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  • If the Ghost Be There, Then Am I Crazy?:An Examination of Ghosts in Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush and Toni Morrison's Beloved
  • Gail Sidonie Sobat (bio)

The word ghost has its etymological root in the Germanic geist, a precursor of guest. Toni Morrison and Virginia Hamilton invite such guests into their narratives and into the physical settings of their respective novels Beloved (1987) and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982). Their two ghost stories address different audiences but are similar in depicting adolescent characters on the brink of womanhood who are somehow linked with apparitions. Thus a question that deserves consideration is how these writers-one a self-professed spokesperson for Black women, the other a writer on the Black American perspective for children-use ghosts to enhance the development of their female characters.

Both ghosts, Brother Rush and Beloved, are accepted as real from the first moments of each narrative. No scientific or empirical explanation is given, no apology made. The writers simply state that Denver's and Tree's houses and lives are haunted, and we must either accept the apparitions or remain outside the stories. Playing with psychological explanations and African traditions, Morrison and Hamilton create ghosts that question our ideas about madness and reality. Above all, the appearances of Beloved and Brother Rush begin the process of "rememory" so essential to both girls' mythic quests for selfhood, identity, and ultimately survival. Morrison writes, "If we don't keep in touch with the ancestor . . . we are, in fact, lost" (344). The "haints" in these novels signify the historical recovery and reconstruction that are instrumental in personal and communal healing.

Hamilton and Morrison share an Ohio upbringing, and both situate their narratives in that state. They also share an objective in their writing, best expressed by Hamilton in her essay "On Being a Black Writer in America," which is to relate "the unique American black perspective. . . . to portray the essence of a race, its essential community, culture, history and traditions . . . and its relation to the larger American society" (15). Hamilton addresses mainly the young or young adult reader, but her books appeal to the mature reader as well because of their psychological sophistication. Like Morrison, she focuses in Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush on one family, whose story is set both in the past life of Tree's mother, M'Vy, and in Tree's life in the 1980s. Morrison's canvas is somewhat more expansive. In a novel set in 1873 and the years prior to Emancipation, her focus includes not only Denver's immediate family, but the entire Black community (especially that of the women), living and dead. In both cases, the interplay of past and present, magic and realism, reveals the rich cultural heritage of African-American folklore behind these texts.

Elements of the fantastic appear in the opening pages of the two novels. With her first words, Morrison asserts the reality of ghosts:

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. . . . So Sethe and the girl Denver did what they could, and what the house permitted. . . . Together they waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned-over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air.


The poltergeist eventually emerges as the nineteen-year-old Beloved. She appears to be at once a response to Sethe's repressed guilt, the boys' buried fear that their mother will again raise her hand against them, the Black female community's continuing pain and oppression, and an evocation of the spirits of the "sixty million and more" Black Africans who died before ever reaching the shores of their captors (dedication). As Denver states to Paul D., Beloved is the ghost of her dead sister, but at times she is "more" (266). Beloved may be seen as a ghost stirring from the collective unconscious of the entire Black community; she is also a specific manifestation of Denver's disturbed psyche...


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pp. 168-174
Launched on MUSE
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