The Beloved – from the First Black Female Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature
In this essay the role of language as being more than a means of communication has been the central focus. Language has been described as a means through which identities can be forged, the instrument through which the past, present and future can be represented, as well as a means through which we can remember that which has been forgotten. Focus has also been laid on the cultural aspects of language, how language can be used as a symbolic cultural artifice that separates the Whiteman from the Blackman. Language in this sense becomes not just a vehicular means of communication, but a cultural identity that makes the weaker take on a strength that is akin to his nature. Just like the signifying monkey, the weaker man, the black man, enslaved, ripped of his status, autonomy and culture, uses language as a tool for Hansson changing the status quo.
Sly and unpredictable, like the signifying monkey, the Blackman uses language to taunt, goad, boast and cajole. Like “The Monkey – a trickster, like Esu, who is full of guile, who tells lies, and who is a rhetorical genius is intent on demystifying the Lion’s self-imposed status as King of the Jungle”. He talks with his hands, eyes and uses gestures, innuendos and indeterminacy to, on the one hand, undermine the superiority of the white man, while on the other, establish a bond between him and his kinsmen in a language that the white man does not comprehend. He uses irony to undermine the supposedly high status of the white man and establishes the uniqueness of his version of language, the vernacular, with gusto: Me tend to dress my source to you dis nite on de all imported subject of Language, an de warious tongues ob differn nations and niggars, libbin and dead, known and unknown: an in so doing me shant stan shilly shally bout preface to de subject, but run bang at him at once like mad at “dam haystack”. In its role as a means of creating and establishing identity, language is to the black man something to pass on; a cultural heritage that is learnt and mastered through adolescence.
The Negro learns how to indulge in “black language games”, as a sort of formal language training, separate and unique, incomprehensible to the Whiteman and a “method of language is like that of oral poetry, substituting in the framework of the grammar”. Signifying is the language of the trickster, which the Blackman uses “that set of words or gestures which arrives at ‘direction through indirection”’. This is seen in Beloved, in how Sethe’s actions were incomprehensible to the Whiteman, Schoolteacher’s nephew: “‘What she go do that for?’ he wondered; ‘What she want to go and do that for?’ he asked the Sheriff Hansson. Sethe’s signifying, her act of infanticide, a clear act of defiance, of reclaiming a lost autonomy, was incomprehensible and shocking to the white man, and understood by the Blacks, who needed no words, or singing to signify their understanding. She was crazy, they concurred to the white man’s interpretation of Sethe’s action, but, “Yeah, well, ain’t all’? in the eyes of the white man? She had loved too much, something a slave never should do – she had not accepted her role as the underling, and just like the monkey, she had challenged the lion to a fight. Also, the use of language as a spiritual connotation that bridges the real and the unreal has also been discussed in this essay. That which the white man calls unreal, the black man calls spiritual; that which the white man calls history, the black man calls memory. The ritualism of language is seen in how the black man learns to signify as adolescents, contrary to the classic structuralism of the white man, “Black adults teach their children this exceptionally complex system of rhetoric”.
Wideman claims that through language, the black man pays homage to his ancestors, sees the connection between the physical realm and the spiritual and interprets history as “peoples imaginary recreation which exist in the imagination are a record of ‘certain collective experiences’ that have been repeated generation after generation”’. This trope of interconnectivity between the past, the present and the future is not only seen in Yoruba mythology of Esu but is also seen as a black trope in Beloved, as well as in contemporary African American culture of today. Rushdy’s quote of Wideman summarises the spirituality of language to the black man: ‘Past lives in us, through us. Each of us harbors the spirits of people who walked the earth before we did, and those spirits depend on us for continuing existence, just as we depend on their presence to live our lives to the fullest.’ . Hence, when the black man says: ‘‘It was not a story to pass on” repetitively – three times, the concept of signifying comes to mind. Beloved, “the Hansson 30 devil-child was clever. And beautiful. Her smile was dazzling”, but they had to forget her, because membering would be using language to give her life again. Morrison states that we must ‘’bear witness and identify that which is useful from the past and that which ought to be discarded.’ In other words, the past we choose to remember must be palatable, it has to be constructed in a way that serves the present I a positive . Forgetting Beloved’s name, thus, was like forgetting that which was undesirable and brought pain, so although “Everybody knew what she was called, nobody anywhere knew her name”. They had to forget, because, remembering gives life to the past. She was Beloved, but she had no last name.
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