- Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison
"One of Toni Morrison's greatest achievements is her ability to depict what it means to be black in American society," states Evelyn Schreiber in the introduction to Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Drawing on radically different conceptual models of trauma, in particular Lacanian and attachment theories as well as psychiatric accounts of the traumatic disorders that grow out of horrific events associated with catastrophic trauma, Schreiber sets out with [End Page 155] an ambitious goal in her investigation: to elucidate the complex ways that Morrison's novels "retell the story of African American trauma" even as they seek an antidote to and protection from racial trauma through the "healing power of 'home.'"
Underlying each Morrison work, according to Schreiber, is the "core cultural trauma of slavery" (1), as Morrison "teases out the lasting effects of slavery's transplantation in the orphaned, abandoned, and othered souls that populate her novels" (3). Whether originating in "physical abuse, dehumanization, discrimination, exclusion, or abandonment," trauma becomes embedded not only "in both psychic and bodily circuits," but also "in successive generations" (2) as each generation processes the "traumatic residue" (7) of slavery and struggles to escape the "chronic trauma" of being racially othered by the dominant white society (3). "Both personal memory and cultural memory, lodged in the body, can activate trauma or Lacan's Real" (20), writes Schreiber, who describes how "encounters with Lacan's Real—the whiteness of the Other and one's own lack in its presence—perpetuates fragmentation, fear, and trauma" in Morrison's characters (18). If personal and cultural memory can activate trauma, nostalgic memory, by offering a feeling of imaginary fulfillment, can be protective. "Memory, through the re-creation of imaginary wholeness, functions to fill a lack created in the symbolic order and social structure, and many of Morrison's characters revert to nostalgia for this psychic support. In this way, home functions as the positive gaze that the social structure does not provide" (20). But if "nostalgic memory can furnish the distance from trauma necessary to rebuild subjectivity," Morrison's characters also "portray the psychological and cultural obstacles to such reconstruction, as well as the hard-won personal victories available through verbalization of trauma and community sharing" (31).
After offering in her introduction an overview of trauma theory and a discussion of the usefulness of Lacanian and attachment theories to an analysis of race and trauma in Morrison's works, Schreiber devotes the remaining five chapters of her book to an analysis of Morrison's novels. In "Shared Memory: Slavery and Large-Group Trauma in Beloved and Paradise," Schreiber discusses the ways in which Beloved's depictions of slavery capture "the inherited and bodily aspects of communal trauma" (27), while Paradise, like Beloved, conveys that "the generational transmission of slavery's trauma produces a cultural history that cannot be forgotten" (28). In Beloved, Morrison's ex-slaves "carry the generational memory of abuse" and their "post-slavery reality reactivates the prior bodily experience and threat of real bodily harm" (36). If, for ex-slave Sethe, "positive memories of Sweet Home" can offer a temporary sense of fulfillment, "Lacan's Real—in the form of Schoolteacher, who whips [End Page 156] her, and his nephews, who steal her milk—manifests her sense of lack and undercuts her image of wholeness" (41). Like Sethe, who "understands that the Real or trauma will always exist to threaten a secure self" (42), the black patriarchs in Paradise also remain vulnerable even though they attempt to evade "encounters with the Real" by establishing the all-black town of Ruby (54). Inheritors of the traumatic "Disallowing" experienced by their forefathers, who were "disallowed," or discriminated against, because of their dark skin color, the Ruby men end up acting out their "ancestral trauma of degradation" when they, in turn, discriminate against those with lighter skin and scapegoat the women at the Convent (57).
Examining the impact of racial trauma on the African...