English, Department of


Date of this Version

Spring 2003


Published in African American Review, 37:1 (Spring 2003), pp. 95-103. Copyright 2003 Peter J. Capuano.


In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison acknowledges and even borrows from Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, but she also makes a resolute break from its rhetorical and political objectives. Historical differences between the audiences of Douglass and Morrison account for a large part of their contrasting styles, particularly in their treatment of slave song. Since Douglass composed his Narrative as a fugitive slave in the early 1840s, he was aware of his principally white audience and also of his precarious task of presenting an attack not on white America, but on the institution of slavery itself. Douglass's judicious decision to report the bleakness of slavery with austerity of tone allows him to present this attack successfully. He relies heavily on factual evidence, rather than on the tremendously emotional slave songs, to present the most appalling scenes of brutality endured by the slaves in his narrative.

Morrison's Beloved responds deliberately and exhaustively to the description of slave song that appears at the outset of Douglass's 1845 Narrative. The fact that Morrison is not inhibited by the pressing need to abolish slavery allows her to explore the specificity of the slave songs to a degree that Douglass simply could not risk in 1845. The essential goal of Douglass's Narrative in 1845 was to inform what William Lloyd Garrison dubbed a "stubbornly incredulous" white audience of slavery's politically sanctioned barbarity (40). Since Morrison is not inhibited by the socio-political exigencies taken on by Douglass, she is free to focus more on song as a point of access into the reverberating effects of slavery's horrors -- the same horrors that Douglass relates to his readers with a conspicuous deficit of emotion. The project of Morrison's novel is to register and index the vital relationship between the "personhood" of African Americans and the specific songs of former slaves. This is to say that the original description of slave song in Douglass, looming in the background of Morrison's novel, shapes her handling of music and song, her insistence on its signal importance as an indicator of human status in Beloved.