112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

“The Way to the Heart is through the Spirit”: The Exorcism of Women’s Contribution to Culture in Beloved

Vivianna Orsini, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Studying women and culture in correlation to one another in Toni Morrison’s Beloved can reveal women as the foundation of a strong, cultural identity. This essay will examine women as culture bearers, and motherhood as both identity and resistance by juxtaposing the ghost of Beloved  of Baby Suggs.



When Stamp Paid walks up to the porch of 124 Bluestone Rd. where Sethe, Beloved, and Denver are secluded, unable to comprehend the voices he hears because it’s “outside of his minds reach,” he dismisses the voices  as the “black angry dead.” Many scholars coincide with Paid, attributing the ghosts in Toni Morrison’s Beloved to a multitude of aspects all tied to the destructive institution of slavery. As far as addressing Morrison’s choice to privilege female experience, some scholars have adopted the viewpoint that the function of the ghost gives testimony to the absences of the experiences of African women. In Figurations of Rape and the Supernatural, Pamela Barnett determines Beloved is both, “memories of death and the histories of women who endured the Middle Passage, where the institutionalized rape of enslaved women began”. Coming to terms with one’s history is certainly a necessary occupation of the ghostly in Beloved, however, for Barnett this revelation is only important in unburying and confronting a horrific past for women, never addressing the effect this past has had on the entire community these women were members of. Taking a different approach, Daniel Erickson argues that Beloved partially represents, “an ultimately incalculable loss of people and cultural ties.” Often, the loss of culture and subjugation of women are addressed separately, but Morrison’s consistent depictions of ghostly absences and presences of women imply their intrinsic value to a cultural identity. The above scholarship provides useful interpretations, but continuing to ignore Morrison’s choice to connect a lack of female experience to the void and as well as to the fulfillment of a community imitates the myopic perspective Stamp Paid has as he walks onto the porch unable to “decipher” the full extent of the message Morrison is trying to communicate. In this essay, I will use Gayle Rubin’s concept of the sex/gender system helps to foreground women as conduits for social concepts, therefore integral to culture creation. Although slaves were not included in this system that determined social organization, Hortense Spillers argues social concepts concerning slavery were nonetheless propagated through the female body. I will explore the construction of motherhood as both a means of subjectivity for African women as well as center of resistance against ideological constructions of the slave mother.  I will juxtapose Beloved as a ghost who embodies the rupture in a matrilineal heritage, with the ancestral ghost of Baby Suggs whose physical absence indicates a presence of cultural identity.  As opposed to the more celebrated ghost of Beloved whose constant hunger is indicative of her void, Baby Suggs’ spirit provides sustenance to her immediate family as well as the community. While it well known ghosts help us deal with painful burdens of American history, by infusing African cosmologies she communicates the value of ancestral beliefs and traditions that contribute to the shaping of culture. Moreover, these traditions are created and carried on by women. Studying women and culture in correlation to one another can reveal women as the foundation of a strong, cultural identity.