chapter  1
21 Pages

Literary Archaeology

The Uncovering and Recovering of Black Historical Memory and Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
WithPortia Owusu

The book opens with a discourse on Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel, Beloved , to establish dominant ideas and expectations of slave narratives in Black writing. I focus on Morrison’s concept of “literary archaeology,” a term she uses in her essay “The Site of Memory” (1995) to describe the process of writing about slavery. Tracing the origins of this term to Freud’s studies on hysteria and trauma, I argue that Morrison’s “literary archaeology” is a critique of how slavery has been traditionally conceived as historical trauma and an approach to understanding and dealing with it as trauma.

The chapter extends the metaphor of excavation by suggesting that slavery is a mutilation to the collective African body, which has been buried in pieces and needs to be unearthed. I argue this by turning to West African cultural philosophies on personhood, subjectivity and naming. In West Africa, the individual does not exist in isolation because identity and subjectivity are always in relation to something or someone—be it a community, a clan or even an idea. Thus, the rupturing of families, communities and lands during slavery has resulted in physical and psychological mutilations or dismemberment that is the founding trauma of Morrison’s characters. The concept of “literary archaeology” is, therefore, the uncovering of remnants of the African Body to offer it a proper burial. I argue that this is represented in the novel by way of the many fragmented stories and memories that are weaved together to form narratives about the past.