An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2014

Beloved: America’s Grammar Book

Karla FC Holloway
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KARLA FC HOLLOWAY is the James B. Duke Professor of English at Duke University, where she is also Professor of Law and Professor of Women's Studies. Her books include Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature (2014), Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics (2011), and BookMarks: Reading in Black and White: A Memoir(2006).

When the music entered the window . . . [b]oth women heard it at the same time. . . . [W]here the yard met the road, they saw the rapt faces of thirty neighborhood women. Some had their eyes closed; others looked at the hot, cloudless sky. Sethe opened the door and reached for Beloved’s hand. Together they stood in the doorway. For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.

–Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), 261. Copyright © 1987 by Toni Morrison. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited.

The expressive license within this epigraph, an extraordinary passage from Toni Morrison’s quintessential American masterpiece Beloved, takes up the implicit challenge of a literary fiction: the authority in (and of ) a literary imagination. This gathering of women’s voices enables this speaking text–a “talking book” in the tradition of African American . . .

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