restricted access Breaking the Back of Words: Sound and Subversion in Toni Morrison's Beloved*
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Breaking the Back of Words
Sound and Subversion in Toni Morrison's Beloved*

I wanted … the books … to have an effortlessness and an artlessness, and a non-book quality, so that they would have a sound.

—Toni Morrison, Interview with Toni Morrison

To find the words to speak the unspeakable about slave experience and memory in her novels, Toni Morrison infuses her writing politically with sound, producing an aural literary aesthetic that challenges master narratives. Indeed, she reimagines the narratives of slave men and women that have been lost to history, recovering what Karla F.C. Holloway calls "the language of creative generation" by appropriating and reformulating the English language to challenge its discursive power.1 As Morrison conveys in her groundbreaking study Playing in the Dark, language is inseparably bound up with the dominant ideology, making it particularly difficult for othered writers to employ interventions that challenge its "hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive 'othering' of [marginalized] people and language."2 Morrison argues that such othered writers must "free up the language" in imagination (which is inextricably tied to words) to prevail over the Eurocentric tendency to employ literary conventions that reinforce racial hierarchy.3 In her own work, Morrison attempts "to unhobble the imagination" by giving prominence not to words, but to sound.4 As she gathers, reimagines, and rearticulates fragments of [End Page 28] slave experience in her novels, she employs an aural writing practice to create narratives of slave history that resist prevailing interpretations of the past.

In her 1987 novel Beloved, Morrison applies her aural literary strategy to reveal the danger of words and the hope of sound, the raw material of language. Recent critics of the novel attend to the function of sound in Baby Suggs's sermon in the Clearing, which generally has been interpreted as liberating and consonant with other instances of restorative sound initiated by other women characters.5 As productive as this scholarship has been for understanding the relationships among community, spirituality, and the transgressive power of sound in Morrison's work, such interpretations gloss over the significant problems of Baby Suggs's theology, including how it provokes resentment among her friends and neighbors and informs their conspicuous failure to warn her ahead of Schoolteacher's raid. Baby Suggs's social isolation and lethal emotional breakdown following the community's betrayal reveal that her theology—particularly her Call—is ultimately a failure. Although Baby Suggs challenges white Christian discourses in her sermon and attempts to create a new model of grace for the Bluestone community, her rhetoric of love is not far enough removed from white biblical language and its racialized ideologies. Alert to the danger inherent in white doctrine yet unaware of its tenacity, Baby Suggs advances a passive, romantic approach to resistance that grossly underestimates the full scope and scale of oppression against her community.

If we treat Baby Suggs's Clearing theology as a problem rather than a solution, it becomes clear that Ella's ruthlessly anti-white supremacist and unromantic spirituality—which succeeds in exorcising Beloved—is much better suited to empower blacks and combat internalized white theology. I argue that Ella's intervention at the exorcism is thematically designed to expose and correct the problems of Baby Suggs's romanticized vision of grace. Tellingly, Ella acts rather than sermonizes and uses sounds rather than words when she confronts Beloved. Juxtaposing Ella and Baby Suggs's theological outlooks as they concern white patriarchal religious language, I advance a critique of Morrison's "auditory subversion" that reveals the sociopolitical complexities and risks of adopting a white hegemonic discourse. I am not suggesting that Morrison uses Baby Suggs and Ella to make a blanket claim against the use of language (the author, after all, has chosen the written English language as her mode of communication). Rather, I argue that Morrison employs auditory subversion to register the hidden pitfalls to which any attempt at challenging the dominant discourse is vulnerable. Ella's theological approach is ultimately more effective than Baby Suggs's, if only because she recognizes the magnitude of white supremacist ideology and seeks to survive rather than transcend it.