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Literacy in Beloved

hsymonds's picture

            “‘This ain’t her mouth. I know her mouth and this ain’t it,’” insists Paul D as he looks at the newspaper picture of Sethe, the protagonist of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Paul D’s friend and lover. A former slave, Paul D cannot read the newspaper clipping that his friend Stamp Paid shows him, but he immediately begins to deny that it can be about Sethe “[because] there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear” (Morrison 183). Although he cannot read the words, he has mastered what Paulo Freire calls “reading the world” (5); and just as Paul D’s reading of Sethe’s face tells him that her mouth is drawn wrong in the picture, his reading of the larger world in which they live tells him that whatever the article says about Sethe must be something unbelievably horrible.

            According to Freire, reading the world is an essential component of literacy. In his essay, “The Importance of the Act of Reading,” Freire writes:

Reading is not exhausted merely by decoding the written word or written language, but rather anticipated by and extending into knowledge of the world. Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world. (5)

Thus, reading the world is the first step in learning to read the word, but the latter does not—or should not—replace the former. Achieving literacy in the sense that is valued by our education system neither requires nor permits one to stop reading the world; instead, it generates a “more critical reading of the prior less critical reading of the world” (Freire 11). Here Freire implies that one cannot fully read the world until one has learned to read the word. However, the characters in Beloved, many of whom have been forbidden by law and by culture to learn to read text, are no less literate or “critical” in their reading of the world, and are perhaps more literate than if they had been able to read the word. Much as the loss of one sense can make the others more acute, these characters’ exclusion from traditional intellectual pursuits has enabled them (and the horrors they have faced have forced them) to develop more keenly their ability to read the world.

            Sethe’s reading of the world is informed by her role as a mother. Whatever happens to her, whatever trauma she faces, she thinks first of how it will affect her children. When schoolteacher and his nephews, in a misguided attempt to read the world by reading the word, make lists of Sethe’s (and the other Sweet Home slaves’) human and animal characteristics, Sethe begins to realize that the time has come to run away, not because schoolteacher thinks of her as an animal, but because she does not want her children to be thought of as animals (Morrison 228, 233). And when the nephews’ study leads one of them to hold Sethe down while the other “[takes her] milk,” Sethe reads this as an attack on her children, specifically her third child Beloved, who is currently nursing, rather than as a violation of her own body and dignity (Morrison 19). After Sethe tells Mrs. Garner, her mistress, about the attack, the nephew who had held her down whips her, leaving permanent scarring in the shape of a tree on her back (Morrison 19-20). Although this is probably the worst physical trauma to which Sethe has ever been subjected, in her reading as a mother, it is far less hurtful than having her milk stolen, because it does not harm her children. Schoolteacher, however, despite or perhaps because of his superior ability to read in the traditional sense, reads Sethe’s pain in reverse. He attributes her running away, and later her murder of Beloved, to the “mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her... [so] he punished that nephew by not letting him come on the hunt” (Morrison 176). The other nephew, “the one who had nursed her while his brother held her down,” does accompany schoolteacher, and like his uncle, he assumes that Sethe kills Beloved in response to the beating, because while that might make an animal “wild,” certain animals are milked every day without trouble (Morrison 176). Their reading of the word has taught them that Sethe’s actions are driven by instinct rather than by reason or emotion, and thus they are blinded to the true reading of the world. Sethe, on the other hand, depends on an accurate reading of the world to keep her children safe, from knowing when to run to knowing when far more drastic measures are required.

            Schoolteacher’s invasion of her yard and the subsequent murder of her granddaughter leads Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, to declare, “There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks” (Morrison 105). Her reading of the world shifts three times over the course of her life to bring her to this conclusion: first, during her youth, when she “[learned] that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children” (Morrison 28); second, when her son buys her freedom and, as she takes her first steps on free ground, she feels her heart beating for the first time (Morrison 166); and third, when “[the whitefolks] came in [her] yard” (Morrison 211). The first shift teaches her “the nastiness of life” (Morrison 28). Then, when she is free and experiences the joy of belonging to herself, she reads the world through her heart, and she teaches the other black people in her community to love every part of themselves, especially their hearts. Finally, she gives up, convinced that “[there] was no grace—imaginary or real” (Morrison 105). She then spends the rest of her life lying in bed and “pondering color” (Morrison 4). After having been hurt so much, she “‘[wants] to fix on something harmless in this world,’” and she decides that colors, such as blue and yellow, are (Morrison 211). Her reading of the world through color is, on the one hand, a luxury that she had little time to enjoy during her life of hard work, but it could also be an attempt to understand the world that has always hurt her because of the color of her skin.

            Of the main characters, Denver, Sethe’s youngest child, is the only one who learns to read the word. However, rather than enhancing her reading of the world, the act of going to school impairs her ability to read the world, when a classmate’s question causes her to go deaf and she becomes afraid of leaving her yard. Both times, it is through Beloved, the ghost of her sister, that she overcomes these hindrances. After two years of being deaf, her hearing is renewed when she hears Beloved crawling up the stairs (Morrison 121). Meanwhile, her world remained limited to her house and her yard for twelve years until Beloved’s domination of her mother forces her to leave and seek help from the community so that she, Sethe, and Beloved will have food to eat. As far as Denver is concerned, this means that she must “step off the edge of the world” (Morrison 281). Through visits to her former teacher and the others who send her food, she gradually learns to feel comfortable in the outside world, and she finds her own place in the community from which she and her mother have been estranged (Morrison 292-293). By the end of the book, she has a job with a white family in the city, and her employer is helping her catch up on her reading of the word, in the hopes that she might go to college (Morrison 314). Not only Denver’s reading of the word, but also the reconciliation within her of reading the world and reading the word represents a sort of liberation from the racist society that prevented her family from learning to read the word and that had never previously allowed her to fully read both. Even so, her reading of the world is not entirely positive, nor is she completely liberated; the price of her learning is the loss of innocence. Having grown up in a house without a back door, Denver knocks at the front door of the house where she is seeking employment, and the black servant who answers tells her, “First thing you have to know is what door to knock on” (Morrison 298). Thus, even while she is trying to move ahead in life, she does so through partial submission to the rules that white people have created for her.

            Beloved, even more than Denver, spends the book learning to read the world. Having died when she was a baby, Beloved returns in the body of a woman but in many ways has the maturity of a toddler, and she must discover the world around her as any child does. She loves eating anything sweet; she delights in Denver’s and Sethe’s stories; she is fascinated by their daily chores (Morrison 66, 69, 141). But Beloved has also learned to read another world—the slave ship on which she spent the years between her death and her return. The trauma she experienced, especially the absence of her mother, then impedes her ability to read the world to which she returns, because in her head she is at least partly still in the world from which she came, as in the cold house when she says “‘I’m like this,’” and then she “bends over, curls up, and rocks” (Morrison 146). She is obsessed with her mother and wants to spend every moment with her, but she is also angry with her mother for having abandoned her. Haunted by the trauma of her own life and death, as well as the trauma of all Africans forcibly brought to America and their descendants, Sethe’s fear for Denver if she were to visit Sweet Home—that she would experience the pain that will “always be there waiting for [her]” (Morrison 44)—comes true for Beloved and makes it impossible for her truly belong to this world.

            Freire believes that “a critical reading of reality, whether it takes place in the literacy process or not... constitutes an instrument of what Gramsci calls counter-hegemony” (Freire 11). For the slaves and former slaves in Beloved, reading the world is a necessity, but it is also an act of rebellion, even if not so dangerous an act as reading the word. The white people in the story know this and try to prevent them from reading the world, “to show [them] that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined” (Morrison 225). Nevertheless, Sethe and the others do learn to read the world, and in doing so they find freedom, form community, and learn to love themselves. Although their trauma always haunts them, their skill in reading the world helps them to dispel their ghosts.



Works Cited

Freire, Paulo.  "The Importance of the Act of Reading." Trans. Loretta Slover. Brazilian Congress of Reading, Campinas, Brazil. November 1981. Rpt. Journal of Education 165, 1 (Winter 1983): 5-11.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage, 2004. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture


One of the startling things for me, each time I re-read Beloved, is the reminder that many of the characters—such as Paul D, whom I feel I get to know deeply, and care for very much—are unable to read. And now I’m remembering how I qualified that good, probing question Gabby asked in class—would Margaret Garner prefer Levi Coffin’s version of her story, or Toni Morrison’s?—with the reminder that Margaret would not have been able to read either one. Since my deepest sense of humanity is linked to the practices of reading and writing, in which I revel so much, I find Friere’s analysis of “a critical reading of reading, whether it takes place in the literacy process or not,” a very helpful counterbalance.

Your essay also makes me smile, since Friere’s “Reading the World” is foundational for the pair of linked Ed and English courses on “Unsettling Literacies” that Jody and I will be offering in the spring: /oneworld/unsettling-literacies/working-syllabi-unsettling-literacies-spring-2017 We’re very much interested in literacy, not as decoding words on a page, but as a way to understand and alter the world. We take the epigraph for one of our units from Freire, who writes that “literacy becomes a meaningful construct to the degree that it is viewed as a set of practices that functions either to power or disempower people.”

What actually intrigues me most here, however, is the way in which you decouple reading the word from reading the world. At one point, you suggest that the former might well impede the latter: many of Morrison’s characters, who “have been forbidden by law and by culture to learn to read text…are perhaps more literate than if they had been able to read the word.” You offer Denver’s schooling as a particularly vivid example of the reverse of this process: as the result of something that is said to her @ school, she goes deaf, becomes afraid to leave yard. You also offer what you call Schoolteacher’s “misguided attempt to read the world by reading the word” as a nice (well, a horrific) counter-example.

You claim that Sethe depends on “an accurate reading of the world” to keep her children safe. I’m not so sure: do you think that’s what happening when she attacks Mr. Bodwin, as he arrives to take Denver into servantship? Gordon’s observation that Sethe runs, not when she learns to read (as in the conventions of the slave narrative), but rather when she realizes how she is being read by others, is an acute observation that might have helped you to develop your argument here.

At another point, however, you quote Freire’s claim that “reading the word” doesn’t impede, but can actually generate a “more critical reading of the prior less critical reading of the world.” In a class where so much has been dependent on reading from experience, through the lens of what we already know—with a concomitant resistance to changing those “default stories”--I very much appreciate this argument that reading critically can allow us to get some distance from our experience, look at it critically, maybe even enable us to change up the stories we think we know (as Denver, for example, learns to do when she finally leaves the house and returns to school).

I’m also especially interested in your reading of Denver’s “reconciliation…of reading the world and reading the word.” You say first that it “represents a sort of liberation,” but then qualify this by saying that she’s not “completely liberated,” that “the price of her learning is the loss of innocence.” But of course that’s what Friere means by “critical reading”: it enables us to begin to see the systems within which we are embedded, and start to figure out how to change them. No innocence there! (See calamityschild’s essay @ /oneworld/poetics-and-politics-race/reading-white-abolitionism-time-taylor-swift-and-dishonesty-both for more on this point.)

Also very striking to me is your recognition that Beloved’s reading of the world—an enormous task, since she has just arrived in it--is impeded by the trauma she has experienced. Freire doesn’t attend to this, I believe? Doesn’t consider the ways in which our experience of reading the world might actually disable us from reading the word, and so from the critical analysis which that might enable?

Finally, I’d like to talk more with you about your idea that “reading helps to dispel ghosts.” I’d venture that everything we’ve read so far suggests just the opposite: that the more we read, the more aware we are of the ghosts that haunt everything we do/see/read….We can no longer stay on the surface.

Going into the depths with you here,