Shades of Meaning: The Importance of Color in Toni Morrison’s Beloved

April 16, 2022 by Essay Writer

In a novel about racism and slavery, one can not pay too much attention to the matter of colors. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, however, the issue of color is not confined to discussions on race. Blood, ribbon, even roosters, all vividly colored, spot the scenery of the novel and provide valuable insight into the prominent themes of both dehumanization and the struggle for freedom. Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, inhabits a world defined entirely in black and white. The racial dichotomy created by slavery, combined with traumatic associations of events caused by slavery, has rubbed all of the color out of her world. Sethe’s inability to see color comes on gradually after she murders her own child in a desperate attempt to save the child from a life of slavery: Every day she worked at fruit pies, potato dishes and vegetables while the cook did the soup, meat and all the rest. And she could not remember remembering a molly apple or a yellow squash. Every dawn she saw the dawn, but never acknowledged or remarked its color. There was something wrong with that. It was as though one day she saw red baby blood, another day the pink gravestone chips, and that was the last of it (47).Sethe’s obliviousness to color is explained by the lack of freedom that Sethe has experienced in her life. She does have one brush with color, the ominous red that will reappear continuously throughout the novel, when she runs away to have Denver. Amy, the ‘whitewoman’ who assists in Denver’s birth, is traveling to Boston to look for velvet. “Carmine,” she says, referencing the deep blood red. “That means red but when you talk about velvet you got to say ‘carmine.'” (41). This red is revisited upon Sethe’s murder of her daughter approximately twenty eight days later. After the death, Sethe is jailed for two years, limiting her freedom even further. Sethe believes that Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law of sorts, began to contemplate color because of Baby’s newfound freedom. Sethe states that, “[n]ow I know why Baby Suggs pondered color her last years. She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before” (237). This mental connection of Sethe’s between color and freedom makes an interesting point. After Sethe’s release from jail, she is no longer a slave in the technical sense of being someone else’s property. However, her continued inability to see color illustrates that in her own mind, Sethe is still enslaved. This sense of continued binding is due to her past. She feels guilt-ridden due to Beloved’s murder, but it is not the actual act of homicide which disturbs her. It is the idea that Beloved, as a child, could not comprehend the motives behind her death. When Beloved appears in human form, Sethe does not recognize her instantly. Eventually the reappearance is recognized for what it is and at this point, Sethe “pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reasons: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life” (285). This sort of continued servitude and submission continues the enslavement of Sethe’s life and prohibits her from experiencing any color, save for those that define her: black and white.Baby Suggs’ relationship with color is not as straightforward as Sethe assumes it to be though. It is true that she began thinking about color after she gained her freedom, but it is a bit more complex. In a conversation with Stamp Paid, Baby Suggs explains her obsession with colors. She begins:”What I have to do is get in my bed and lay down. I want to fix on something harmless in this world.””What world you talking about? Ain’t nothing harmless down here.””Yes it is. Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither.””You getting in bed to think about yellow?””I likes yellow” (211).Until Beloved’s murder, it would be relatively simple to pin down Baby Suggs’ favorite color as the black skin of her fellow slaves. At a spiritual gathering in the woods, Baby Suggs reinforces the dominant dichotomies of the slave population – black versus white, oppressed versus oppressor. She yells about the white contempt for the skin color of slavery when she reminds the listening slaves that “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it” (103). Suggs’ spectrum of color, prior to the death of Beloved, is composed of only two: black, which she fully identifies with, and white, which to her embodies oppression, hatred, and arrogance. Color makes an entrance into Baby Suggs’ life when she realizes that she cannot agree with either black thought, represented by Sethe, or white thought, such as that of schoolteacher, when coming to a conclusion about the circumstances surrounding Beloved’s death. Stamp Paid makes this observation:The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice. One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed. The whitefolks had tired her out at last (212).After a lifetime of being consciously all black and no white, Suggs begins to realize that there are indeed shades of meaning that may not fit into such a two-tone system. In realizing this, she must also realize the relative severity of reactions to black and white – a white can whip a black’s back till it bleeds, just because of the color it is, and Sethe, her own black daughter-in-law, kills Beloved at the sight of a white man for fear of continued slavery for the child. As a response to this, Suggs chooses to spend the rest of her life focusing on the more harmless colors, the ones no one ever got killed or whipped over. It “[t]ook her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died. I don’t believe she wanted to get to red…” (237). The color red takes on a special significance in this novel. Obviously, it is associated with blood, but as Morrison has been trying to emphasize throughout the novel, color is rarely as straightforward and unambiguous as it may seem. The character of Beloved is often associated with this meaning of the color red. She is the murdered one, whose blood caused Sethe’s “wet red hands” and the “red puddle” which Baby Suggs slips in (178-9). But when combined with Stamp Paid’s red ribbon, and Paul D.’s own experience with the color red – the rooster Mister’s comb and the his own red heart that he originally doubts exists at all – the reader can come to recognize the use of red coloring not as a direct analogy to blood, but as more of an exclamation point to emphasize powerful dehumanizing moments in the text. Stamp Paid’s ribbon is a perfect example of this emphasizing convention:Tying up his flatbed up on the bank of the Licking River, securing it as best he could, he caught sight of something red on the bottom. Reaching for it, he thought it was a cardinal feather stuck to his boat. He tugged and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp (212).This image is a particularly powerful one – a red ribbon, or perhaps a ribbon of a pale color dyed red with blood, attached to a piece of human scalp which was once attached to a young girl. The typical mind shies away from imagining what sort of abuse could cause an artifact like this to exist. Stamp Paid, however, has no such luxury. As a victim and observer of such treatment, he is forced to confront the cruel heartlessness of the world to which he is confined. “What are these people?” he laments, “You tell me, Jesus. What are they?” (213). The red color of the ribbon reminds him not only of the slave blood which has been spilled; it also forces him to confront the dehumanizing aspect – somewhere, a young black woman has been humiliated, beaten, perhaps to death, and her abusers wouldn’t even allow her the dignity of retaining a simple red ribbon in her woolly hair. Paul D. also references the color red in association with a traumatic experience of his own. An iron bit has been placed in his mouth for punishment, and as he is being marched past the roosters, he spots Mister, a rooster he has known since childhood. Paul D. describes Mister as “hateful all right. Bloody too, and evil….Comb as big as my hand and some kind of red” (85). Mister is merely a rooster perched on a bathtub, but the strength of his identity and his lack of constraint in daily life, deeply affect the shackled and iron-gagged Paul D. He laments:Mister, he looked so … free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher….Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was….I’d never be Paul D. again, living or dead. Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less that a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub (86).Continuous oppression robs Paul D. of the manhood which even the common rooster is allowed. A simple farm animal is more of a man than Paul D. in freedom of action, and the reference to red serves to accent once again the depths of dehumanization suffered by the slaves. Paul D., in the midst of his story, suddenly ceases, ashamed of the conclusion to which it may lead Sethe. He refers to the “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be” and resolves that he will “not pry it loose now in front of this sweet sturdy woman, for if she got a whiff of the contents it would shame him. And it would hurt her to know that there was no red heart bright as Mister’s comb beating in him” (86).However red may be somewhat stigmatized, Morrison also sprinkles her novel with episodes of colorful liberation, such as Paul D.’s escape from the human boxes in Alfred, Georgia. He is told by a Cherokee that if he follows the blossoming flowers on the trees, he will come to a safe place.[Paul D.] raced from dogwood to blossoming peach…he headed for the cherry blossoms, then the magnolia, chinaberry, pecan, walnut, and prickly pear…. When he had lost them, and found himself without so much as a petal to guide him, he paused, climbed a tree on a hillock and scanned the horizon for a flash of pink or white in the leaf world that surrounded him (133).Paul D. earns his freedom by following color, but it is color which progresses, not that which stagnates. By including Paul D.’s rainbow run for freedom in her novel, Morrison makes an important point. To address the freedom of a colored people, one must recognize and reclaim color itself. One must realize that even in a world defined by black and white, there are always colors, shades of meaning which cannot be blackened or bleached.

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