As I first read Toni Morrison’s Beloved I was constantly reminded of and motivated to apply major themes from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Beloved came to represent to me an especially powerful embodiment of what it means to experience, resist, and adapt to conditions of "social death." This was particularly important because one aspect of slavery and social death identified by Patterson, the idea of "generalized dishonor," was difficult to understand because it seems to require a depth and breadth of experience which is hard to reproduce outside of the experience of slavery itself. Also, I taught Patterson and the idea of "social death" in several of my sociology classes and always felt I was least successful in getting across to students the idea of "generalized dishonor." As I read Beloved I felt a deeper personal sense of what it must be like to navigate the world in that cold, mean, and cramped vessel, and to the extent I succeeded in getting students to read the novel, they did too. We felt the idea of social death and generalized dishonor had migrated out of a mere useful abstraction to something like a "felt quality." This qualitative sense of the ideas or the experience behind the ideas made the abstractions richer in detail and wider in scope. [a note on the sociological use of Morrison’s work1]
 I don't mean to suggest that Patterson did not convey any sense of "generalized dishonor," unless the reader had some level of empathy, the category would hardly make sense. He provided two striking quotations which open up to view the social experience of profound dishonor.
Callicles speaking in Plato’s Gorgias: Such cases can be multiplied many fold but the piling up of examples yield a kind of generalized sense of dismay without getting close to the complexity of the experience. Personal experience, the animation which mediates the social world is necessarily diminished, if not lost, in any general work of cultural, social, or historical comparison. Examples provide a context in which categories can be brought more to life but still lose much of the force of the social situation which is needed to fully understand them. A work of art, a novel or gracefully written ethnography, can provide the context in which we understand the process of mediation which creates and sustains the social patterns identified by the comparative analysis. It can give intuitive support to the categories as the categories direct our attention to the most relevant factors in the social environment. Furthermore, it provides qualitative experience crucial to the further refinement of abstractions important to the analysis of history and society such as class, status, power.
By the rule of nature, to suffer injustice is the greater disgrace because the greater evil; but conventionally to do evil is the more disgraceful. For the suffering injustice is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than live; when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help himself, or any other about whom he cares. (p. 8)
Mr. Reed, a former slave interviewed in 1930:
The most barbarous thing I saw with these eyes – I lay on my bed and study about it now – I had a sister, my older sister, she was fooling with the clock and broke it, and my old master taken her and tied a rope around her neck – just enough to keep it from choking her -- and tied her up in the back yard and whipped her I don’t know how long. There stood mother, there stood father, and there stood all the children and none could come to her rescue.
 I intend to summarize Patterson’s categories and then work my way through Beloved indicating how, in my view, it embodies those categories and that way of understanding slavery in the United States. Reading Beloved not only brought Patterson’s work to my mind but I suspected that Morrison also had it in mind as she wrote the novel. Of course that is unlikely in any very self conscious or programmatic sense, but Morrison does know Patterson’s work. In her William Murry Lectures she directly sites his idea of the historical relationship between slavery and the idea of freedom and uses the term "social death" as he defined it. (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, NY, 1993 , p. 38.) But even if that were not the case, the comparison is useful if for no other reason than these marvelous works draw from the same poisoned well.
 Patterson identifies three fundamental elements in the institutions and practice of slavery: 1) power and domination, 2) natal alienation, and 3) generalized dishonor. Power is the most obvious attribute of the master-slave relationship but it is important to recognize that power generally refers to a complex and often subtle social transaction and even slavery, the most brutal and debasing form of power, is no exception. The major subtleties of power are usually captured by any effort to distinguish between raw power and legitimate power or authority. A useful definition of power is provided by Max Weber, as "… that opportunity existing within a social relationship which permits one to carry out one’s will even against resistance." Of course, one way in which this "opportunity" arises is by the use of violence or the threat of violence. Another is by the application of logical, psychological, or rhetorical means which persuade the other to obey. Most crucial is that power be legitimated or transformed from mere force to an act or command by right and, in turn, obedience is motivated by a sense of responsibility or duty. Any situation of dominance will have all of these attributes which overlap and interpenetrate. For example, the psychological willingness to obey may be grounded in an awareness, often unconscious, that the command was made by a person or group who has at their disposal major resources for coercion . The apparent rhetorical force of a command may reflect the commander’s ability to use brute force. The reification of a social arrangement over time may transform the actual power of the dominant into a perceived natural force which one would no more presume to resist than you would a cold front moving across the garden. The cultural justification of a right to command and the duty of others to obey may be confirmed in practice by the very act of commanding and the habit of obeying. Repeated over time and across generations the practice of domination is presumed legitimate because it is presumed inevitable, natural, fated. The legal and quasi-legal ceremonies of degradation and punishment reinforce these beliefs. Furthermore, the accommodation to dominance may be in exchange for protection from some perceived and more odious source of danger in the world. The dominated may even feel gratitude towards those who command them.
 In his master-slave narrative, Hegel identified such complications in this social relationship, where the very identity of master and slave are tied together and presume one another. A legitimate personal identity depends upon the legitimacy of one’s social relationships to another. Even a subordinate person may identify who they are and how they legitimately exist in the world through a sustained relationship to a superordinate. Certainly the master needs and is dependent upon the slave for his identity, the slave’s identity is necessarily more qualified and complex. In this regard, George Rawick quotes Frederick Douglas: "Slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and their masters are kind." Douglas remarks that this is to some extent out of fear of spies but there is a deeper reason.
I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for salves to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their master, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their master viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. … They seemed to think the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed. (George P. Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, 1972, p. 4. This is the first and introductory volume to the 19 volumes edited by Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Volumes 2-19 contain interviews with ex-slaves conducted during the 1920s and 30s.) Even under execrable circumstances when there appear to be no practical alternatives, people take what sense of worth is available to them, and by doing that, participate in the apparent legitimation of a hegemonic relationship. In Beloved, Morrison explores the ambiguity, conflict, and humiliation created by this social arrangement. She deals with it most directly in the contrast between Sweet Home when its owner, Garner, was alive and the time after his death when "schoolteacher" was invited by Garner’s widow to take over the plantation. Paul D, the last of the Sweet Home men, recalls growing up along with four of his friends, "He grew up thinking that, of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only the five of them were men. Allowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him. To invent ways of doing things; to see what was needed and attack it without permission …. In their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to." (Beloved, p. 25)
 But even when Garner was alive, this was true only at Sweet Home. Away from that place " … they were trespassers among the human race." When their owner and sponsor died they were lost with no individual or personal claims, no rights in the world. Schoolteacher measured and studied them like animals and treated them like livestock, "scientific racism" took the guise of a Taylorist effort to find the limits of animal endurance in order to maximize productivity. Morrison provides some sense, some context for what it is like to be treated as livestock. Sethe is pregnant and her husband Halle clandestinely watches schoolteacher’s sons take Sethe’s milk. Like Mr. Reed’s account of the mindless whipping of his sister, there stood Halle and could not come to Sethe’s rescue. He went mad.
 The contrast between Sweet Home under Garner and schoolteacher is crucial.
Nobody counted on Garner dying. Nobody thought he could. How ‘bout that? Everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life each of theirs fell to pieces. Now ain’t that slavery or what is it? …. For years Paul D believed schoolteacher broke into children what Garner had raised into men. And it was that that made them run off. Now plagued by the contents of this tobacco tin [containing scraps from his life], he wondered how much difference there really was between before schoolteacher and after. Garner called and announced them men – but only on Sweet Home, and by his leave. Was he naming what he saw or creating what he did not? That was the wonder of Sixo, and even Halle; it was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. It troubled him that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point. Oh, he did manly things, but was that Garner’s gift or his own will? What would he have been anyway – before Sweet Home – without Garner? In Sixo’s country, or his mother’s? Or God help him, on the boat? Did a whiteman saying it make it so? Suppose Garner woke up one morning and changed his mind? Took the word away. Would they have run then? And if he didn’t, would the Pauls have stayed there all their lives? Why did the brothers need the one whole night to decide? To discuss whether they would join Sixo and Halle. Because they had isolated in a wonderful lie, dismissing Halle’s and Baby Suggs’ life before Sweet Home as bad luck. Ignorant of or amused by Sixo’s dark stories. Protected and convinced they were special. Never expecting the problem of Alfred Georgia [prison farm]; being so in love with the look of the world, putting up with anything and everything, just to stay alive in a place where a moon he had no right to was nevertheless there. (Beloved, pp. 220-221) The legacy of slavery is brutal and arbitrary treatment but, of course, slaves were sometimes treated humanely. This reverie by Paul D identifies the fact that humane or brutal treatment is not finally the issue, but powerlessness. That is to say, to have some control over life which exists in its own right and not merely as the agent of another. Patterson provides a chapter, "The Ultimate Slave," which explores the historical circumstances in which extraordinary power and responsibility are given slaves, but a power which finally depends upon the good graces or continued existence of their owner. The continuity, cooperation, and control important to even the most mundane aspects of life and which are provided by kinship, solidarity, and other corporate devices contained in the culture are not extended to the slave in her own right.
 Indeed, as Patterson notes, this lack of autonomous status and honor is among the attributes of slave status valued by slave owners. He explores a number of examples, "… found in nearly all areas of the pre modern world where slavery became an important institution: slaves and freedmen played significant military, administrative, and executive roles in the Persian empire, in dynastic Korea, and early modern Russia. But it was the familia Caesris of early imperial Rome, the elite slaves of the Islamic states and empires, and the palatine eunuchs of Byzantium and imperial China that provides the most extreme cases of persons who were at once slaves and figures of high political and administrative importance." (p. 299) I will discuss only a couple of examples from this fascinating material. The familia Caesaris of early imperial Rome was made up of slaves and slaves manumitted by the emperor, occupying important positions in personal service to the emperor and the imperial civil service. At various times these persons held civil service offices such as financial secretary and head of the fiscus which controlled state property entrusted to the emperor; as secretary who handled all petitions and grievances addressed to the emperor; and Secretary of state. (Patterson, pp. 300-301)
 Motivations to employ slaves and freedman were numerous: 1) the skilled manpower needed to administer an expanding economic empire was not available to be moved at will to places where they were most needed since the available free men were reluctant to leave their natal communities.[a note on freedman2 ] Slaves, of course, were stripped of their natal identity and could be moved at the emperor’s convenience. 2) The new jobs and skills which emerge in an expanding empire must not only be recruited in numbers but must be evaluated according to skill. Natal identity works against both of these considerations. 3) Slaves were cheaper in all of the usual senses in which we know labor can be made cheap. Profit or surpluses can be increased with slave labor by reducing maintenance costs or raising the volume of work. Specializations can be more readily introduced as can the regulation of the pace of work. 4) Slavery reduced the recruitment and replacement costs of labor. 5) Slaves provided a solution to the then unsolved legal problem of having an individual act as one’s agent. "With his vast personal fortune to administer, the emperor, like other members of the Roman ruling class, needed persons who in law had no separate legal identity but were simply living surrogates of their masters." (Patterson, p. 303)
 Thus, however great the power of a slave or freedman may have over others it is wholly derived from the master and does not imply any personal power or honor. "Nothing makes this clearer than the fate of powerful freedmen on the death of their masters. Often a carnage ensued as the new emperor cleared the deck and settled scores." (p. 307) No matter how powerful and exalted a slave or freedman may become as the surrogate of her master, in the structure of society she is still marginal and without the explicit protection of her master is no different from the most degraded and exploited field hand. It is this condition which defines and is defined by "generalized dishonor." [a note on women as surrogates of men3 ]
 Natal Alienation is an extension of the slave’s powerlessness and makes clear her status as an instrumentality, a non-person. The slave is denied all rights or claims to birth – she ceases to belong in her own right to any legitimate social order. The slave has no claims on, nor obligations to her living blood relatives. Nor does she have claims on her ancestry. Consequently she is not only isolated from kin but also from her cultural traditions and any rights or obligations they might support. The slave master does not recognize the family as a unit within the slave population – marriage is forbidden or if allowed on an informal basis by a particular master, it need not be recognized by a subsequent master -- husband and wife, parents and children can be separated with impunity. The fact that this did not happen very often did not alter the fact that it did happen regularly, that slaves understood it could happen anytime, and it struck terror in their hearts. In the interviews with ex-slaves conducted during the 1920s and 30s, this prospect was among the most often and prominently mentioned.
 Slaves were not given or permitted surnames and were often given absurd and comical names comparable to those given pets or livestock. Since natal alienation removed the slave from all social rights, she was socially dead, she became the perfect object to be manipulated without constraints of any tradition. In traditional societies even the most powerful upper classes tend to be constrained by custom and practice in their treatment of those below them. Peasant rebellions in traditional societies are not usually motivated by some vision of a new and more equitable social order, but rather a return to a prior social dispensation in which they had some rights and their betters some sense of noblesse oblige. In situations in which a dominant class has an opportunity to increase its economic wealth, political or military power, it is tempted to take the resources necessary for this expansion out of the hides of peasants. Traditional obligations to peasants -- rights to stay on the land, expectation of some specific share of the land’s usufruct, are bothersome roadblocks to these goals. It is just this type of situation in which peasant rebellions or movements are likely to occur, seeking a return to a prior relationship between themselves and the nobility for whom they provide material support. Patterson suggests that this may be a typical situation in which natally alienated slaves become an important productive resource to a dominate group. [note on slavery and "free labor"4]
 Generalized Dishonor. As I said above, when teaching Patterson’s work in various sociology classes (e.g. social stratification, race and ethnic groups, social change) it was easy enough to get across to students the fact that slaves were powerless. The idea and implications of "natal alienation" also seemed pretty clear. But I found the idea of "generalized dishonor" particularly difficult to convey and to such an extent that I came to doubt my own understanding as to what it might mean to be so dishonored. Powerlessness and natal alienation are conditions imposed on others by the powerful and one can describe to some extent how that works, but "generalized dishonor" refers to a stigma which is the personal effect of a moment to moment, daily, total operation of social relationships shaped by powerlessness and natal alienation. I’m not suggesting that there is no slave owner’s ideology of slavery and black dishonor which is part of their self-justification and which can be taught, promulgated, and used to sustain the stigma, but that its primary social force lies in its experience every day in every way over and over again. The failure to grasp this relates back to a fairly superficial understanding of what is meant by powerlessness and natal alienation. "Generalized dishonor" is a rancid vapor which envelopes slavery and the racism which supported slavery in the United States and the institutions of quasi-bondage and segregation for more than a century after the Civil War. The body of Toni Morrison’s work explores and clarifies the effects and resistance to the effects of those circumstances described by Patterson, but it is in Beloved that the sense of pervasive, cold, bone deep "generalized dishonor" is most starkly shown for those of us willing to look.
 I have no idea why Morrison chose to make Beloved a ghost story. It may have been suggested by the recent invention of "magic realism," but in any case it is exactly right. It gives real sense and meaning to the common belief in traditional cultures that the deceased remain attached to hearth and home until they are somehow released or exorcised. Family spirits which may be a source of comfort, instigators of mischief, reminders of deep seated guilt or shame, instruments of ominous fear or outright terror. In Beloved’s case, at least the promise of a kind of redemption. It makes palpable Heidegger’s observation "… that which we most dread has already happened." (as quoted by Norman O. Brown, "Lupercalia: Cry Wolf! Wolf!") A sense that the moment is shaped by dark forces which are external to us but also of us, a threat which we intuit but cannot clearly understand because it not only threatens us but distorts how we perceive and understand it, a presence which be both welcome and dread. A ghost which is deaf to appeals and efforts to explain not so much because of its arbitrary power but because it is a child which neither can nor wants to understand and forgive.
Then the mood changed and the arguments began. Slowly at first. A complaint from Beloved, and apology from Sethe. A reduction of pleasure at some special effort the older woman made. Wasn’t it too cold to stay outside? Beloved gave a look that said, so what? Was it past bedtime, the light no good for sewing? Beloved didn’t move; said, "Do it," and Sethe complied. She took the best of everything – first. The best chair, the biggest piece, the prettiest plate, the brightest ribbon for her hair, and the more she took, the more Sethe began to talk, explain, describe how much she had suffered, been through, for her children, waving away flies in grape arbors, crawling on her knees to a lean-to. None of which made the impression it was supposed to. Beloved accused her of leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her. She said they were the same, had the same face, how could she have left her? And Sethe cried, saying she never did, or meant to – that she had to get them out, away, that she had the milk all the time and had the money too for the stone but not enough. That her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side, forever. Beloved wasn’t interested. She said when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat. Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light. Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life…. Beloved denied it. Sethe never came to her, never said a word to her, never smiled and worst of all never said goodbye or even looked her way before running away from her. There must be no more bone chilling phrase in literature than Beloved’s brittle memory of "the men without skin," the disconnected images of her infancy, Sethe’s face she yearned to see, the confusion of her time on the other side and the crossover to the river and bridge where she returned to her mother. Beloved needed Sethe’s tender face but was angered and unforgiving that she had not protected her but abandoned her to the dark. Much as Sethe remembered the love and tenderness of her husband Halle but could not forgive his watching while the shoolteacher’s sons took her milk and did not come raging to her rescue. His humiliation and madness was scant consolation. In Sethe’s anger we see from the perspective of the sister who broke the clock and who was not protected by her brother or her parents. Not only the personal humiliation but dismay and anger toward those whom you most loved and depended upon. Even Denver was afraid of Sethe for whatever it was that made it all right for her to kill her children. Denver’s brothers left 124 Bluestone Road as soon as they were old enough and able, yet she understood that whatever it was it was actually outside of Sethe and she feared the world beyond 124 Bluestone Road. The double and multiple binds make it almost impossible to bear. Even someone as practically and spiritually resourceful as Baby Suggs finally staggered under the meanness and arbitrary weight of it.
When once or twice Sethe tried to assert herself – be the unquestioned mother whose word was law and who knew what was best – Beloved slammed things, wiped the table clean of plates, threw salt on the floor, broke a windowpane. (pp. 241-2)
Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her. Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning – that Beloved might leave. That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant – what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life – Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing – the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter. This passage coming toward the end of the novel after we know its characters and something of the world in which they struggled, begins to give some feeling for the flesh and bone of Patterson’s idea of generalized dishonor and the strength and courage summoned against it.
An no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggs could worry about, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe had refused – and refused still.
This and much more Denver heard her say from her corner chair, trying to persuade Beloved, the one and only person she felt she had to convince, that what she had done was right because it came from true love….
She [Denver] had begun to notice that even when Beloved was quiet, dreamy, minding her own business, Sethe got her going again. Whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come. It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out. (pp. 251-2)
 Patterson quite naturally emphasizes the conditions which give rise to slavery and the processes involved in their development and final demise. But he also shows how the very tyranny built into institutions of slavery require that some promise of manumission be present. The promise of manumission for oneself or one’s children is, in the long run, the only carrot sufficient to bear and tolerate the stick. Nevertheless, resistance to slavery in the Americas was pervasive in the form of overt acts of rebellion, sabotage, escape to the wild or to the north, formation of maroon communities, including of course, the clandestine creation of families and family responsibilities, religious beliefs and other social practices which support a sense of identity -- a sense of personal meaning and social solidarity. Historians like Herbert Gutman have documented the resistance and subversion of "natal alienation" among American slaves. (The Black Family In Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, 1976) But, once again, the emotionally complex, ambivalent, relentlessly conflicted and imaginative relationship slaves had to their life circumstances is difficult to understand and feel without some comparable experience or without the assistance of a great work of art. We are fortunate to have such a work in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
1. I may owe Morrison an apology for this use of her work, since she observes that works of fiction by black authors are often appreciated mainly as sociological illustrations of black life and culture. She doesn’t wish to deny this as an important function of art and literature and certainly does not object to it on grounds that art should be appreciated solely for arts sake or some other latter day version of the "new criticism", but because of a common assumption that while works of art by black persons may illuminate black life and culture they have no profound implications for white culture and white sensibilities. (This thesis is developed in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, The William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, Harvard , 1990, Vintage Books, 1992; and I think with special force in her analysis of Moby Dick in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Michigan Quarterly Review, Tanner Lectures on Human Values, U. of Michigan, Oct., 1988).
This separation of the art of black persons from the "canon" presumes two things. First, that blacks have not significantly influenced white culture and, most importantly, the relationship between black and white, enslaved and free, has not affected in any important way the dominant culture and the way it thinks about itself. The presumption is that since black culture is inferior to white culture (and the aesthetic canons of white culture), the test of black culture and black works of art is one of the degree of assimilation achieved by the interloper to the "objective" standards of civilization. Overcoming slavery, segregation, or the exclusion of blacks leaves the presumption that the only remaining task is for blacks to assimilate to whites. This carries an even more subtle load that whites have nothing to learn from blacks nor its oppressive relationship to blacks beyond the fact that slavery and segregation may have been an unfortunate historical error. Morrison opposes this view in a way which is complemented by Edward Said’s argument about the impact on literature and culture of the relationship between the non-Western and Western world. (Orientalism, 1978; Culture and Imperialism, 1993)
She suggests that a critical understanding of Afro-American literature may help in three important ways: 1) in the development of a theory of literature which truly accommodates Afro-American literature including its culture, history, and artistic strategies; 2) "… the examination and re-interpretation of the American canon, the founding nineteenth century works, for the ‘unspeakable things unspoken’, for the way in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure – the meaning of so much American literature. A search, in other words, for the ghost in the machine." 3) The examination of contemporary and/or non-canonical literature for the presence of Afro-Americans and the Afro-American literature and how it shaped choices, language, structure. I will remark only on the second point and more specifically, Morrison’s critical appreciation of Herman Melville and the significance of the metaphor of the "white whale."
Morrison says that apparently the canonical literature of the United States is "naturally" and "inevitably" white. But she observes that this may be more a reflection on "white" scholarship than on the actual absence of black America in the literature. A reexamination of the canon with attention to the "unspeakable unspoken" may uncover deeper and different meanings in the work. She indicates that Michael Rogin demonstrates how deeply Melville’s social thought is woven into the novels (M. Rogin, Subversive Genealogy: the Politics and Art of Herman Melville, 1985). Melville connected American freedom and slavery and how one amplified the other. (A thesis taken up by Orlando Patterson in another comparative study, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, 1991) Not only did the slavery issue rage at the time and Melville’s family had long been associated with anti-slavery movement, but his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw, had decided important cases in the history of slavery and civil rights law. In April of 1851 the case of Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave, came before Judge Shaw. Sims had been captured in Boston and his case represented an early and important test of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Judge Shaw ruled that Massachusetts authorities must return Sims to his owner. This difference between Melville and his father-in-law must have been dramatic and jarring because not only were they close, but Judge Shaw was an important patron of the artist. Melville dedicated his first and best known novel during his lifetime, Typee (1846), to "Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." Moby Dick was published in November, 1851, just a few months after Judge Shaw's decision. [note on Lemuel Shaw5 ]
Morrison reviews the various ways in which the struggle between Ahab and the white whale have been interpreted: an allegory of the state, "… of capitalism and corruption, God and man, the individual and fate, and most commonly, the single allegorical meaning of the white whale is understood to be brute, indifferent Nature, and Ahab the madman who challenges Nature." (Unspeakable, p. 15)
The vanity of a confrontation between male aggression and revenge with indifferent Nature is transformed if "… we consider the possibility that Melville’s ‘truth’ was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology. And if the white whale is the ideology of race, what Ahab has lost to it is personal dismemberment and family and society and his own place as a human in the world." And even more profoundly, "… it is white racial ideology that is savage and if, indeed, a white nineteenth century, American male took on not abolition, not the amelioration of racist institutions or their laws, but the very concept of whiteness as an inhuman idea, he would be very alone, very desperate, and very doomed." (p. 16)
Rogin argues that slavery confirmed Melville’s isolation from the dominant consciousness of his time but Morrison disagrees, correctly in my view, with this assessment. There was obviously a large and vocal community which stood against the outrage of slavery but Melville’s isolation was the result of a much deeper insight into his time.
… to question the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind, and to mediate on the fraudulent, self-destroying philosophy of that superiority, to ‘pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges,’ to drag the ‘judge himself to the bar,’ – that was dangerous, solitary, radical work. Especially then. Especially now. (Unspeakable, p. 18)Nothing confirms this more than post bellum America in which slavery persisted in a new guise and even abolitionists were not committed to a view of racial equality. In part, this can be accounted for by Patterson’s demonstration that the stigma of slavery always persists into the second and third generation of the freedman even when the mark of slavery is not so apparent as skin color. But as important as that is in its own right it seems insufficient to explain the historical virulence of American racism. The depth and breadth of this self-righteous, mean sense of white grace and selection is difficult to measure but it can at least be exposed and Morrison believes the black writer and critic is in a special position to provide that service. Winthrop Jordan came at this celebration of whiteness by the denigration of blackness from the opposite direction of Rogin and Morrison’s analysis of the ideology of whiteness, but makes a similar argument. He makes a convincing case for the turmoil, guilt, and confusion in the Anglo-American world caused by the internal struggle between spiritual purity and animal appetites, and how in a context of imperial expansion, it can be reified and projected onto the idea of civilized whitemen justly subduing savage people of color. (Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, 1968)
This further supports Morrison’ view that a consideration of the Afro-American presence in the traditional American literature will further illuminate the works and the culture out of which they come. return
2. Freedman, of course, are slaves manumitted by the emperor and entirely identified with his person and interests. I will not go into it here, but Patterson makes a case that in this context, the distinction between slave and freedman is not crucial (see: Slavery and Social Death, pp 240ff). return
3. "The woman behind the throne," "the woman behind the man," are common phrases used when describing the actual power and influence of certain women. As often as not, such phrases are used with mockery and contempt. The existence of surrogate power has even been used to counter the claim that women have been powerless and therefore ready targets of ridicule and exploitation. Of course the way this works varies greatly from culture to culture, from one historical time to another, so I’ll mention just two cases from very different social environments which I find particularly interesting. Each suggests a parallel between the status and condition of powerful slaves and powerful women.
In a very important and influential study of power and occupational careers in a large American corporation, Rosebeth Kanter provides an account of how political relationships, networking, and strategic alliances shape corporate policy and especially corporate careers (Men and Women of the Corporation, 1977). She identifies the ways in which the quality of these informal interactions are predisposed by levels of social comfort, common background, and traditional conceptions of role and status. A process in which persons from less prestigious universities (often an index of social class), people of color, persons of certain ethnic or religious groups, and women, start at the foot of a corporate ladder which is for them higher, steeper, and with numerous cracked and rotten rungs. Which is to say that it is not impossible to negotiate it to the top but that the probabilities are significantly less favorable than to those who fall easily into social categories which are valued and comfortable to those who already hold positions on the upper rungs.
In this context, Kanter includes a study of the role of personal secretaries in organizational life. First, the relationship between a personal secretary to her boss is as a surrogate wife. She is expected to not only provide technical skills and services but personal and emotional ones as well (presumably stopping short of the intimacies reserved only for a spouse). Secondly, her career is tied to his, if he climbs the organizational ladder and chooses to take her along, her income, status, and power also increase (as does the boss’s wife). In fact, an executive may come to depend on his secretary to such a degree that his career is hardly separable from her political, administrative, and technical competence. She is likely to have a great deal of power through her influence on her boss, but also by holding his informally delegated authority. Such executive secretaries have at times developed sufficient knowledge of the corporation, its business environment, and operational procedures to justify placing her in an important managerial post. This, of course, rarely happens and indeed if she is separated from her boss for whatever reason, her knowledge, skill, operating network, even her corporate political savvy can rarely be used to even sustain her position and status. She is likely to fall precipitously down the corporate ladder and perhaps off it altogether.
Another interesting case taken from more traditional culture involves a belief in witchcraft and its occasional suppression in times of crisis. In the first place, when witches are viewed cross culturally certain attributes are often found in common – those accused of witchcraft tend to be old, women, of low or marginal status, and sometimes described as "willful" or "ill-tempered." Accusations of witchcraft toward women who fit these criteria is often simply a matter of scapegoating. An important social attribute of any scapegoat is relative powerlessness. However, these crises often express underlying social structural ambiguities and conflicts – sometimes induced by social change -- which can be uncovered by careful analysis. Carol F. Karlsen does this in a very interesting study, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987).
Karlsen examines 355 cases of witchcraft accusations of which 104 were brought to trial in New England from 1620 to 1725. In colonial New England a woman’s status and influence in the community was tied to that of her husband or father. If she was heir to her father’s or husband’s estate, especially his land, and it came to her, as it sometimes did, she was not expected to actually take over the land to control and administer herself. She was not expected to exercise this right but to give it to a male relative or to remarry and make it her husband’s property and estate. Women who resisted this expectation often found themselves accused of wicked and prideful behavior and finally of witchcraft. The message, of course, is that a woman can have status, power, and influence only if it mediated through and ultimately under the control of men. return
4. As an aside, this also suggests another reason for the study of slavery and natal alienation. It is certainly relevant, not to mention ironic, that natal alienation is an aspect of economic expansion by a traditional society and that the creation of modern societies and economies created a status called "free labor" which from the employers point of view might just as well be called, "natally alienated labor." A "free labor" system is one in which labor is a commodity, bought and sold in the market like any other commodity. Employer and employee have no obligations to one another beyond what is presumed to be a freely negotiated contract as to wages and work. Supposedly the transaction is based solely on the technical ability of an employee to do the job and the employer to pay the wage. No kinship or kinship-like (personal friendship, sense of commonality or community) considerations are relevant to this transaction, otherwise it is pejoratively labeled as "nepotism." Of course, the presumption is that these contractual arrangements are freely made among equals, employees and employer. That clearly is not the case and the question as to how to solve the problem of the relative powerlessness of the worker in this transaction is a major source of strain in the history of the labor movement. A difference arises over whether to directly attack and alter the institutional assumptions of a free labor market system, or to generally accept those assumptions but attempt to ameliorate their practical impact by identifying and insisting upon certain strategic exceptions, e.g. "collective bargaining", "unemployment insurance", etc. In any case, certain parallels between slavery and wage labor have not been lost on working men, thus the emergence and use in the nineteenth century of the term "wage slavery" to describe industrial labor. A study and clarification of the institutions of slavery can be useful in the study and clarification of other labor systems including the "free" labor system. return
Lemuel Shaw was a justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, 1830-60,
and while a state judge his legal opinions came at a time when the fundamental
law of the United States was being shaped. His legal opinions were highly
regarded and extensively cited in cases before state and federal
courts. He decided a number of important cases. Among the cases important
to our subject other than Sims are: Commonwealth vs. Aves
(1836), Roberts vs. City of Boston (1849), and perhaps, Commonweath
vs. Hunt (1842). In the Aves case a slave was brought into Massachusetts
by the owner as her personal servant but he refused to return to
the south. Shaw ruled that if a slave is knowingly taken into a free state
and refuses to return to a slave state, the free state has no jurisdiction
which would permit it to compel the slave to return. Shaw thought of the
issue as a narrow one regarding jurisdiction of the law and a court.
This judgment was much celebrated by abolitionists and was the type of
ruling which was the corner-stone of northern resistance to the Fugitive
Slave Act of 1793 -- resistance which was generally effective
and a major motivation for the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act
of 1850. However, in this same judgment Shaw also said that if the
slave was not knowingly brought into a free state by her owner but was
a fugitive, the court had an obligation to return the fugitive to her state
of origin. This aspect of the ruling is consistent with Shaw’s later decision
(1851) to return Sims, a fugitive, to his owners. Roberts vs.
City of Boston upheld the city’s segregation of schools and was an
important precedent cited in the Supreme Court case which established the
"separate but equal" doctrine (Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896)).
vs. Hunt (1842) ruled in favor of a striking labor union, removing
unions from the province of conspiracy law, a major legal weapon used against
worker's well into the twentieth century in an effort to defeat the organization
of workers. return