By Jessica Newgas (University of Leeds)
Corresponding email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This study examines the West African spirit child in Toni Morrison’s Beloved so as to investigate spirituality in the African diaspora. I use the term “spirit child” to refer to someone who retains a link to “the other side” after their birth into a human body. I also specifically refer to the Nigerian concept of abiku/ogbanje when the defining characteristics of this belief are relevant. I argue that the transcendental nature of the spirit child invites a reading of this figure as a diasporic entity, especially as spirit children occur in an American context, rendering the concept itself far from “home”. The spirit child’s return subverts linear time structure, thus drawing attention to the existence of multiple realities while also mimicking the repetition of trauma. I outline how the split from African cosmology (resulting in what Ryan Topper terms “ancestral trauma”) can be realised through a process of remembering. Ultimately, I posit that the spirit child becomes a reminder of something forgotten after ancestral migration from Africa, recognising that Beloved makes a case for rebirth through forgetting. (For part one of the article, see here.)
This article is based on the dissertation “Life after Trauma: Spirit Children in Fictions of the African Diaspora”, with which Jessica Newgas completed her BA in English at the University of Leeds, for which she received the 2019 Lionel Cliffe Prize for the best undergraduate dissertation on a topic relevant to African Studies at the University of Leeds.
West African spirit children are those who, in various forms, straddle the human and the spirit world. The Nigerian spirit child, abiku/ogbanje, can be loosely defined as a child who is continually born to the same mother in order to cause distress. This particular incarnation is especially relevant to Beloved. The spirit child in African diaspora narratives is illuminating due to the innately diasporic nature of spirit children living in the human world. Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi also identifies analytical potential, arguing that ‘abiku/ogbanje…can serve as a springboard for examining issues of memory, […] migrations, and conversations (and silences) that link West Africa with the Americas’ (Ogunyemi 2002: 663). My study builds on Ryan Topper’s theory of ‘ancestral trauma’, caused by the ‘rupturing’ of ‘the cosmological frame of reference’ due to colonialism (Topper 2017: 4). Although Beloved is widely understood as an exploration of the traumas of slavery and the Middle Passage, I suggest that there is also a deeper ancestral trauma at play and that Beloved’s return echoes the abiku/ogbanje phenomenon. As the spirit child disrupts linear time structures, I retroactively interpret Beloved using its lost ancestral cosmology in order to illuminate spiritual silences and determine the value of “remembering” ancestral cosmology in the African diaspora.
The Suggestion of the Spirit Child
The majority of the critical conversation that surrounds Beloved has rightly favoured a Euro-American perspective. While I acknowledge such readings, my argument builds on the belief that ‘numerous forces are at work’ in Morrison’s novel, one of which I believe to be an invocation of African cosmology (Yeates 2015: 515). Critics such as La Vinia Delois Jennings and Justine Tally have written extensively on the African suggestions in Beloved, providing an important additional reading. As Tally suggests that 124 Bluestone Road is a house ‘with two stories’ and also ‘two levels or ontologies’, I suggest that there are two different cosmological realities at play (Tally 2009: 41). Beloved’s return echoes that of a spirit child and so comes as a reminder of a cosmological heritage from which Beloved’s characters are estranged. Barbara Christian argues that Beloved is ‘as much about the period when Africans were forcibly displaced from their Motherland as it is about slavery in North America’ and that it is ‘logical for critics to consider how African belief systems might illuminate this text’ (Christian 1993: 7-8). Rooney specifically suggests that Beloved ‘returns as an abiku’ and, therefore, ‘stands as an accusation of the violent theft of human beings from their own culture of origin’ (Rooney 2000: 117).
I do not suggest that Beloved is indisputably a spirit child. That would disregard the spiritual precariousness of the novel. However, there are aspects of Beloved’s character that link her to the spirit child phenomenon. Textual evidence for this is subtle but sustained. On her arrival, Beloved is ‘flawless except for three vertical scratches on her forehead’ that have been carried over from her previous life, thus mirroring the use of scarification in Nigerian communities as a means of recognising an abiku child on its return (Morrison, 2005: 62). We learn that the scars are Sethe’s own ‘fingernail prints’ from when she killed Beloved (239). I argue that this presumably unintentional marking of Beloved’s body suggests an unconscious awareness of the ancestral cosmology of which abiku/ogbanje is part. Renee Lee Gardner notes how critics have tended to assume Sethe killed Beloved out of fear, rejecting the notion that she chose death for her children. Instead, these critics prefer to believe that she had no choice. However, to assume Sethe lacked choice, Gardner continues, is to deny Sethe’s access to a ‘higher order of thinking’ (Gardner 2016: 206). I argue that this higher order of thinking is an unconscious “remembrance” of Sethe’s ancestral cosmology. This is supported by Sethe’s explanation that Beloved ‘had to be safe and [Sethe] put her where she would be’, indicating fluidity of the boundary between life and death that abiku/ogbanje connotes (Morrison 2005: 236). A semi-conscious recognition of Beloved’s ability to return after death is also suggested as Sethe claims that Beloved is ‘back now’ and she ‘knew she would be’ (236).
Also indicative of Beloved’s connection to the abiku/ogbanje phenomenon is the suggestion of her power preceding her death. One example is the emphasis that the baby girl – who returns as Beloved – was ‘crawlin-already?’ when Sethe arrived at 124 (110). This refrain draws special attention to Beloved’s fast development that, in a West African context, may have indicated that the baby was a spirit child. ‘[F]amilies scrutinize a child’s behaviour’, explains Denham in his spirit child study, ‘and are wary of delays or early onset in the normal developmental patterns for such events as talking or walking’ (Denham 2017: 16, emphasis added). That Beloved’s fast development increases her mobility also supports an interpretation of Beloved as an abiku, as they are understood to be restless, ‘always longing for a place other than where s/he is’ (Ogunyemi 1996: 62). Denham notes too how ‘[f]amilies… suspected spirit children with voracious appetites who would suckle their mother dry’ (Denham 2017: 17). Although there is no mention of Beloved’s appetite before her death, there is significant evidence of Beloved’s excessive consumption, to Sethe’s detriment, when she returns. Beloved was ‘getting bigger, plumper by the day’ whereas ‘[t]he flesh between [Sethe’s] forefinger and thumb was thin as china silk’, as if Beloved is indirectly consuming Sethe (Morrison 2005: 281). Despite Beloved’s behaviour, ‘[n]obody said, You raise your hand to me and I will knock you into the middle of next week’ or ‘[h]onour thy mother and father’ (285), invoking Wole Soyinka’s description of abiku: ‘[h]er parents dared not scold her for long or earnestly’ out of fear she might leave (Soyinka in Ogunyemi 1996: 61). Finally, I draw on Yeates observation that ‘[w]ithin the opening chapter of Beloved the space between Sethe’s legs is twice referred to in terms of a grave: first “her knees wide open as any grave,” and second “her knees wide open as the grave”’(Yeates 2016: 532). He goes on to argue that ‘[t]he inclusion of the word “the” in the second utterance suggests one grave in particular and most likely brings to mind the grave of her deceased baby’ (532). Although Yeates claims this is supportive of his argument (of Beloved as a zombi), I suggest that Beloved’s birth into the grave between Sethe’s legs strongly portrays her as an abiku: ‘one who is born to die’ (Ogunyemi 1996: 63).
Beloved’s return in a form that invokes abiku constitutes a physical reminder of the West African cosmology from which Sethe, Denver and Paul D are separated. She also embodies “ancestral trauma:” ‘the process through which colonial modernity ruptures the cosmological frame of reference upon which the cultural memory of a colonized people depends’ (Topper 2017: 4). Indeed, Beloved’s very arrival disrupts Sethe, Denver and Paul D’s new life together, like the invasion of a traumatic memory. She evokes memories of Sethe’s lived life but also, through her links to “the other side”, becomes the bridge that connects Sethe and Denver to Africa.
Unlike a normal abiku/ogbanje, Beloved is “reborn” at the age she would have been had she lived. Sethe is marked as Beloved’s mother nonetheless as her waters break upon seeing Beloved. When Sethe asks her if she is ‘from around here’, Beloved indicates she is not and so illuminates the possibility for further afield origins than America (Morrison 2005: 62). Beloved quickly begins to tease Sethe’s past out of her in the form of stories. She, like a traumatic memory, forces Sethe to remember things that are ‘painful or lost’ (69). The painful memories are the traumas of Sweet Home, but the parts of the past that are lost are what Cathy Caruth calls “unclaimed experience:” traumatic memory that is ‘not fully assimilated as it occurs’ and ‘simultaneously defies and demands our witness’ (Caruth 1996: 5). Caruth also argues that to examine texts (literary or theoretical) that seek to theorise trauma must do so in ‘a language that defies, even as it claims, our understanding’ (5). Morrison has successfully employed such a language in order to suggest a trauma before slavery that slavery itself is now helping to negate.
Beloved’s questions to Sethe are duplicitous, claiming back Sethe for herself (as a returned daughter) while also attempting to retie Sethe to her ancestral cosmology. One such question is ‘Where your diamonds?’ (Morrison 2005: 69). Sethe responds that they were not actually diamonds, but the suggestion of the precious stone, indigenous to Africa, is notable. Later, in a chapter that merges Sethe, Denver and Beloved’s voices, the earrings resurface as one voice (presumably Beloved’s) asks another (presumably Sethe), ‘Where are your earrings?’ (254). To this she replies, ‘They took them from me’ (254). As Beloved probes who took the “diamond” earrings Sethe answers,‘[t]he men without skin’ (254). I interpret Beloved’s description of men without skin to be, in fact, white men. Therefore, the stealing of Sethe’s “diamonds” evokes the stealing of diamonds from Africa during colonisation. Beloved’s questions have drawn the original trauma, the colonisation of Africa, into the light. Beloved also demands, ‘You woman ever fix up your hair?’ (72). This question leads Sethe to reflect upon her mother, Sethe’s ancestral link to Africa. Sethe is prompted to begin ‘remembering something… privately shameful that had seeped into a slit in her mind right behind the slap on her face and the circled cross’ (73, emphasis added). The circled cross is the mark that Sethe’s mother bares as a slave, but Jennings reveals the sign to be ‘an African palimpsest upon which European-American culture superimposes itself’ (Jennings 2008: 2). The circled cross, in fact, originates from Kongo and ‘became the signage under which the creolizing of West and Central African traditional religions occurred in Haiti’s Voudoun’ in order to preserve ‘African peoples’ beliefs… in the Western Hemisphere’ (2). Therefore, the thing that Sethe remembers behind the symbol is likely its original meaning as an ancestral cosmogram denoting her African heritage. In addition, there is the slap Sethe earned from her mother by asking for her own mark. The violence denotes the new meaning of the symbol that has displaced its former religious significance and indicates that Sethe is also remembering the ancestral trauma resulting from such displacement. As Sethe’s memory continues to open, she remembers Nan who nursed her and ‘used different words’ that we can assume was a native African tongue (Morrison 2005: 74). Sethe blames the forgetting of that language for not being able to remember ‘[w]hat Nan had told her’, displaying the effects of the loss of African culture (74). Despite this, she remembers ‘the message—that was and had been there all along’, presumably in Sethe’s unconscious memory (74). Nan had explained to Sethe that ‘her mother and Nan were together from the sea’, a statement that is both true and reductive (74). In Nan’s description Africa is erased as Africans’ point of departure and replaced by the waters that separate former slaves from their native homeland. Therefore, where Africa should be found there is a blank space. It is in this way that Morrison is able to suggest and negate ancestral trauma simultaneously and to defy understanding of the trauma. Beloved, as returned spirit child and embodiment of ancestral trauma, opens Sethe’s memory further back than most critics have suggested.
The more Beloved settles into 124, the more Sethe and Denver withdraw from the outside world. So inaccessible is 124 that Stamp Paid tries ‘[o]ver and over again’ to knock on the door without success (Morrison 2005: 203). The necessity of this gesture indicates Sethe and Denver’s removal from the community. I argue that this withdrawal aids the re-establishment of African spirituality within 124 by creating a separate reality from the American reality outside. The voices that Stamp Paid can hear surrounding 124 indicate a spiritual unconscious that he, as an African American, can hear but, due to separation from his ancestral cosmology, cannot ‘make out’ (202). All except for ‘the word mine’, that is, which may not only be the women inside claiming each other, but also Stamp Paid’s ancestral cosmology reclaiming him (203). Stamp, however, turns away from this call. The realisation of Beloved’s identity eventually emerges from Sethe’s unconscious mind, causing Sethe’s fragmented identity to ‘click’ back into place (207). She is also locked into communion with her returned daughter. This joining is confirmed by the free indirect narration that allows Sethe to talk directly to Beloved in her head. Importantly, the development is regression rather than a fulfilling connection. Sam Durrant notes that ‘124 cannot accommodate that which cannot be accommodated’: namely, the spirituality it is attempting to house (Durrant 2004: 106). The effort transforms 124 from a ‘womb’, in which the three women can hide, to a ‘tomb’ that foreshadows Beloved’s life-threatening grip on Sethe (106).
Beloved causes Sethe to regress ‘into the narcissism of mother-child relations’, as Durrant suggests, but also back to a childlike state herself (92). For instance, Beloved and Sethe play together so vigorously that Sethe stops going to work to facilitate their games. The description of 124 as a “womb” agrees with this reading, while also indicating the regenerative possibilities of regression. Sethe’s return to a childlike state serves as therapy for her to overcome her ancestral trauma. She is able to retrospectively connect to Beloved (and her ancestral cosmology) in a state of childhood. Sethe relives her childhood without the trauma of slavery or that of an absent ancestral cosmology. However, as Sethe becomes childlike, Beloved takes on a dominant role, thus demonstrating an abiku’s ability to ‘[enslave] the parent’ (Ogunyemi 2002: 666). On seeing her mother incapacitated, Denver realises that she will need to leave 124. Leaving the reality inside the house, Denver opens herself to the American reality outside and the possibility of constructing an African American identity.
Denver’s separation from 124 is particularly important because of the implicit connection between Denver and her ancestral cosmology. Morrison fills the story of Denver’s birth with African suggestions, which is shared orally in the African tradition of storytelling. Denver is able to‘[step] into the told story’, later relaying the story orally to Beloved (Morrison 2005: 36). Thus, Denver partakes in the tradition of her ancestors. Additionally, Sethe refers to Denver as a ‘little antelope’ before her birth, despite having ‘never seen one’ (37). I suggest that this compulsion to call Denver an antelope indicates Sethe’s inherited cosmology in her unconscious. Sethe refers to it as an ‘invention held on to from before Sweet Home’, recalling how they ‘danced the antelope’ (37, emphasis added). This is an example of kinetic memory of ‘communal ritual’, emphasising ‘collective corporeal expression… by members of a community scattered far from their place of origin’ (Tally 2009: 44). In other words, the dance resists the forgetting of one’s culture. Denver’s prenatal movements initiate such a memory, casting Denver as a cosmologically connected character. The maintenance of Denver’s links to her heritage may be due to her limited time in the American setting outside of 124. As such, it is notable when Denver seeks help outside the house. Through Denver, Morrison displays a journey from longing for spiritual heritage to accepting its incompatibility within the wider environment. By illuminating the importance of community through Denver’s pursuit, Morrison depicts the importance of adjusting to a new reality. Denver must ‘step off the edge of the world and die’ a spiritual death in order to be reborn into her African American identity (Morrison 2005: 281). Here, Morrison’s use of language reveals abiku qualities in Denver as she transgresses from one “world” to the next. There are several other linguistic choices that suggest spirit child qualities. For example, Denver recalls Baby Suggs saying she ‘was charmed’ and ‘got saved all the time’ (247). One such time may have been Denver’s birth when Sethe and Amy ‘believed they had lost [the baby]’ (99). Despite this, Denver lives, possibly through rebirth. Additionally, Denver is Sethe’s only child that stays, perhaps due to tireless returning – an abiku trait – rather than stasis. Denver uses the ability to transgress boundaries, characteristic of spirit children, to construct a new identity and exist in the diaspora.
Sethe’s entrapment in 124, however, is necessary to work through her ancestral trauma. As Mr. Bodwin approaches 124 to collect Denver for work, we see an ‘almost exact repetition’ of words used to describe Sethe’s reaction as those used when Schoolteacher arrived to re-enslave her (Tally 2009: 49). This similarity ‘describes the catatonic ceasing of normal mental processes characteristic of traumatic memory’ (49). However, due to Sethe’s regression and subsequent reconnection with ancestral cosmology, Sethe does not attempt to kill Beloved again. Such action would necessitate Beloved, as abiku, to return, signalling the continuing existence of a repeating trauma. Instead, Sethe’s attack on the white man harks back to the colonisation of Africa as well as the sufferings of slavery. Her anger, then, is indicative of a deeper understanding of her inherited past. As the group of women approach 124 to dispel Beloved, it is not just Christian objects and prayers that they call upon. Neither is it African spirituality. Importantly, the women bring ‘a little of both’: Christian faith and ‘what they believed would work’ based on what we can assume is inherited knowledge from their African ancestry (Morrison 2005: 303, emphasis added). In addition, on his approach to the house, Mr. Bodwin ‘turned his thoughts to time’ and to his own upbringing in 124, thus recasting the house not as a solely African reality, but a container of both Black and White pasts (305). Sethe’s redirected anger reunites her with the African American community, ‘leaving Beloved behind’ who then disappears (309). However, it is because of Beloved that Sethe is able to reconstruct an identity within the community. As the community speculates about what really happened to Beloved, a little boy claims to have seen ‘down by the stream… a naked woman with fish for hair’ (315). Here, Ogunyemi recognises Beloved as mammywata, the ‘mythical marine figure that bequeaths wealth, but not children, to her devotees. […] By her disappearance,’ Ogunyemi argues, ‘Beloved bequeaths Sethe with the wealth of restored health and reunion with the community and Paul D’ (Ogumyemi 2002: 676). Thus, as Beloved takes on another West African form, the importance of Sethe’s reconnection with her ancestral cosmology is confirmed, but only upon Beloved’s return to the water. Beloved’s disappearance into water is a significant symbol of Beloved’s return (and the return of ancestral cosmology) to the African American unconscious, signifying the need to forget. Importantly, this receding is not eradication and the ‘fundamental presupposition’ of what constitutes a diaspora is ‘that the memory of the homeland or original community must be carried forward into future generations, whether consciously or unconsciously’ (Tally 2009: 35, original emphasis).
Despite the necessity of “forgetting” Africa in order to claim America, the strain of the choice is apparent. Morrison ensures that the absence is acknowledged. As Paul D re-enters 124 after Beloved’s disappearance, he recognises that ‘[s]omething is missing from 124’ (Morrison 2005: 319). Paul D recognises the absence of African spirituality in the house but, due to his active forgetting, ‘[h]e can’t put his finger on it’ (319). However, he claims ‘that just beyond his knowing is the glare of an outside thing that embraces while it accuses’ (319, emphasis added). This suggests that the outside thing, the absent cosmology, is ambivalent yet accepting of the choice made by African Americans. Paul D reflects that despite the shame of coupling with Beloved, ‘he was thankful too for having been escorted to some ocean-deep place he once belonged to’ (311). Such a place has been interpreted as where those lost in the Middle Passage reside, but I also believe it suggests the beginnings of humanity. Tally points out that ‘[p]redating Darwin by several thousand years, the ancient Egyptians allude to man’s evolution from creatures whose origin was water’ and that ‘Beloved’s first appearance having come out of water… can, indeed, be interpreted as calling to origins of an evolutionary kind’ (Tally 2009: 123). Beloved’s ability to accompany Paul D to an ocean-deep place, therefore, refers to a journey back to one’s origins, acknowledging Africa’s importance. Beloved, as diasporic spirit child, unravels Paul D, taking him back to the beginning. She provides Paul D with a connection to his origin so that it can recede into his unconscious to ‘be carried forward into future generations’ (35). Beloved is ‘quickly and deliberately’ forgotten because ‘it’, the story of African origins, ‘was not a story to pass on’ (Morrison 2005: 323). Consciously, that is. However, both Beloved the character and Beloved the novel are testament to the importance of acknowledging origins, even if in order to permit forgetting.
Spirit children transgress boundaries. This phenomenon in Beloved promotes the survival of Africans and ancestral cosmology in lands and realities far from “home”. Such endurance occurs through a process of regeneration, especially evoked by the cyclical structure of abiku/ogbanje. Instead of physical death, however, characters in Beloved reconstruct identity through a process of remembering/forgetting. The ‘interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures’ that are continually ‘bearing, altering, and maintaining’ previous presents, pasts and futures renews the lives of diasporic Africans in these texts using an African reality (Eze 2008: 26, original emphasis). This is true even while, in Beloved’s case, the characters are consciously moving away from Africa. In this way, African modes of reality are subtly, but consistently, reinforced. Through her rebirth, Beloved embodies a forgotten cosmology that bridges the gulf of ancestral trauma. She is, however, not the only spirit child in the novel. I have argued that Morrison’s linguistic choices allude to Denver as a kind of spirit child and that her ability to live on in African American society is through a process of survival through adaptation. African cosmology, therefore, is shown to be fiercely resilient and adaptable. Like abiku/ogbanje, it is able to travel far, die and be reborn (be forgotten and remembered), and perpetually regenerate. Whether African cosmology is carried onwards consciously or unconsciously in the African diaspora, Morrison shows readers that, like Africans, it can never truly die.
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