Why has the legacy of colonialism and/or slavery been so profound and persistent, and in what ways have writers shown that its deleterious effects can be combated?

Lorna Neville

Refusing to allow the forgetting of slavery, Beloved, Feeding the Ghosts and Lara expose the unpalatable side of capitalist colonialism. This essay examines three modes of expressing the past to ensure this history is retained in public consciousness.


Slavery haunts. It is a history so brutal and inhumane that it cannot be forgotten, a five hundred year holocaust that forces existential examination. The British Empire was cruel. Co-evolving imperialism and capitalism and the unproblematised Othering of non-whites discursively licensed exploitation and profit from the ownership of slaves. Literature from the second half of the 20th Century saw “New English Voices” as writers emerged from newly-independent colonies, from immigrants to Britain, from British-born black culture. These writers’ projects included asserting rights and identities, revealing pre-colonial cultures, claiming humanity and subjectivity, and confronting racism that has been embedded through generations of binarism, which insist that “white is right” (Ellison 2001: 95). At the core of the ideologies they resist is slavery – “all black writers, whether they intended to or not have been writing about not being free” (Childress in Cormier-Hamilton 1994: 110). Through novels that discuss slavery and its ramifications, they participate in the un-whitewashing of history, the challenging of the (arguably still imperialist) white-privileging hegemony and the exposing of physical and psychological “slave scars” (Berry 1985a: 46). This essay will take Toni Morrison’s Beloved as a lead to explore Bernadine Evaristo’s Lara and Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts through the interlocked tropes of memory, ghosts and story. They will be analysed as temporally-differentiated expressions of lived experience – the past viewed from the present, the past forcing itself into the present, and the past being told to the future. By extrapolation of Bhabha’s ghost definition as “projective past” (Bhabha 1997: 186): memory is past-reflection, ghosts are past-projection and story is future-projection. I will consider how these themes feature as antidotes to repression, provide a model for repair, and whether they offer a reconstructed history that exorcises the ghosts of slavery.


These three authors keep returning to the topic of slavery. For Morrison, it is a modern social, political duty (Morrison in Wisker 2000: 58), and, in particular, an author’s responsibility: “[c]ertain types of trauma visited on peoples are so deep […] only writers can translate […] and turn sorrow into meaning” (Morrison 2009: 4). D’Aguiar pays tribute to Morrison as ambassador and literary role model; he adds to the genre because of his experiences of continuing racism, locating the ancient roots in slave trauma, blaming “inherit[ed] anxiety about slavery” (D’Aguiar in Frias 2002: 679). Evaristo is also influenced by Morrison: she calls her “the torch bearer” (Evaristo 2011: 3), and “Tolulope - the scarred one” (Evaristo 1997: 1) is compellingly reminiscent of Sethe with the “chokecherry tree” scar on her back (Morrison 2005: 20). Like Morrison’s, Evaristo’s fiction is repeatedly concerned with slavery’s “echoes of past in present” (Toplu 2011: 45), from the contemporary Lara’s search for her slave antecedents, to Blonde Roots, focusing on slavery via a world of inversed oppression (Evaritso 2008).


The ghosts of slavery haunt these authors, and they are foregrounded in Beloved, Lara, and Feeding the Ghosts. As extended metaphor for memory (memory/haunting/ghosts) they are mutually constituted literary devices, serving the authors’ efforts to exhume the unresolved past. In Beloved, Sethe’s repressed memories become manifest in two ghosts. The family is haunted for years by the aggrieved baby ghost of the daughter she killed in frantic desperation to prevent the family’s recapture. With the arrival of another former slave, the baby ghost is replaced by a mysterious young woman, Beloved, the adult incarnation of the dead daughter. This ghost is much more disruptive but catalyses the narrative arc that reveals Sethe’s painful past. The “healing process” (Krumholz 1992: 395) is her “rememory” (Morrison 2005: 226), and the ghost leaves.


Ghosts and memory thread more gently though Lara. It is the spirit of Tolulope in the prologue that sets the slavery backdrop for the largely 20th Century narrative, the mysterious and evocative verse form containing imagery of “sugar cane” and “vanilla journeys” juxtaposed with a vicious rape and murder (Evaristo 1997: 1). Generations later, across two oceans, Lara is troubled by blatant and latent racism and a creeping awareness of her ignorance about history and slavery (Evaristo: 1997: 75,81). Her sense of unbelonging is fuelled by the lack of family memories on her father’s side: “No da Costa photos memoried the mantelpiece” (Evaristo 1997: 83) (like Morrison, Evaritso plays with variations of the word memory). The confused little girl sees the “Daddy People” in the garden (Evaristo 1997: 48), the “phantoms” of her unknown family (Evaristo 1997: 54). Adult Lara, bereaved after her maternal grandmother’s death, is visited by an apparition of her paternal grandmother, Zenobia, imploring her to take her father back to Nigeria (Evaristo 1997: 101). Her catharsis stabilses when Zenobia tells her “now we take you into memory” (Evaristo 1997: 109). Her ghosts lead her to “remember the ‘disremembered’ ” (Jackson 1990: 131), the epilogue completing Lara’s “three point turn” (Evaristo 1997: 108) back to Tolulope’s Brazil (a narrative as well as geographic full circle).


D’Aguiar’s titular ghosts take a comparatively oblique role. The prologue alludes to the ghosts of the one hundred and thirty-one slaves thrown overboard the Zong and drowned – their “souls roam the Atlantic” (D’Aguiar 1998: 4); the epilogue calls it a “ship full of ghosts” (D’Aguiar 1998: 229). Mintah’s woodcarving in her free life is her way of “feeding the ghosts” (D’Aguiar 1998: 222); she makes a wooden figure for each spirit of the Zong’s drowned slaves - “hous[ing] the souls of the dead” (D’Aguiar 1998: 208). The ghosts symbolise the memory of abhorrent treatment – though the trial finds in favour of the insurers, the ghosts stand for reproach and demand remorse. D’Aguiar points a finger at the acceptance of slavery, gives the slaves humanity, and will not allow inattention.


All three novels resolve that forgetting slavery is not acceptable, adhering to the “black aesthetic of remembering” (Rushby 1998: 141). Memory is the past-reflection that is crucial for moving forward, for individual characters (like Sethe and Lara) and for society: “A people, like a nation, are their memories” (Dennis 2000: 188). The memory of slavery and the experiences of slaves have to be acknowledged and “rememoried”, partly for respect and contemporary integrity, partly to expose the persistence of the racist discourses that permitted slavery, and partly for healing the psychological wounds. A “social memory” is the anchor for a new future (Connerton 1989: 6). However, if past-reflection is incomplete or fallacious, these authors supply ghosts to resurrect the memories. These ghosts (the baby, Beloved, Tolulope, Zenobia, the Daddy People and the 131 murdered slaves) serve as “the projective past” (Bhabha 1997: 186), disrupting the timeline to ensure the past remains in the consciousness. The reverse haunting between Lara and her great-great-grandmother is an even more surreal subversion of linear temporality (Evaristo 1997: 1). The ghosts, as past-projection, propel past-reflection - they force the contradiction of “organized forgetting” (Wright 2000: 285) that allows imperialism to obscure its foundations in slavery. Overlooked, this perpetuates racist Othering, ancient injustices trickling down - Loomba locates the root of contemporary global inequalities in the ideological inception of slavery: “devaluation […] still haunts their descendents” (Loomba 2005: 111), also utilising the ghost imagery. Ghosts as metaphor for memory is not an unusual literary device, but in these texts it has a more particular source. The scale of the trauma demands a beyond-rational literary response, ghosts emerge “whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it” (Woolf in Bennett & Royle 2009: 163). Bhabha identifies troubled imaginations caused by cultural displacement as sites of the uncanny (McLeod 2010: 254); “border lives” (Bhabha 2004: 1), inbetweenness and hybridity create liminality which “haunts the symbolic formation” (Bhabba 2004: 209). Diasporic writers, therefore, such as D’Aguiar and Evaristo are compelled to revisit these events because the ramifications reverberate through contemporary society, materially and psychologically impacting their lives.


Both Morrison’s and Evaristo’s texts employ “mythical realism” layered over poignant realism (Jackson 1990: 133) – their ghosts are active and embodied and require suspension of disbelief. Their physical form makes them something supernatural which could, therefore, outlast the text. There is room for rationalisation – Beloved might be an escaped kidnap victim (Morrison 2005: 277), Lara might have imagined the Daddy people (Toplu 2011: 5) and her grandmother’s appeal – but this is not the easy option that the authors suggest. Beloved has knowledge and scars that seem to prove she is the dead daughter (Morrison 2005: 69, 207, 239); Lara recognises Zenobia and the Daddy people in a photograph she finds in Lagos (Evaristo 1997: 109). Incontrovertibly, it defies logic that Tolulope can smell a child who will not be born for 150 years; this must point to a strength in the power of ancestry that cannot be explained away. Morrison and Evaristo pose cross-generational haunting as transference of memory and identity. Denial will not suffice. Sethe’s conscience cannot settle about murdering her daughter, (Morrison 2005: 193); the baby ghost and then the arrival of Beloved, albeit disruptive, allow her to demonstrate her continuing love for the girl. Lara’s ghostly ancestors encourage her to explore her roots and she learns to understand herself. These ghosts allow the protagonists to embrace their past and move forward. Most profoundly, these ghosts are available to haunt future generations who pretend to forget.


In Feeding the Ghosts, on the other hand, memory is finite and the ghosts are incorporeal. Mintah keeps her memories secret in Jamaica and they die with her, and Ama is never mentioned again, despite Mintah’s promise to remember her (D’Aguiar 1998: 127). Memory is potentially transient - Mintah, like her womb, might be “amnesiacal” (D’Aguiar 1998: 76). Similarly, the ghosts, so powerful in the title and the prologue, take no visible form - they are souls in the sea (D’Aguiar 1998: 4) and abstract references. The wooden carvings representing the 131 spirits perish in the fire, and the epilogue’s choral voice is symbolic of the collective conscience of victimhood and guilt rather than supernatural. D’Aguiar draws a glorious hero in Mintah, who confronts Kelsal, escapes the sea and assists the transit of escaped slaves in Maryland (like Stamp Paid in Beloved (Morrison 2005: 107)), but here the tropes of memory and ghosts do not find repair: “All my knowledge has done is burden me” (D’Aguiar 1998: 229).


If memory is past-reflection and ghosts are past-projection with the scope to escape temporal rules, story is the realist future projection of (and for) history. In Beloved, Denver’s future beyond the text is created by her “book stuff” and potential at the progressive Oberlin College (Morrison 2005: 314), and Paul and Sethe’s reunion is phrased as putting “his story next to hers” (Morrison 2005: 322). The novel ends with three repetitions that “this is not a story to pass on” (Morrison 2005: 324). This is an ironic coda, it was the revealing of their stories that enabled the family to progress and escape the ghosts; it is apophasis, Morrison has told the story and the reader is reading it. Story offers progress and optimism.


Lara’s quest is inspired by the absence of story - she “longed for an image, a story” (Evaristo 1997: 69). Her non-communicative and cold father keeps his Yoruba history in the basement (Evaristo 1997: 79), and when the teenage Lara asks him to tell her about his family, Taiwo’s story-telling is brusque and unsatisfactory, though she does glean information about their slave heritage (Evaristo 1997: 80-1). Taiwo’s grandfather, however, believed in recounting history – when “Baba opened his mouth to speak, ghosts flew out” (Evaristo 1997: 130) (here, ghosts are metaphor for story). Her journey uncovers her past - the learning of her story is her fulfilment and reconstruction, from a disillusioned, angry, alcohol-fuelled student who weeps that she is “an old wound […] that has not healed” (Evaristo 1997: 93), to a confident, striding back-packer who “savour[s] living in the world” (Evaristo 1997: 140). On the final page she realises that to truly reconcile her slave legacy, she must paint “the Daddy People” (Evaristo 1997: 140). Her history is acknowledged and made material; it will exist beyond the text in her paintings. The final word is “future” (Evaristo 1997: 140). For Evaristo, story is both internal therapy and futurist bequest.


Like Beloved, Feeding the Ghosts ends by stating the importance of narrating history: “The ghosts feed on the story of themselves. The past is laid to rest when it is told” (D’Aguiar 1998: 230). For D’Aguiar, the story (the novel) itself is the restitutive project. He does not provide amelioration within the narrative. Mintah’s woodcarvings are her attempt to live with her trauma (D’Aguiar 2000: 205) but they do not survive beyond the text to serve as future-projective story (unlike Lara’s paintings and Denver’s education). Mintah does not tell her tale to her new neighbours (D’Aguiar 1998: 222) and her book does not resurface. Mintah’s journal is a “paradox” (Kowlaski-Wallace 2006: 81) – its existence gave voice to the slaves, but it is dismissed in court as “penned by a ghost” (D’Aguiar 1998: 169), and Simon’s reappearance with it is a dream (D’Aguiar 1998: 221). Like the District Commissioner’s book in Things Fall Apart (Achebe 1971), Mintah’s journal disappears into the ether. The slaves’ version of events only exists via D’Aguiar’s text; here, story is the novelist’s telling of history.


These authors are determined to redress the imperialist version of history that obscures the brutality of the slave trade, written “so as to let men forget it” (Du Bois in Hall 2005: xiii). They refute “educational ‘disinformation’ programmes” that create “the convenient amnesia of empire” (Brydon & Tiffin 1997: 206) where oppression of the enslaved Other is redacted. They challenge the canon, which is coded with an insouciant imperialism that erases the humanity of the slaves. They are rewriting the white-authored euphemised history; theirs is a “literature of resistance, freedom and justice” (Jackson 1990: 132) that unsilences the slave. Walcott holds that “amnesia is the true history of the New World” (Walcott 2006: 330) – that is, that the development of Western capitalist modernity is only palatable because its true origins are discursively negotiated away. Story, then, is mechanism for truth, to speak the unspeakable and take it forward.


D’Aguiar, Evaristo and Morrison present different paradigms for addressing the legacy of slavery, all triply-troped with permutations of memory, ghosts and story. Considered as different modes of relating a previous experience to the narrative frame and audience, these are mechanisms for ensuring the slaves’ experience is not lost: past-reflection is the recollection of the trauma, past-projection is the trauma bringing itself into the present (or, indeed, future), and future-projection is the medium for transmitting the history of the trauma to following generations. These authors have subtly different intentions (story-telling or story-with-positive-message), but utilise the same themes to locate and maintain the slaves’ experiences in the public consciousness. D’Aguiar’s extraordinarily powerful and gruesome tale enacts his philosophical aim of history-telling – “The past is laid to rest when it is told” (D’Aguiar 1998: 230). Feeding the Ghosts is “revisionist historiography” (Rushby 1998: 141), past-reflection and past-projection are rhetorical devices, and the story in its own right is the operation of future-projection, his response to the deleterious effects. Morrison and Evaristo, with their beautiful and lyrical mythical-realism, deliver characters who heal, and there is optimism within the narrative frame and systems that overspill the text. Evaristo underlines the importance of memory with ghosts – past-projection leads past-reflection to symbiotically resolve Lara’s isolation from Tolulope. Her self-knowledge is her denouement; her future-projection is her mental health and her paintings. Morrison’s model is to unrepress memories or they will “erupt” (Krumholz 1992: 397) as ghosts that force “rememoration” (Bhabha 1997: 186). Past-projection, past-reflection and future-projection coalesce: only after the encounter with the ghostly Beloved are they able to acknowledge their “yesterday[s]” and face “some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison 2005: 322). Morrison and Evaristo outline hope and resolution, their ghosts are chased away, but always retain the possibility of reappearance.


The ghosts of slavery, however, are not exorcised. They are rememoried. These novels’ ghosts linger for the reader. Mythical-realism or metaphor and imagery, the compelling narratives conjure their own ethereal legacy. Repeatedly, irresistibly, inevitably, the trope of ghosts returns to haunt the inheritance of slavery, embodying the “heavy shadows” (Topin in Jackson 1990: 143) and “ongoing aftermaths” (Berry 1985b: 59) that are, as yet, unresolved. Colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, neo-colonialism and enduring racism – slavery is a history that cannot be “disremembered” (Morrison 2005: 140). And the story must be passed on.












Word count: 2726



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Lorna Neville


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013