English 521 Final Project In Progress

Tess Farnham

Professor Cali

English 521/Final Project


Capuano, Peter J. “Truth in Timbre: Morrison’s Extension of Slave Narrative Song in

    ‘Beloved.’” African American Review, vol. 37, no. 1, 2003, pp. 95–103. JSTOR, JSTOR,


In this essay, Capuano explores the connections that establish Morrison’s novel as response “deliberately and exhaustively to the description of slave song in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” (96). The reason for such a strong response, according to Capuano, is that Morrison was fast to identify Douglass’s predicament in writing for an 1845 white audience and eager to use her 20th century stance to finish telling his story.  “Through her exploration of the black experience within slavery and beyond, Morrison shows how song defines and affirms slave “personhood” in a world where slave humanity is constantly challenged and denied” (96). Capuano continues by explaining the importance of song in the silenced lives of Morrison’s characters: “Song offers slaves the opportunity to express their personal testimonies while remaining within the framework of their larger cultural experiences—all without actually speaking of their shame and trauma” (96). Interesting to note later is the inclusion of a passage from Douglass’s Narrative that explains the nature of improvisation in the composition of the slave song with a description of the way the words just came spilling out the lips of spontaneous story-telling.  Also interesting to note is Douglass explaining the ways in which slaves layered their words and melodies with conflicting meaning and emotion in order to keep the truth safe.

Capuano also cites examples of song topics in Morrison’s text, topics that are important in that they speak to the song’s reassertion of humanity against the inhumane and horrifying context of slavery.  The song not only establishes personhood to the slaves themselves, writes Capuano, it also identifies a slave as human to the captors: “Slave catchers are trained to kill animals in leg irons with bits in their mouths—not human beings with singing songs.  Morrison acknowledges this discrepancy as the white men wait” with five guns trained on [Sixo] while they listen to his song. Realizing that his song makes him far too human to shoot, one white man finally “hits Sixo in the head” to make him stop singing. (100)

Childs, Dennis. “‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’: ‘Beloved,” the American Chain Gang, and

    the Middle Passage Remix.” American Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 271–297.

    JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27734990.

Eckstein, Lars. “A Love Supreme: Jazzthetic Strategies in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’”

    African American Review, vol. 40, no. 2, 2006, pp. 271–283. JSTOR, JSTOR,


Hall, Cheryl. “Beyond the ‘Literary Habit’: Oral Tradition and Jazz in Beloved.” MELUS,

    vol. 19, no. 1, 1994, pp. 89–95. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/467790.

Hall begins this essay by addressing the wide range of critical response to Morrison’s non-traditional, non-linear approach to prose-writing in Beloved:  “Perhaps even more powerful than the story Morrison tells, however. . .is the way she tells it, the innovative choices she makes that have driven many critics to find a new generic or structural model for their interpretations.” Hall moves on to cite Morrison explaining her creative intentions: “I wanted the sound to be something I felt was spoken and more oral and less print.”   According to Hall, what is most important for critics in this instance is listening to experience what is being communicated rather than just listening to experience traditional fiction.  Such expectations just get in the way of appreciating the true beauty of Morrison’s unique style.  Hall cites Anthony J. Berret in “[suggesting] that jazz is central to Morrison’s work” (90).  She expands on this theory through a process of naming the elements of jazz and identifying these elements in Morrison’s text.  These elements include: repetition and repeated motifs but also circular narrative that involves listening and responding, which leads to re-telling and embellishing.  Hall further explains the connection in explaining the jam session and its relevance in Morrison’s work: “One of the mainstays of jazz performance is the jam session. . .often marked by a series of solo performances by different musicians, almost always improvised, created out of the musician’s stock of knowledge about the possibilities inherent in a particular range of notes for every standard key, and featuring a number of recognizable ‘riffs.’  The soloists draw on the performances that preceded theirs, and usually incorporate certain elements from those performances into their own, varying them and surpassing them in a productive kind of one-upmanship that is designed to highlight the particular capabilities of each different instrument.”  From this explanation, Hall makes the case for the latter chapters of Beloved’s “Part Two” as jam session.  “The opening lines of each section are convincing enough evidence that each speaker is pursuing her particular variation on the same theme.”

Reed, R. R. “The Restorative Power of Sound: A Case for Communal Catharsis in Toni      

    Morrison’s Beloved.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 23 no. 1, 2007, pp. 55-

  1. Project MUSE,  muse.jhu.edu/article/215450.

Sale, Maggie. “Call and Response as Critical Method: African-American Oral Traditions

    and Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 1992, pp. 41–50. JSTOR, JSTOR,


In this essay, Sale defends Morrison’s stance as a non-monolithic Black artist who wishes to “distinguish her approach from those that actively utilize Western or European literary forms and traditions” (Morrison qtd. in Sale 41).  In saying this, Sale points out, Morrison does not wish to distance herself from African-American oral tradition; instead she means to focus on its most distinctive elements: “’antiphony, the group nature of art, its functionality, its improvisational nature, its relationship to audience performance. . .’” (Morrison qtd. in Sale 41).  Sale further asserts that Morrison’s novel Beloved is a work that attests to this aesthetic in that its text is rich with “call and response patterns” and “improvisation” all of which are composed and shared in communal settings (42).


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