory of the colonial subject defines Sethe's act as limited by its reaction to a commodifying ideology. "It is always in relation to the place of the Other that colonial desire is articulated: the phantasmic space of possession that no one subject can singly or fixedly occupy, and therefore permits the dream of the inversion of roles" (44). Through his theorization of the colonial subject, representing both the colonized and the colonizer, Bhabha defines the colonial subject position as shifting rather than fixed. In the creation of a colonial subjecthood, colonial discourse forms a space in which the positionalities of master and slave not only define each other, but can shift into an inversion of roles. Such an inversion of roles cannot be subversive because it remains within and therefore defined by a colonialist paradigm of domination and commodification. Although several critics read Sethe's act as resistive,(10) Bhabha's concept of the colonial subject, which enables a colonial contextualization of her act, defines her resistance as limited by the isolationist ideologies of a Western colonialism. Bhabha's definition of a shifting colonial subject positionality allows a reading of Sethe's identity in relation to the ruling colonial paradigm by foregrounding Sethe's changing position within a colonially constructed value system. In a reading of Beloved as postcolonial, Sethe's act becomes a desperate attempt at liberation within a context of limited choices because of her community's re-enactment of a colonial system's power relations.

In murdering her daughter, Sethe attempts, in Anzaldua's terms, a "counterstance"(11) against the colonial forces that coercively have defined her as property and that threaten to do the same to her children. Her counterstance exemplifies her attempt to subvert the oppressive system by a kind of inversion of roles. In this case, Sethe tries to control her children's fate by killing them, thus occupying the colonizer's commodifying role. Subsequently, the community's manifestation of collective internalization of an objectifying ideology (the ostracism of Sethe) creates a "domino effect" which leads to Sethe's reinscription within the ideological confines of a colonial discourse. As Morrison writes, "Those twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life" (173). Sethe's "solitary life" is static; there is no potential for personal growth. Sethe describes her life in those eighteen years as "unlivable" (173). Because of her decision to kill her child and thus protect her from the "unlivable" life of denied subjectivity in slavery, she herself returns to a life in which she is unable to continue learning to "claim her freed self."

The redundant cyclicity of "eighteen years of solitary life" cannot end, and Sethe cannot break through the stasis of her existence, until she can step outside the confines of the dominant colonial discourse. She cannot do so without finding resolution to her relationship with her daughter. Beloved returns to 124 for the same reason she has haunted Sethe, to force her mother to confront her past. The act that ends her life, her mother denying Beloved her own identity, begins a cycle from which neither mother nor daughter can escape without some movement towards resolution. When Beloved returns as a visible and tangible presence, Sethe no longer can ignore and deny her painful past. Sethe is incapable of personal growth for many years because she refuses to face her own commodification and its internalization. Instead, Sethe's denial of the colonial forces in her life continues to block the development of her subjectivity. Within the narrative, Beloved's physical presence and the ensuing interactive relationship it begins between mother and daughter eventually force Sethe to acknowledge the internalized colonization that she has hitherto ignored.

The first month Sethe and Beloved spend together seems idyllic (240). Soon, however, the unresolved tension dominates the atmosphere: "it was Beloved who made demands. Anything she wanted she got, and when Sethe ran out of things to give her, Beloved invented desire.... the mood changed and the arguments began.... She took the best of everything--first" (240-41). Beloved knows only desire; she knows only what she lacks. But she cannot be satisfied; her unbalanced self, consisting only of desire, is inexhaustibly hungry. Sethe responds by trying to satisfy Beloved's desire: "Sethe played all the harder with Beloved, who never got enough of anything" (240). Sethe is driven by the guilt of the past, by the memory of what she did to her daughter, which causes her to focus obsessively on Beloved and neglect all other aspects of her personality and her life:

 Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her 
reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own
life. That she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute
and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved's tears. (241-42)
Sethe's obsessive focus is as unbalanced as Beloved's desire. In trying to erase a past that cannot be erased by wanting to exchange her life for Beloved's pain, she succeeds only in re-emphasizing the limitation of her own subjectivity. Her obsession cannot lead to a positive resolution between herself and Beloved because it mimics the binary paradigms of a colonial discourse of commodification. While Sethe must deal with her past, she cannot deal with it at the expense of her present existence and through the continued denial of her own internalization of a commodifying ideology. Sethe and Beloved are "locked in a love that wore everybody out" (243). The desperate emotional interaction between Sethe and Beloved intensifies as they continue trapped in a cycle with no relief. Sethe "sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur" (250). Sethe still attempts to erase the past, this time by taking the place of Beloved herself. The past and the objectifying appropriation it represents, however, cannot be erased; Sethe must acknowledge her own complicity in colonial appropriations within a binary system of violent possession and only thus be enabled to create an alternate discourse of self-empowerment.

Anzaldua's concept of the counterstance and Bhabha's definition of the colonial subject help in reading the cloistering of Sethe and Beloved at 124. Because of the specific consequences of her previous attempt at a counterstance, Sethe now plays the role of slave to Beloved's master. Thus, in another shift of colonial subject positions, Sethe no longer attempts subversion through an assumption of the colonizer's role, but instead attempts to negate the consequences of her original counterstance on Beloved and on herself by re-inverting the roles of colonizer and colonized within her relationship with her daughter. She allows Beloved, in effect, to play the colonizer and gradually redefine Sethe as her possession. In their individual inner monologues (200-17), the significant phrase is "She is mine." This sentence is repeated continuously by the two women as they desperately try to reach the other through a discourse of ownership. Sethe has internalized the lessons of her reduction and violation, and this internalization manifests itself in her relationship with Beloved.

According to Bhabha, the dominant being is at stake in the constructed field of the dominated; the privileged being is always defined by the unprivileged position of the dominated. When working within a colonial discourse of commodification, such as slavery, in which human beings are divided into binary identities of owner and owned, Sethe desperately tries to give her daughter subjectivity in ways metaphorized as feeding, storytelling, placating, and serving. In trying to give her daughter the subjectivity she took away, so that she herself may achieve some peace and therefore perhaps a more fulfilled identity, Sethe re-enacts the master/slave relationship based on binaries that she internalized as a child. Their dialectic relationship cannot succeed in freeing either Sethe or Beloved from their past because it is based on a system in which both positions are defined ultimately by oppression. Sethe cannot define herself as a subject through this system. Instead, she must find an alternate discursive space in which she can learn to become a subject.

How can Sethe escape the relentless definition of herself and her community as property? How can she find an alternative to the colonial/slave system of binaries that has infiltrated every part of her life? Through "sewing" metaphors, both Anzaldua and Bhabha locate sites of resistance within the "in between" space of colonized experience and identification appropriate to Sethe's position. Both Bhabha's metaphor of the "sutured stereotype" (80) and Anzaldua's metaphor of the "interface" between masks are characterized by ambivalence. The sutured stereotype, created and imposed by colonial discourses, can result in the internalized ambivalence of Anzaldua's interfaced masks.(12) This ambivalence, although a product of racist colonial ideologies, is also a potential site for resistance. The transformative potential of Anzaldua's "mestiza" identity can, in a cathartic or epiphanous moment, transform the negative tension of ambivalence into an empowering source of resistance. Implicit in Bhabha's definition of the sutured stereotype is the potential disruption of its coherence.

In Beloved, this potential is realized when Sethe's community renews its support, thereby enabling her to disrupt the hitherto totalizing influence of othering, commodifying ideologies on her sense of self. It is through communal support that Sethe is able to face the symbol of the colonial oppression in her life and thus enter the empowering social and psychological space of a collectively defined discourse. In this case, it is the women of the community that "came together" and "arrived at 124 ... the first thing they saw was themselves.... there they were, young and happy, playing in Baby Suggs' yard, not feeling the envy that surfaced the next day" (258). In coming together to help one of their own, the women are able to envision the past in which they had experienced a collectively empowering "mutual trust" with the family of 124. Their positive common memory strengthens their communal resolve, and they begin to pray for Sethe. "Then Ella hollered. Instantly the kneelers and the standers joined her. They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like" (254). In this case, the position of the community of women reflects the unique position of black women vis a vis a colonialist social system. Their role in Sethe's liberaton is part of the text's gendered revisioning of history. Significantly, the disruptive discourse is defined by specifically racial and gendered voices.

The women of the community use the "sound" to position themselves outside the dominant discourse, a discourse defined and imposed by white colonizers. They need to position themselves selves thus in order to reach Sethe. Because the communal application of a morality warped by an internalization of inappropriate, oppressive lessons results in Sethe's tragedy, using the dominant discourse to reach Sethe can cause only more damage. The following occurs when Sethe hears the voices:

 For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat 
and simmering 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 pods off chestnut
trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.
What succeeds in breaking through the cycle imprisoning Sethe and Beloved in its redundant sterility is the sound of the community's voice. The use of a communal voice to negate the effects of an oppressive discourse on Sethe's life serves to link her once again to the community and to the potential to develop her subjectivity.(13) As she trembles "like the baptized in its wash," it is as if Sethe has been reborn outside of the confines of a limiting ideology and within an alternate, empowering communal discourse.(14) Bhabha's discussion of postcolonial stereotypes and fetishes theorizes sound's ability to break through the oppressive ideological barriers of colonial discourse. In this case, the sound is located outside a dominant discourse informed by a colonial power structure because it is outside or "beyond" the colonizer's language, a language infiltrated and defined by a colonial discourse of domination. The fetish is embodied by the stereotype through language; the stereotype is the linguistic representation of the content of the fetish. Significantly, then, Sethe steps outside of the colonial discourse through a simultaneous return to a collectively defined alternate discourse. Examining the text through Bhabha's definition of the stereotype links Sethe's fetishization by the school-teacher to her eventual disruption of the meaning behind the fetishistic event. The concept of the sound, here representing communal support, refers to the fetish through Bhabha's definition of the stereotype in relation to language. Through sound, not language, Sethe is able to break away from the oppressive hold of a colonially fetishized past.

As Sethe watches the women gathered around 124, Edward Bodwin, a white man, rides towards the house. Sethe mistakes him for the schoolteacher. Her reaction to what she perceives to be a threat, a symbol of slavery's objectification, signals a break from the internalization of colonial influences:

 he is coming into her yard and he is coming for her best thing.... And if 
she thinks anything, it is no. No no. Nonono. She flies. The icepick is not
in her hand; it is her hand. Standing alone on the porch, Beloved is
smiling. But now her hand is empty. Sethe is ... running into the faces of
the people out there, joining them. (260-61)
With communal support, Sethe faces her internalization and re-enactment of colonial paradigms instead of denying her own complicity and ignoring its consequences on Beloved. In this way, Sethe realizes the potential inherent within her identity and, instead of merely inverting colonial subject positions, positions herself against, rather than within, colonial subjecthood. Anzaldua's definition of the mestiza further explicates Sethe's new positionality vis a vis the colonial discourse: "The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else. She can be jarred out of ambivalence by an intense ... emotional event which inverts ... the ambivalence" (Borderlands 79). Sethe's inversion of a limiting ambivalence enables her to attack the representation of the enslaving force in her life instead of turning, like the community has in the past, on one of her own. She has an ice pick in her hand, but because she no longer needs to repeat the past, she can attack the true source of her oppression instead of Beloved. Sethe no longer attempts to exercise agency through a counterstance; she has moved beyond attempting resistance by inverting binary roles in a colonial power hierarchy. Her act is thus cathartic; it finally frees both Sethe and her daughter. The support of the community, reaching Sethe through voice, acts as the catalyst for the cathartic act that ends the vicious cycle from which Sethe and Beloved cannot break out alone.

If positions in a relationship define one another, then Beloved's disappearance at the conclusion of the text can be read as an act of resolution. Beloved's haunting of 124 is one stage in the relationship between Sethe and Beloved in which each of their positions defines and thus affects the other profoundly. As long as Sethe cannot further the development of her subjectivity because of the constraints of an internalized or self-colonization, Beloved cannot find peace. Anzaldua's concept of the mestiza suggests the kind of break Sethe has made away from oppressive colonial influences: "By creating a new mythos--that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves ...--la mestiza creates a new consciousness.... The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object duality that keeps her prisoner" (Borderlands 80). Beloved's disappearance mirrors Sethe's "birth" into a "new consciousness."

Because developing subjectivity is a continuous process and one is never a completed subject, the text does not conclude with total resolution. By the end of the novel, however, the characters are no longer trapped in a static, redundant pattern of existence. Sethe now can work towards an empowered subjectivity because she has broken through limitations imposed by slavery, by communal ostracism, and by severed or thwarted familial relationships. Although the interrelationships between Sethe, her community, and her daughter have been damaged by a colonized past, it is through these familial and communal bonds that Sethe disrupts the ideologies of a commodifying culture, and, with her community, restructures a definitive communal discourse.

Because Beloved's community is defined implicitly by the text as an internal colony, theories of postcolonialism serve to highlight colonial structures embedded in the text. Furthermore, a postcolonial contextualization permits certain metaphorizations of Sethe's character and her relationship to colonial constructs. In the parallel identified earlier, Sethe, as representative of national identity, both embodies the problematic history of the U.S. as a colonizing, slave-holding culture and exemplifies an alternative for the national future. Sethe's act of infanticide, a destructive attempt at resistance, is instructive as a metaphor for problematic power dynamics at a national level. Her act of resistance is ultimately ineffective because it does not "free" either herself or Beloved. As an act appropriated from the colonial social order and appropriating another's subjectivity, it only serves to enslave further both Sethe and her daughter. Later, Sethe's ability to re-enter her community in a mutually empowering way and thus to become truly "free" through the process of decolonization points to a necessary decolonization at a national level. A neocolonialist present exposes the nation's unresolved colonialist history.

The alternative discourse created in the text by the free black community can be translated to national ideologies. The novel's liberatory potential lies in its embodiment of mestiza identity and consciousness. Through the concept of rememory, the text calls for a process of decolonization that is communal rather than isolated and individualized. As a mestiza text, Beloved crosses borders and transgresses boundaries; within the text, Sethe learns to transcend the boundaries between self and other and, as a whole, the novel forces readers to cross borders through a definition of rememory that signifies collective decolonization. Through Sethe's story of colonization, internalized colonial paradigms, ineffective attempts at resistance, and eventual decolonization in a communal context, Morrison speaks to the need for collective decolonization before the "national trauma" can reach resolution. Beloved, then, is a "voice" that, by disrupting the dominant discourse of national history, serves as an alternative ideological model for all descendents of a colonialist history.


(1.) I use the prefix "post" to suggest both the literal meaning "after" (in this case, "after" the political liberation of a nation from imperialist rule as well as "after" the termination of the institution of slavery by the U.S. government), and to suggest the meaning advanced by the prefix "neo" (a continued economic and ideological oppression).

(2.) For a discussion on the internal colonialism of the U.S., see Wald.

(3.) My reading of the text differs from most readings in its definition of Sethe's community as a colonized group. Many critics interpret the text through psychoanalysis. These include Ferguson, Fitzgerald, Hirsch, Mathieson, Schapiro, and Wyatt. Some of these also focus on Morrison's definition of "rememory" (Henderson, Hirsch's "Maternity and Rememory," Jablon, Mobley, and Rody). Non-psychoanalytic interpretations include examinations of the role of myth, especially Biblical legends, within the text (Davis, Jones, and Warner). Other analyses examine the role of history and the process of historical recovery (Goldman, Henderson, Horvitz, and House). House, Moglen, and Schmudde address the concept of the supernatural. Generally, most readings that define Sethe and her community through a discourse of commodification contextualze this discourse within the national boundaries of U.S. history.

(4.) In the introduction to his volume of essays, The Location of Culture, Bhabha offers one of a few postcolonial readings of Beloved. My study differs from that of Bhabha in its more extensive emphasis on the commodification discourse as the definitive postcolonial paradigm operating within the narrative.

(5.) As other feminist critics have noted, one of the limitations of Bhabha's work is his failure to address gender issues. It is therefore necessary to incorporate the experience of women in reading a postcolonial text such as Beloved through Bhabha's theories.

(6.) In "Colonial Legacies," and "The Epistemic Status," Satya P. Mohanty also reads Beloved as postcolonial. In contrast to the argument I present here, however, he interprets Morrison's revisioning of history and Sethe's development of subjectivity through an alternative theory of identity.

(7.) For Morrison, the concept of rememory has implications beyond the personal. Sethe articulates these implications in the following passage: "even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened." The past, then, is not individually contained. Rather, in Beloved, memories of the past are defined as pictures "out there, in the world ... floating around ... outside my head" (36). Krumholz extends these implications to include the historical and the national. For more general discussions on the concept of rememory and collectivity, see Halbwachs, Knapp, and Nora.

(8.) For the most part, critics who focus on the idea of "collective" rememory in Beloved limit their discussions to African Americans and their need to deal with issues of the national past. Krumholz writes, "Sethe's process of healing in Beloved, her process of learning to live with her past, is a model for the readers who must confront Sethe's past as part of our own past, a collective past that lives right here where we live." She argues that "Morrison constructs a parallel between the individual processes of psychological recovery and a historical or national process" (395). According to Krumholz, the rememory of a suppressed, fragmented history is a psychological necessity for author, readers, and characters (395). She does not extend this definition of collectivity, however, to a metaphorization of national identity through individual subjectivity.

(9.) Keenan contextualizes her reading of the text in a general postcolonial framework and positions the text as a rewriting of history in a transnational framework: "Beloved ha[s] assumed a central place within current writing by African Americans which insists on an examination of U.S. culture and history, one that takes account of the processes of `internal colonization'" (46). According to Keenan, the revisioning of U.S. history as one internally colonized is also a "recasting of our understanding of the past which resonates beyond the borders of [the North American] continent" (46). Her contextualization of the novel, however, remains focused on African American history and the role of the African Diaspora.

(10.) Wyatt reads Sethe's murderous act as an extreme manifestation of the maternal bond. Keenan sees Sethe's resistive maternal identity as an integral part of her developing subjectivity (66). I would argue instead that Sethe's maternal resistance is limited by the internalized violence by which it is informed. Ledbetter interprets Sethe's act of infanticide as counter-resistive to the fetishization of her body through the symbolics of maternity by the school-teacher and his nephews. The schoolteacher and the white men who witness the consequences of Sethe's act experience a loss of control, and thus of pleasure and satisfaction. Sethe's violence, then, can be read as a powerful, albeit problematic act of resistance. Fitzgerald also defines Sethe's act through maternal resistance. Sethe "refutes the position as object in the discourse of slavery by asserting her position as subject in the discourse of the good mother. But the version of motherhood she articulates offers an exaggerated, idealized view of exclusive maternal responsibility" (677).

(11.) "A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed ... both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture's views and beliefs, and, for this, is proudly defiant. [However,] [a]ll reaction is limited by ... what it is reacting.... At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to.... disengage from the dominant culture ... and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory" (Anzaldua, Borderlands 78-79).

(12.) According to Anzaldua,

 `interfacing' means sewing a piece of material between two pieces of fabric 
to provide support and stability to collar, cuff, yoke. Between the masks
we've internalized ... are our interfaces. The masks are already steeped
with self-hatred and other internalized oppressions. However, it is... the
interface ... between the masks that provides the space from which we can
thrust out and crack the masks. ("Introduction" xv)
Anzaldua defines masks as different "faces" adopted that can "pass" and thus make women of color "less vulnerable to ... oppressors" ("Introduction" xv). For Anzaldua, then, the developed "in between" spaces are both a source of ambivalence and a potential source of resistance and eventual self-empowerment. (13.) Sitter primarily focuses on Paul D's story, arguing that Paul D and Sethe's stories are interdependent. For both, communal support enables freedom from the past, from the distorting self-images imposed on them by slavery.

(14.) Krumholz reads the climactic scene in which the community of black women help Sethe save herself in ways similar to my interpretation. For Krumholz, this event represents a cleansing and a re-birth. Krumholz, however, emphasizes a psychoanalytical reading through the notion of historical recovery as ritual, while I stress the decolonization process the catharsis represents.

Works Cited

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--. Introduction. "Haciendo Caras, Una Entrada." Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. Ed. Gloria Anzaldua. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1990. xv-xxviii.

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Mary Jane Suero Elliott teaches literature and writing in the English Department at Seattle University. She specializes in Latino fiction and currently is working on a book examining representations of Latina transmigratory subjectivity in contemporary Chicana, Puerto Rican, and Cuban-American women's novels.


Publication Information: Article Title: Postcolonial Experience in a Domestic Context: Commodified Subjectivity in Toni Morrison's Beloved. Contributors: Mary Jane Suero Elliott - author. Journal Title: MELUS. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 181. COPYRIGHT 2000 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States