Cultural trauma inhibits characters’ identity formation in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved Essay

Set in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, American writer Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved explores the physical, emotional, as well as the spiritual ruin brought about by slavery, which keeps on haunting former slaves even in their freedom. Essentially, the novel traces the individual as well as the collective struggle for self-affirmation against the dehumanization of slavery (Jagoda 4). The cultural trauma experienced by the male and female characters in Morrison’s novel, as a result of slavery and white oppression, consequently inhibits their ability to establish a strong sense of self.

Slavery had a very profound and devastating impact on the identity or the sense of self of former slaves as exemplified by the many characters in the novel, who are archetypical examples of self-alienation.

“Slavery, after all, was a system predicated on dehumanizing and impersonalizing human beings; the system was called for the crushing of the language, family names, culture, and tribal history of the slaves” (Mahboobeh 473).

Morrison exploits the psychological consequences of the physical, emotional, as well as the spiritual wretchedness wrought about by slavery and white oppression to shape the identities of her characters. Her characters are not successful in establishing their own senses of self even long after their freedom because their direct encounter with the cultural trauma wrought about by slavery and the subsequent white oppression robs them the ability to do so; in this instance, a cultural trauma refers to the dramatic loss of identity and meaning due to slavery. Evidently, Morrison illustrates that a vast majority of former slaves are still disturbed by the dehumanization they had to endure in slavery; slavery lead to a repressed social status because slaves could not form relationships unless they had the privilege of doing so from their masters. Consequently, the alienation of characters in the novel due to the allowance and denial of relationships makes it difficult for individuals to establish a sense of self, and the devastating effects of this alienation extends deeper into future generations of slaves. After attaining freedom, Morrison’s characters encounter myriad psychological obstacles, which they must conquer in order to establish their own identities; for instance, the characters must achieve a certain social standard of whiteness to gain acceptance, and this inhibits their ability to form social identities even in their freedom.

“Tony Morrison portrays the black community with reference to blackness and the inner struggles of the individual as well as the class differences and social structures within the collective (Soyam 3) ”

Morrison highlights the significance of the environment on the formation of identity and a sense of self when he highlights that African slaves were brought together in unity by their environment that was rife with racial oppression; thus, the cultural trauma as embodied in the lived experiences of former slaves is some sort of collective memory or a form of remembrance that greatly inform how characters establish their identities even years long after slavery is gone. Erik Erickson’s construct of psychosocial development highlights the significant role played by alterations in individual’s conceptualization of themselves, one another and their environment in the development of identity; fundamental social structures and meanings make it impossible for individuals to conceive certain possibilities (Babbitt 1). However, the collection of experiences that former slaves have cannot support their need for identity formation since these experiences are highly constrained because of the limitations of social and racial groupings affecting former slaves. The slave owners in the novel, together with the oppressive slavery environment determine the identities of each of the slaves since their ability to gain self-awareness in relation to others in society is highly limited. Identity formation is a continuous process that draws heavily from daily interactions in various social groups such as familial, ethnic and occupational groups; these groups not only satisfy the need for affiliation, but also help individuals to define themselves both in their own eyes and in those of others.

Characters in the novel are defined by their perceived inferior racial status and their slavery status, and since these are the main two group identities that slaves can draw from, it is not easy for slaves to form strong personal identities since they are viewed differently by their owners, as subhuman. Consequently, the dehumanization wrought about by slavery leads to the internalization of the society’s racism, which in turn greatly influences the manner in which slaves perceive themselves; for instance, the dehumanization effect of slavery transforms Paul D into a detached man with a split identity. This character’s inner strength and drive to preserver slavery notwithstanding, he internalizes the dehumanization he encounters and consequently becomes emasculated after being subjected to humiliating treatment of both physical and sexual abuse at the ditches, “…the one thousand feet of earth–five feet deep, five feet wide, into which wooden boxes had been fitted (Morrison 205);” this humiliating experience made him detached since he believes he does not deserve human attachment.

Male slaves in the novel are generally deprived the privilege of identifying themselves as masculine or human; for instance, the original estate holder of Sweet Home Mr Garner permits his slaves to feel and act like men, but only further highlights the dehumanization power of slavery to define the identities and experiences of slaves. The fact that male slaves need permission to feel like ‘men’ implies that their masculinity is essentially artificial with secondary characteristics; ideally, masculinity espouses from within an individual and cannot be ascribed to anyone. Principally, Mr Garner allows his male slaves to feel like men through the secondary characteristics but he owns their masculinity consequently denying them the capacity to internalize their identity as men. Nonetheless, Mr Garner’s brother in law (schoolteacher) dehumanizes the males even further when he takes control of the Home Sweet plantation by taking away the secondary masculine characteristics initially permitted by Mr Garner. Schoolteacher denies the male slaves everything that makes them feel masculine and more powerful as men such as guns, thereby emasculating them in the process; taking away the guns deprives the men capacity to protect themselves and hunt for food while depriving them the privilege of reading undermines their ambitions of ever leaving Sweet Home.

Slavery equally dehumanized females by robbing them off their femininity when it denied them the privileges of motherhood, like raising their own babies and forming emotional attachments with them; mothers were quickly separated from their infants shortly after they had been born, and thus, women were naturally debased as human beings capable of nurturing children. Eventually, women in slavery could not identify themselves as mothers due to the cultural trauma they undergo, and motherhood to them is a reserve for the white women; Sethe in particular, experiences untold grief as a black mother because of the isolation she encounters in slavery, which denies her the privileges of motherhood. She says,

“I had milk…I was pregnant with Denver but I had milk for my baby girl…I hadn't stopped nursing her when I sent her on ahead with Howard and Buglar” (Morrison 31)

The African motherhood practices are very crucial in the establishment of a woman’s identity since women establish and evaluate their identities based upon motherhood, which is highly regarded as a woman’s true calling. However, African slave women depicted in Morrison’s novel have no chance of establishing the mother-identity since they neither have the luxury of forming nuclear family households nor the maternal instincts to care for children. Sethe is not only separated from her children but also robbed of her breast milk, the essence of her identity as a black mother, by the dehumanization effects of slavery; she says,

“After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk (Morrison 32).

To Sethe, breast milk is her only natural life-force, the essence of motherhood and by taking it, the white boys not only diminish her worth as a woman, but also as a mother and as a human being.

Beyond the denial of the most fundamental human desires such as motherhood and the capacity to establish masculine and feminine identities, slaves are further dehumanized by being compared to, and categorized as animals. For instance, Sethe overhears Schoolteacher instructing his nephews to sort slave features into human and animal categories. He says,

“'No, no. That's not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right” (Morrison 369).

Comparing slaves with animals eventually robs them their humanity and reduces them to animals since the slaves themselves eventually internalize the idea that they are similar to, if not lesser than animals. Slaves do not find it odd to establish sexual relations with animals since they too believe that they are indeed subhuman as implied by the likes of schoolteacher who largely denigrate slaves on the Sweet Home plantation. Slaves hardly believe in their own existence as individuals since they have repeatedly been reminded that they are subhuman by their slave masters and that they are to be exchanged as property whose value can be expressed in dollars. For instance, Paul D is not confident about his own identity and self-worth as a person, let alone as a real man since the dehumanizing effect of slavery consequently alienates himself (Donnahue); Sethe too, is so alienated from herself that barely believes in her own existence as an individual, a mother, and a human being for that matter. Sethe’s children too, have volatile wavering identities as a result of the dehumanizing effect of slavery as Beloved feels herself physically disintegrating; baby Suggs’s understanding of her own self-identity is also greatly constrained since slavery deprives her the privilege of becoming a real sister, wife, daughter and loving mother.

Ultimately, it is evident that slavery and the subsequent white oppression encountered by slaves in the American society resulted to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning; the resulting cultural trauma experienced by the male and female characters in Morrison’s novel, greatly inhibits their ability to establish their own sense of self. Through the novel, Morrison establishes that the psychological costs of the physical, emotional, as well as the spiritual wretchedness brought about by slavery and white oppression have a profound impact on the identities of her male and female characters. The dehumanizing aspect of slavery makes it impossible for them to establish their own personal identities and a sense of their own self-worth; consequently, slaves can only identify with their highly constrained social and ethnic groups, both as slaves and blacks respectively. Whereas Paul D is alienated from himself to the point of doubting his own identity and self-worth as a person and a real man, Sethe becomes alienated from herself that she does not believe in her own existence as an individual, a mother, and a human being for that matter.

Works Cited

Babbitt, Susan. “Identity, Knowledge, and Toni Morrison's “Beloved”: Questions about Understanding Racism.” Hypatia, 9.3 (1994), pp. 1-18.

Donnahue, Jenn. “The Loss of Self in the Book Beloved by Toni Morrison.” 2007. Web. 23rd May, 2014.

Jagoda, Piotrowska. “The Formation of Personal and Communal Identity in Toni Morrison's Beloved.” 2005. Print.

Mahboobeh Khaleghi. “The Ghost of Slavery: Individual and communal Identity in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Language in India 12.2 (2012): 472-483.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.

Soyam Chaningkhombee. “Reconstruction of Black Identity and Community in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye.” (n.d). Web. 23rd May, 2014.