When Baby Suggs, ultimate matriarch and sorceress in Toni Morrison’s masterpiece “Beloved,” is unable to protect her own kin, to deadly consequence, she retreats from the world to her room to stare at her quilt and lie in “bed to think about the colors of things” (Morrison, Beloved, p208).This quilt is remarkable, not only in its ability to hold Baby Suggs’ attention, but also in its almost absolute lack of color, for it is largely faded save for one single bright patch of orange. This particular orange patch in the heart of Baby Suggs’ faded quilt is a fitting metaphor for the relationship between the individual and community in the writing of both Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison.
In this essay, I will first seek to demonstrate that the literature produced by Lorde is an invitation to victims of racism and oppression to discover the power inherent within themselves via an immediate connection to the present moment, a space where feeling wields agency. I will seek to demonstrate how Lorde bridges emotions, such as anger, to life-affirming action via her conceptualization of usefulness. However, Lorde’s self-realized individual needs the love of others to survive, as also occurs in the novels of Toni Morrison, where we find valiant characters who cannot be whole until they make peace with the communities they defy, threaten or scorn.
I will present examples in Morrison’s work in which no peace is made between the self and community, at a cost as high as life itself. Self-love paves the way to liberation from oppression, as conveyed in the work of Lorde and Morrison, but this way crosses communal lands. Indeed, the orange patch might make the quilt remarkable, but without the other ‘squares’ it remains a small scrap of fabric, unable to keep a body warm.
How, though, to become the orange patch? To do this we must simply love ourselves as we are, a challenge for black men and women who have been subjected to racism, violence, and oppression at the hands of white people for centuries. Lorde’s rallying cry, within this context, is never excessive, always warranted, always measured to the blades of the battle to be fought. In her poem “For Each of You,” she writes:
“Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.
When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.Lorde, The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, p59
Here, Lorde posits that power and pain derive from the same source, the same place. Though such place lies within the self, it must be accessed via a deliberate and immediate connection to the present moment and to the emotions that run “like hot blood.” We must “learn to eat” when we “are hungry.” In other words, we must recognize our feelings and tend to them, use them to source power from them, not just experience pain and hope that it will pass. The “details” of life are distractions on the path of self-realization, a path that requires subjugated individuals to both feed and “cherish” their life in a very intimate way.
Perhaps nowhere is Lorde’s affirmation of the power of feelings clearer than in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in which she presents poetry as a tool for survival because, as a bridge between deep emotions and consciousness, it operates as a source of revolutionary, transformative action:
“As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action.”Lorde, Sister Outsider
Through diligent feeling, the self is able to grasp the vast pain of oppression, an oppression that works to convince the oppressed of their inferiority. By exploring this painful oppression, the self can then realize that such pain is unjustified because there is power and beauty within all individuals. By confronting the injustice inherent in unfounded subjugation, actionable anger can arise. Feeling, then, is the spark that ignites the chain reaction of social justice. Feeling is power, is knowledge, is agency.
The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.Lorde, Sister Outsider
The orange patch is colored by bright emotional self-awareness; it glows because, from darkness, it knows.
Roderick A. Ferguson, in his essay “Of Sensual Matters: On Audre Lorde’s ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’ and ‘Uses of the Erotic,’” explores Lorde’s message of social liberation through self-affirmation within the context of the broader social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, and makes a convincing case on the individual’s power to transform humanity. Ferguson writes:
Lorde’s theory about engaging the self as a way to initiate social transformations was part of a historical moment that placed new emphasis on connections between self and collective transformations.Ferguson, p296
Lorde’s ideal self is both personal and “collective,” motivated to effect change not just for his or herself but for others as well. It is key, as Ferguson states, to “locate (Lorde) within a historical moment in which the elaboration of aesthetics of existence and the release of immense energies became part of the language used to mark new and insurgent social formations” (Ferguson, p297). In other words, Lorde’s message is one not just of personal empowerment, but of social empowerment as well, derived precisely from the initial, personal place of power knowledge.
As an example, in her poem “Sister Outsider,” Lorde chronicles the transformation of a group of individuals, presumably ones very close to her, via the principles of love and respect:
We were born in a poor time
each other’s hunger
sharing our crusts
the bread became the enemy
But from this past, emerges a new present, where there is self-love and love of community: “Now we raise our children / to respect themselves / as well as each other.” The transformation of fear into love, into “respect” yields powerful results, as evidenced in the closing stanza of the poem:
Now you have made loneliness
holy and useful
and no longer needed
your light shines very brightly
but I want you
your darkness also
and beyond fear.
From “a poor time” emerges a time when “darkness” is “rich.” The pivot that closes the door on fear is self-respect. What is equally significant about the final stanza in this closely packed poem is the word “useful” as it relates to loneliness, or pain. As in her poem “For Each of You” and in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Lorde advances that individuals have the power to connect to pain in order to generate life affirming action. The “you” in “Sister Outsider” is the one who “made loneliness / holy and useful.” This “you” possesses agency, is capable of personal realization, of evolving away from pain and fear to experience self-love and exert power.
Strikingly, both poems presented here specifically reference the power that lies in “darkness,” inviting black men and women to turn the weapon of racist oppression against the oppressor by celebrating the physical trait upon which racism is built. But, to tap into the force and vitality of the “Black Angel who drives you,” black people must first transform pain into action by connecting to “the Black Mother within” and trusting the voice that speaks therein, for this voice will sing of their beauty and convince them, conclusively, of such.
Indeed, in one of Lorde’s more theoretical essays, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” we find that it is only through self-intimacy that those who fight to overcome oppression can be reborn whole. Oppression operates by convincing the victims that they are somehow inferior, somehow less. Lorde’s brand of resistance works by showing victims of power systems how magnificent they are, a fact that these victims have known all along but lacked the necessary, immediate connection to the present moment in order to call the knowledge forth. In this essay, she writes:
“Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”Lorde, Sister Outsider, p113
Fear wears the face of the “Master,” of white political and economical systems of oppression that have subjugated black people since before the days of the Middle Passage. But fear only works if the victim feels it. Lorde’s assertion of a “darkness beyond fear” is a call to action to overcome fear, and this is done by tapping into the beauty and power within to transform fear into anger and anger into voice.
Anger and its applications are explored in depth in the work of Lorde, particularly in her aptly titled essay “Uses of Anger.” To understand the significant role anger plays in self-discovery and evolution, it is first essential to realize that anger is different from blind rage. First of all, anger is useful, and its usefulness derives from the fact that it is deployed from a place of consciousness, from a place of driven caustic response. Rage is unfocused, unthoughtful, unmeasured emotion. Certainly, anger ensues from moments when rage may also be felt but, principally, when such rage is intelligently underpinned and aimed.
Reginald Betts, in his essay “Feeling Fucked Up: The Architecture of Anger” describes how anger can act as a bridge to the poetic: “Ultimately, the use of anger in a poem is a means to an end, an acknowledging of a subtle truth: If anger is not confronted, it turns into resentment and guilt. James Baldwin calls guilt a peculiar emotion and writes, ‘as long as you are guilty about something, no matter what it is, you are not compelled to change it.’”
Similarly, Lorde dismisses guilt as a useless personal process and elevates anger as a “means to an end”:
If rage is useless, and if guilt is useless, then why exactly is anger so useful? Lorde sums it up: “I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter” (Lorde, p133).
For Lorde, anger is both artistically and physically sustaining, a tool with which to hammer against oppression, with which to bore for sustenance, with which to manifest self-affirming, revolutionary literature. For black women, anger, indeed, is not just a conduit to the poetic, as described in Betts’ essay, it is the poem itself, the voice of genesis capable of instigating material change.
A deep connection to anger, then, a delving of its sources must be performed by choice. Otherwise, anger will oscillate with the decibel breadth of rage. Bell Hooks, in her book “feminism is for everyone,” calls forth the notion that oppression does not necessary result in political engagement. Both profound wakefulness and resolve are prerequisites for engaged social activism. In her essay “Total Bliss,” she summarizes the relationship between feminism and lesbianism during the first decade of the former movement:
Simply being lesbian does not make one a feminist, anymore than being lesbian makes one political. Being a member of an exploited group does not make anyone more inclined to resist. If it did, all women (and that includes every lesbian on the planet) would have wanted to participate in the women’s movement. Experience coupled with awareness and choice are the factors that usually lead women into leftist politics.Hooks, feminism is for everyone, p93
Without doubt, experiences of oppression can easily lead to rage, but they do not necessarily lead to focused, combative, convincing expressions of anger capable of rallying action to dismantle tyrannical systems of power. The individual who wishes to truly engage and achieve change must connect to his or her power in the present via deep self-reflection, then channel that blaze of anger into urgent speech that demands immediate societal transformation.
Lorde announces: “Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning. But that time is over” (Lorde, Sister Outsider, 132). Her sense of urgency ties into the usefulness of anger as a means of triggering accelerated upheaval. In terms of reform, later is not an option, fast is the only way to go. As Langston Hughes asks at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement: “What happens to a dream deferred? …maybe it just sags / like a heavy load” (Hughes, Harlem).
Black men and women have carried the sagging loads of dreams deferred for centuries too long. Waiting is not useful. Indeed Angela Davis, in her essay, “Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation,” published from a jail cell, alludes to the spark of anger, the ignition of revolt when she states:
In the heat of our pursuit of fundamental human rights, black people have been continually cautioned to be patient. We are advised that as long as we remain faithful to the existing democratic order, the glorious moment will eventually arrive when we will come into our own as full-fledged human beings.
One of the greatest cruelties of racism and oppression is to convince the victims that they are not “full-fledged human beings,” but Lorde and her enlightened readers know this to be false. How, then, to subvert? Can the galvanized, empowered individual topple tyranny alone? The writing of Toni Morrison shows us that the answer is no. Emboldened individuals need the support of their communities and require the love of others not only to disrupt, but to survive.
Beloved, widely considered to be Morrison’s masterpiece, explores the relationship between the self and community through various of its characters, but perhaps most hauntingly via Baby Suggs’ public rise and fall. As a former slave whose freedom was bought by her son Halle’s extra work, Baby Suggs enjoys respect and acceptance in her small town. So much so, that she begins preaching to the community in an outdoor area:
Baby Suggs goes to the Clearing to share her knowledge of life affirming self-love, seeking to inspire others to join her on this empowered path. Her community, consisting mostly by former slaves who had endured all forms of imaginable and unimaginable horror, is hungry for her message of self-worth, a message that challenges a fundamental truth that racism and slavery had sought for so long to annihilate: black men and women are already and forever “full-fledged human beings.” Morrison describes the communion that takes place between Suggs and others at the Clearing, between the enlightened self and the community in evocative terms:
And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them…More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.’ Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music.Toni Morrison, Beloved
Suggestively, it is the community that “gave” Baby Suggs the music with which to dance part of “what her heart had to say,” representing the unity between the message’s giver and its receivers. The Clearing days are good days, days that end when Sethe, Baby Suggs’ daughter in law, kills her baby and Baby Suggs’ granddaughter, Beloved, in order to prevent the baby girl from being taken by Sethe’s former white slave master back to a life of slavery. How did Baby Suggs, spiritually gifted leader, not see such perverse evil coming? Pride. Or, rather, defiance.
The day before Sethe kills her baby, Baby Suggs throws a party to celebrate the arrival of her family at 124 Bluestone Road. The party, though, is too grandiose for a community accustomed to unequivocal lack, too joyful for a place habituated to grief, too bold for a people whose survival had hinged on the ability to keep a bent-down head. Before Sethe’s arrival, Baby Suggs had managed to survive on the hope her family would one day return and on her teachings of self-love in the Clearing. But, when they arrived, “she got proud and let herself be overwhelmed by the sight of her daughter-in-law and Halle’s children – one of whom was born on the way – and have a celebration of blackberries that put Christmas to shame. Now she stood in the garden smelling disapproval, feeling a dark and coming thing, and seeing high-topped shoes that she didn’t like the look of at all. At all” (Morrison, p173).
The resentment her party generates in her community is enough to cloud Baby Suggs’ spiritual powers so that she is not able to protect her family from the evil riding toward her in its “high-topped shoes.” What is equally painful for Baby Suggs to experience is the subsequent lack of support extended by her previously caring community upon the desperate murder of Beloved by Sethe:
Holding the living child, Sethe walked past them in their silence and hers. She climbed into the cart, her profile knife-clean against the cheery blue sky. A profile that shocked them with its clarity. Was her head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably. Otherwise the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house on Bluestone Road.Toni Morrison, Beloved
Again, Morrison employs song to signal communal unity. But, whereas the community had sung for Baby Suggs at the Clearing, perhaps as a demonstration of gratitude for the message of self-love they were receiving, the same community is unable to see past their own pride, their own sense of horror, to surround and support one of their own, and one of Baby Suggs’ long-awaited kin, in a moment of gruesome need. With this scene, Morrison delivers a neat indictment of how communities function, or, rather, of how they do not. There is room for excellence, for singularity, so long as the remarkable one does not pose a threat to the less remarkable whole, so long as the one does not render the other somehow inferior, be this inferiority real or imagined.
Community fails Baby Suggs. In this context, her retreat to her room to gaze at her quilt makes rational sense. Suggs’ retreat is a form of giving up on the world at large. But, if the quilt is to be understood as a symbol for the spiritual, Suggs’ choice also makes intuitive sense.
In her essay, “Contradictory Directives and the Erotics of Re-Membering: New World Spiritual Practices and Black Female Subjectivity in Beloved” Donna Azra Weir-Soley investigates the abundant links between African Cosmology and Morrison’s seminal novel. This essay links African-American quilting to textile making by the Mande people of Western Africa. Pointedly, Mande textiles often had “breaks in the pattern to confuse evil spirits” as did quilts (Weir-Soley, Eroticism, Spirituality and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings, p107).
Perhaps, after the betrayal of her physical community, Baby Suggs seeks respite in the spiritual community represented by the quilt, a link to her original, African sources of power. The colors in the quilt though are faded, which evoke Suggs’ incapacity to read or to communicate with the spirt world. Her isolation, then, in the physical world, has spilled out onto the otherworldly. No matter her force, without a connection to the world outside her window, Suggs loses the ability to commune with the gods of her ancestors, barely visible as faded colors on her quilt.
The one bright orange patch that remains is linked to the Orisha goddess Oshun, healer and giver of life. Thus, via this link to life, there is still some hope, Morrison seems to tell us. The spirits have not entirely left Baby Suggs and her kin, but, just as one individual cannot heal the brutality of slavery alone, nor can one lone goddess, no matter how skilled, cure the hurt in Baby Suggs’ home.
To heal, Baby Suggs’ family needs more love, be it terrestrial or celestial in nature. Weir-Soley writes of this:
Fortunately, Morrison, having delivered a hard condemnation on Baby Suggs’ community, also offers it an opportunity for atonement. After Suggs’ death, when Sethe is overcome by the physical demands of Beloved’s ghost incarnate, the community rallies together to perform a group exorcism to banish Beloved and save Sethe. Members of the community gather at 124 Bluestone Road for the ritual:
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
Again, Morrison links song and spiritual salvation. The voices that did not sing for Sethe when she is carted off by the Sheriff following the murder of Beloved sing for her now, and they do so with the might of heart that Baby Suggs gifted them in the Clearing. In doing so, the community itself is able to reconnect with Suggs’ message of life-affirming self-love, which is capable of healing them as a group. Yet, although healing is possible now, and Sethe is saved, deliverance comes after a high price: over a decade of painful rejection experienced by Baby Suggs and her kin.
The community’s redemption, albeit compelling, nevertheless generates more suffering than can ever be justified, rationalized or theorized. Individuals keenly connected to their own sense of power and worth need supportive infrastructure in order to truly effect change in the world, and, Morrison warns, to avoid preventable suffering. Communities, too, will be wise to respond in kind.
Morrison shows us that no matter how connected Baby Suggs may be to her own deep sense of self-worth, of power and might, she is unable to generate transformative action in the world without the committed enlistment of her community to her lessons of love. By alienating her community, problematic as the causes of such alienation may be, Suggs’ message becomes barren. But, once the community surrounds her and her family, the salvation of one can become the salvation of all.
Salvation, unfortunately, is not available to the main character in another of Morrison’s germinal texts, Sula. Perhaps it is due to the heroine’s hostile, uncompromising divergence from and rejection of the values preserved by the people in her small town that keeps her community away from her, even as she lays on her deathbed. The single visit she does receive, the only one capable of saving her, is a visit of judgement, of indictment, from her bestfriend.
Sula, the book’s namesake heroine, is a being of complete volition. She acts according to her exact desires. So much so that Eva, her grandmother, believes that Sula stood by and watched her mother Hannah, Eva’s daughter, burn alive out of curiosity:
When Eva, who was never one to hide the faults of her children, mentioned what she thought she’d seen to a few friends, they said it was natural. Sula was probably struck dumb, as anybody would be who saw her own momma burn up. Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.Toni Morrison, Sula
With this passage, Morrison characterizes Sula as a free agent, an individual who acts upon her wants, ones with which she is very much in contact, and from which she derives the power to mold her life as she sees fit. At first glance, it would seem, Sula is connected with her sense of self, with life-affirming self-love in such a way as to grant her the ability to obtain fulfillment and, perhaps, even inspire others to do the same. However, the novel will show us this is far from the case.
Several years later, after Sula has left and returned to her town, she reunites with Eva. The women, both possessing strong, willful personalities, clash violently. Eva tells Sula: “Well, don’t let your mouth start nothing that your ass can’t stand. When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.” To which Sula responds:
Here, Sula’s defiant sense of self shines vehemently, foreshadowing the violence with which she will pursue her desires, thwarting the happiness of other members of the community in the process. When Sula reconnects with Nel, her childhood best, and only, friend it does not take Sula long to act upon the impulse to sleep with Nel’s husband, breaking up her friend’s marriage. As a result, Nel is unable to experience the love which she had found in marriage and is burdened with the sole care of three young children.
Evidently, the friendship ends, a relationship that was sustaining for both. When Nel goes to visit Sula on her deathbed, she accuses her friend of betrayal. Nel says: “And you didn’t love me enough to leave him alone. To let him love me. You had to take him away.” An always impassive Sula responds: “What you mean take him away? I didn’t kill him, I just fucked him. If we were such good friends, how come you couldn’t get over it” (Morrison, p145).
Sula is so immersed in herself, in her impulses, in her longings, in her personal experience of life, that she cannot comprehend how her actions affect the lives of others, ultimately alienating her from everyone in her life and eliminating all systems of support. Although she dies on her own terms, she dies alone, and her lessons of unconventionality, if any, die with her. No social transformation happens as a result of her self-awareness. Nel realizes how much she loves Sula, how much she will miss her friend, but only after Sula is dead, only after their friendship is forever lost.
Not all is hopeless in Morrison. Her more recent novel Homebrings its main characters to a final resting place of safety, hope and comfort, to a place where they can heal, a place they can call home. The story tells of Frank and Cee Money, brother and sister, whose relationship is one of deep, unconditional love. Frank, who is a recent war veteran and spiritually wounded himself, must seek out Cee, who falls prey to a white doctor’s sinister experiments. Once Frank rescues her, he takes her back to their hometown of Lotus, GA, a place that, during their childhood, had been a source of havoc and hurt. Home is reborn as a place of promise, as the town’s women join forces to nurse Cee back to health. When she is “mended,” one of her healers tells her:
Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you. Seed your own land. You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.Toni Morrison, Home
This passage calls to mind Lorde’s touching assertion made in The Cancer Journals: “Perhaps I can say this all more simply; I say the love of women healed me” (Lorde, The Cancer Journals).
Both Lorde and Cee regain wholeness thanks to the love of other women, love that is collective, not romantic, not familial, not maternal. It is also through the love of others that Cee becomes strong emotionally, beyond the physical, gaining independence from her brother, and envisioning a life lived on her own terms. However, as Cee’s self-affirmation does not pose a threat to the Lotus community, her growth is not challenged, as both Baby Suggs’ and Sula’s sense of empowerment was by their respective communities.
The message here is one of self-growth, but within the context of community. An individual in opposition to his or her community will suffer, stunting their own personal growth and happiness in the process. Furthermore, there can be no social transformation derived from the emboldened, self-affirming sense of self that does not seek out communion, there can be no going out to “do some good in the world.” Those who somehow antagonize the world around will eventually wither in isolation, staring at faded quilts, and thawrt the heart energy from flowing, an energy that must be vigorous and engulfing if tyrannical histories are to be subverted.
Both self-love and communal love is necessary to generate transformative action capable of challenging oppressive systems of power, such as racism and slavery. Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison present us with narratives that demonstrate the significance of first seeking out self-love, but once life-affirming empowerment is obtained, it must be contributed to the awakening of communities as a whole.
An enlightened individual who uses their sense of self to oppose their community, placing their own happiness over that of the other, will inevitably suffer. Self-realization and expression are possible, but not offensively so. This may result problematic to some, but as Morrison’s novels show, it is the way of the world, a way that will wield results if what is privileged is love versus selfish desire. So long as the motivation remains expanding love of self in order to augment love of community, conflict can be avoided and radical, transformative awareness of power can flow. Then, with the orange patch as beacon, the entire quilt will glow.
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