MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 581-613
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"I made the ink":
Identity, Complicity, 60 Million, and More
The Game of Who Suffered Most
Since its publication in 1987, Toni Morrison's dedication of Beloved to "sixty million and more" has generated discomfort for many of the novel's readers and critics. Amy Schwartz writes for the Washington Post that "the book's dedication page brings up echoes of another experience entirely: 'Sixty Million, and More,' it says," adding wryly, "the echo has not gone unnoticed" (B7). This ellipticism informs other, more critical responses to the dedication: "Sixty is ten times six, of course," Stanley Crouch informs us, "and that is very important to remember" (67). While "the figure bears no relation to any scholarly estimate," writes Peter Novick, "it is, of course, ten times six million" (194). Emily Budick's relative bluntness is especially welcome: "in the American context this dedication cannot, especially to a Jewish readership, but recall the 'six million' of the Holocaust" (161).
In each of these responses, an emphasis on the "obvious," the "of course," and the "cannot but recall" implicitly reiterates these critics' assumption that the Holocaust holds a certain centrality in Western [End Page 581] literature and history, a centrality that goes without saying, as obvious and as unquestionable as six times ten. In light of such an assumption, "six million," unlike "sixty million and more," appears inarguable, irrefutable; despite Raul Hilberg's official estimate that the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is closer to five million, 1 "six million" is posited as the standard against which Morrison's figure requires explanation, justification, and recourse to such official sources as scholarly estimates and reliable documentation. "I take it to be incontrovertible that the number of Jews who lost their lives owing to the Holocaust was six million or thereabouts," writes Laurence Thomas. "On the other hand, estimates of the number of blacks who lost their lives during the voyage from Africa to the United States—the Middle Passage, as it is traditionally called—have gotten wildly out of control"(9). 2
The issue of comparative atrocities is a thorny one, and it is, at best, misguided to suppose that a writer of Morrison's critical and political acumen could be so naïve as to assume that she could evoke this figure without generating such responses. And yet, having invited discussion—"you haven't asked about the 60 million," she reminds an interviewer ("A Gravestone" 75)—Morrison refuses to engage in it. In interviews following the publication of Beloved, Morrison has repeatedly emphasized that the dedication of the novel to "sixty million and more" has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Rather, she states, the figure is an estimation (since official sources are lacking) as to the number of slavery's victims. At the same time, Morrison's own accounts of the figure vary radically. Speaking to Newsweek on 28 September 1987, Morrison explained that the figure of sixty million is "the best educated guess at the number of black Africans who never even made it into slavery—those who died as captives in Africa or on slave ships" ("A Gravestone" 75). One week later, on 5 October of the same year, she stated: "I asked some scholars to estimate for me the number of black people who died in 200 years of slavery [. . .] those 60 million are people who didn't make it from there to here and through." ("Toni Morrison's" 12; emphasis added). 3
There is, however, a significant difference between those who never made it into slavery on the one hand, and those who died in Africa and on slave ships in addition to the victims of slavery itself on the other. So drastic a revision of the figure's referent within so short a space of time [End Page 582] itself attests to the significant absence of adequate documentation of the atrocities perpetrated by slaveholders, slave-traders, and the institution of American slavery itself. "Slavery," writes Karla Holloway, "defies traditional historiography...