The Effects of Slavery and the Need for Healing in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison

Topics: Beloved

Exposition on America’s Slavery

Slavery was one of the most horrific crimes in the history of the United States. People were captured and forced into lives of captivity in which they were treated like animals and brutally punished for disobedience. Though the effects of slavery’s tyranny are ongoing, the history of slavery has essentially been ignored and forgotten–the physical and emotional pain that slaves suffered is minimally discussed in schools and disregarded by the typical American.

No one wants to dwell on such a shameful past.

However, despite the universal desire to repress painful memories of traumas such as these, traumatic memories need to be confronted to bring healing; Toni Morrison demonstrates this need through her novel Beloved, in which she reconstructs the history of slavery to heal the scars that slavery has left behind.

No one wishes to dwell on traumatic experiences of the past. Victims of trauma often believe that denying these painful memories and burying them deep inside the darkest crevices of their hearts will allow them to forget everything and move on with their lives as if nothing has happened.

As Krumholz points out, Beloved’s Sethe and Paul D are perfect examples of trauma victims who turn to the repression of their past as a survival mechanism (Krumholz 400).

Because their memories are so overwhelmingly painful, Sethe and Paul D choose to suppress these memories to the best of their abilities: Sethe “work[s] hard to remember as close to nothing as [is] safe” (Morrison 6) and Paul D vows to “keep the rest [of his past] where it belongs [s]: in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” (Morrison 86).

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Sethe’s memories of being whipped and treated like an animal and of having her milk stolen, as well as Paul D’s memories of working in the fields with a bit in his mouth and of living “in a puddle of hin excrement,”(Roderick 75), are horrific and humiliating enough that it is natural Sethe and Paul D would want to repress their memories.

The wish to forget the past with regards to personal traumas can be extended to the denial and repression of historical traumas. People often try to repress historically traumatic events such as the Holocaust and slavery because, as Mary Beth Faimon points out in her essay “Ties that Bind: Remembering, Mourning, and Healing,” the alternative is to take the side of the victim, which requires people to be active bystanders that remember and share the burden of pain (239).

In particular, African Americans try to deny their traumatic history of slavery because they find it difficult to confront such a shameful past—”they don’t want to talk, they don’t want to remember … because they’re afraid of it” (Darling 248). Because neither “black people” nor “white people” want to acknowledge the fact of slavery, a phenomenon that Toni Morrison named “national amnesia” occurs (qt. in Roderick 73). To further aggravate the loss of the history of slavery, many details about slavery were collectively omitted in slave narratives. As J. Brooks Blouson notes in “Whites Might Dirty Her All Right, but Not Her Best Thing’: The Dirtied and Traumatized Self of Slavery in Beloved” and Mae G. Henderson in “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text,” writers of slave narratives did not give complete accounts of the slave experience. To not offend white readers, they tended to leave out the more shameful, gruesome events, using phrases like “but let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate to partially conceal the sufferings of slaves (Blouson 132).

Because of the attitudes of both contemporary African Americans and African-American slave writers toward the history of slavery, the history of slavery is being lost through collective denial and omission.  However, as Morrison says, there is a “necessity for remembering the horror” (Darling 247): Despite the universal desire to suppress traumas, personal and historical, the only way to heal the scars left behind by these traumas is to confront and come to terms with the past. Daniel Erickson argues in Ghosts, Metaphor, and History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that as much as African Americans want to forget their historical past, they are continually haunted by the legacy of slavery and are unable to escape the effects slavery has on the “present situation of black Americans” (57). Both Erickson and Blouson agree that continued denial of the past only ensures this persistence of slavery’s insidious, pernicious influence on the African-American identity today (Erickson 60, Blouson 137), as the painful “wounds caused by racist oppression” have been passed down “intergenerationally” (Bouson 137) from the time of slavery. Because denying the past isy an ineffective way of dealing with traumas, it would make sense that remembering the horror has positive effects on trauma. Erickson maintains that though seemingly painful or “unwise” to some, “recognition and remembrance… offer the possibility of a real solution to [the] problematic history” (60) of slavery. Krumholz agrees, remarking that if African Americans explore the history of slavery rather than denying it, they will be able to learn more about themselves and their culture and save themselves from dying intellectually and spiritually (395).

Morrison demonstrates the positive effects of remembrance in Beloved, in which she uses the healing processes of Sethe and Paul D to support the claim that only in “remembering” and “accepting” the past does “healing take place” (McKay 10). Sethe and Paul D initially lead numb lives without love, spending each day “beating back the past” and hiding the fact that they no longer had red hearts “bright as Mister’s comb” beating in them (Morrison 86). Though they try to repress the past, the past consumes them to the point that they cannot think about anything else, let alone the future: “[Sethe’s] brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day” (Morrison 83). However, Morrison shows that despite how deeply scarred slavery has left them, Sethe and Paul D both eventually heal after they learn to accept their pasts with the help of one another and other characters. Through their relationship with each other, Sethe and Paul D participate in the collective sharing of traumatic memories in a forgiving environment—together, they can go as far into the past as they need to, because, as Paul D says, “I’ll catch you ‘fore you fall” (Morrison 55). Through the help of Beloved, who acts as a catalyst for the healing processes in both of their lives by physically embodying their pain, guilt, and suffering (Krumholz 400), Sethe and Paul D are also forced to remember and accept their pasts: Beloved’s thirst for hearing about Sethe’s past encourages Sethe to tell stories that would have hurt if she spoke about them to anyone else (Morrison 69), and her interactions with Paul D help him open up the lid of the rusted tobacco tin, revealing his red heart inside (Morrison 138). Essentially, Beloved aids Sethe and Paul D in liberating their present” from the “burden of the past” (Henderson 90). By showing how Sethe and Paul D heal through the remembrance of their pasts, Morrison advocates the need of the traumatized individual to reconstruct his/her traumatic past to heal.

Morrison uses the individual need to recover repressed memories to support the broader, contemporary need to reconstruct the history of slavery—a need that Morrison understands and addresses in Beloved. However, rather than objectively approaching history with facts and figures as historians do, she uses the method of “literary archeology” to confront the horrors of slavery: She reconstructs the past imaginatively rather than strictly factually (Henderson 84). According to Henderson, Beloved is “a novel that both historicizes fiction and fictionalizes history” (82): The Margaret Garner case gives Beloved a factual basis, but it is Morrison’s imagination that brings Beloved’s characters to life. By using her imagination to enhance the individuality of these characters, Morrison makes her novel give the reader a “haunting sense of the depth of pain and shame suffered in slavery” (Krumholz 124) that does not allow the reader to simply read and forget the novel, but rather reminds the reader that likeas memory of Beloved, the history of slavery is not “a story to pass on” (Morrison 324). Toni Morrison reveals this history through the lives of her characters in Beloved, exposing to the reader the more traumatic events that writers of slave narratives tended to avoid writing about: The economic and sexual exploitation of slave women, the attempts of whites to scientifically prove that African Americans were biologically different and thus inferior, and the overall humiliation and degradation slaves had to experience (Bouson 131-141). Ultimately, by reconstructing the past in an imaginative but realistic manner, Toni Morrison fulfills her purpose of making history and memory real enough in her novel that it forces its audience to confront slavery (Darling 249). Slavery lies at the roots of two major issues troubling America: Discrimination and racism. Though slavery was formally abolished long ago, African Americans still face political, economic, and social oppression that rereflectshe the enslavement of their ancestors and the dehumanization they had to experience. By educating Americans about how African Americans suffered in the past for the economic betterment of their country and explaining how America’s history of slavery has led to the social problems it faces today, America can become one step closer to reversing the oppression of African Americans.


  1. Blouson, J. Brooks. “Whites Might Dirty Her All Right, but Not Her Best Thing’: The Dirtied and Traumatized Self of Slavery in Beloved.” Quiet as It’s Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York, 2000. 131 Print.
  2. Darling, Marsha. In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison. Conversations with Toni Morrison. By Toni Morrison andDaniellee Kathleen Taylor Guthrie. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1994. 246-54. Print.
  3. Erickson, Daniel. Ghosts, Metaphor, and History in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
  4. Faimon, Mary Beth. “Ties that Bind: Remembering, Mourning, and Healing.” The American Indian Quarterly 28.1&2 (2004): 238-251. JSTOR. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. <>
  5. Henderson, Mae G. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text.” Toni Morrison’s Beloved: a Casebook. Ed. William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 79-106. Print.
  6. Krumholz, Linda. “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” African American Review 26.3 (1992): 395-408. JSTOR. Web. 2 Nov. 2011. <>.
  7. McKay, Nellie Y. “Introduction.” Introduction. Toni Morrison’s Beloved: a Casebook. By William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 3-18. Print.
  8. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
  9. Roderick, Phillip L. “Exorcising the Past.” The Fall of the House of Poe and Other Essays. New York: IUniverse, 2006. 73-85. Print.

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The Effects of Slavery and the Need for Healing in Beloved, a Novel by Toni Morrison. (2022, Jun 14). Retrieved from

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