Nature of the past experiences of slavery


In both Beloved by Toni Morrison and in Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora, the characters are both haunted by past memories. Both authors invite the readers into a twilight zone landscape that is hidden, but not really completely gone. It is deliberately buried, but not forgotten by the protagonists. In their lives, ghosts from the horrible past haunt the ethnic landscape of the present. In this essay, the author will compare and contrast the ways in which questions of ghosting and haunting are central to our literary works this semester. It is the author’s contention that the hauntings allow the reader to personalize the characters and then care for them since they can the relate with the suffering humanity in a horror landscape. This personalization of suffering then allows the reader to enter into the mind of the oppressed and transcend the racialized/gendered/sexualized forces of violence, evidence, loss, disappearance, memory, forgetfulness and/or social death. They can now directly care for and connect with the protagonists on a personal level that otherwise would not be possible.

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Because of the horrible and painful nature of the past experiences of slavery, almost all slaves possess such repressed memories. While forgetfulness can be a blessing, such repression and alienation from the past further causes a fragmentation of one’s self and a loss of our true identities. In Beloved, Sethe, Paul D. And Denver all experience such an alienation and their losses of self can only be remedied by a psychological acceptance of the past and the memories of their original status. Morrison attempts to open her characters up to these repressed memories and finally causes the their cathartic reconstitution as they discover their new selves.

Slavery as an institution has a profound effect upon an individual. It splits a given person into fragmented figures of sub-identity. These sub-identities in turn consist of painful memories and unspeakable past atrocities. They are collectively denied and kept at bay so that the person does not completely lose their sanity. To heal and humanize oneself, these memories must be reconstituted in recognizable language and images to deal with them first individually and then systematically.

Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs all fall short of a such realization and are unable to fully remake themselves as free people. For them, the he self is located in words as defined by others, in this case, by their old masters. The power to overcome this old dependence lies in the audience, or more precisely, in the change of terminology. In the case of the former slaves, their challenge is to take on a new language of freedom. In this case, once the terminology changes, so does the person’s identity. All of the characters in Beloved face the challenge of an unmade self composed of their flashbacks and defined by language and perceptions. The obstacle that keeps them from the complete remaking of themselves is their desire for a past that is uncomplicated past. They fear what the memories will do to them. This alienation can be summed up in the realization that “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name…remembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her…how can they call her if they don’t know her name ” (Morrison 274).

In Beloved, the protagonists experience emotions that are similar the experiences laid in the Cho book. In the center of Cho’s text is the ghostly and menacing figure of the yanggongju. She defines this as “literally meaning ‘Western princess,’ broadly refers to a Korean woman who has sexual relations with Americans; is most often used pejoratively to refer to a woman who is a prostitute for the U.S. Military” (Cho 3). Cho sees this as part of what she calls the erasure of identity for the women from Koren society. For decades, the country’s population was alienated from its both its indigenous language and culture under the Japanese boot heal. Also, one must factor in the loss of autonomy under U.S. military domination since 1945, the destruction of the peninsula and its people during the Korean War and the lack of a decisive termination to the war. Even after the war, the Yankee shadow bore down hard on Korea as a whole and for Korean women in particular who have born the wounds and scars even more than the men.

Cho traces the experiences and troubles of the yanggongju across the history of Korea. She does this to document the stories of women who were forced into slavery as comfort women during the war and who by economic necessity ended up turning to the Americans. She calls this emotional suicide the “fabric of erasure” and goes through this process to exorcise the ghost from the Korean national consciousness and the consciousness of women (ibid 1). There is a lot of psychological trauma suffered by the comfort women and Cho adapts to explore these issues across generations of the Korean consciousness. This concept was adapted from studies of the holocaust and fights the emotional erasure. This concept was established by Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham, scholars of the Holocaust. Cho incorporated these in her project. She said that even “Korean wives who led lives of isolation and were the subject of neighborhood gossip (ibid 3). Like the children of the Jewish Holocaust survivors, Koreans living in America who were not alive during the Korean War are still being haunted by the secretive and furtive nature of that conflict. This is particularly in the case of the Nosferatu nature yanggongju, feeding as it is on the living (ibid 30).

The Haunting of the Korean Diaspora seeks to uncover some of the ways the yanggonju floats around in both Korea and America settings. In chapter one, it is suggested by Cho that the yanggonju is a source of discomfort for Koreans that contributes to the communities marginalization (ibid 34-5). In chapter two, she documents the numerous horrors of the Korean War and shows that these conditions led women to become prostitutes around U.S. military installations after the Korean War. Violence and sex come together therefore in a symbiotic relationship that feeds the psychosis of the survivors. She sees the war as a type of continued domination even though the violence is done and over. It continues on even after the war is over and done because the memories are buried in the subconscious memory of the women and can only be gotten rid of by telling the story.

Further on in the book, Cho moves from the camptowns to analyzing the Korean brides of American soldiers who emigrated to America. Cho states calls the camptowns a “bride school” that teaches the women to be sexual slaves and playthings for the Americans and their war machine (ibid 140). Again, like the Korean War, the continued occupation of the country by the American troops provides the women with continued discomfort and pain. Like the war itself that ended only in a ceasefire, the women experience only a partial disconnection with the past. For them to completely disconnect themselves from it, they need to tell the stories over in a more liberating context, one which empowers them to have control over the situation and to effect closure.


Certainly, psychological therapists will confirm that creating a new identity means that we much deal with our buried pasts. In many types of therapy, past horrors are examined in order to break the bonds with the past and to learn new and more positive behaviors. These buried and uncorrected pasts need to be dealt with both on an individual and on a community basis. In both books, the authors illustrate the pitfalls of not doing this and examples of individuals and communities that are better and happier for doing it. These communities then can heal and grow from the experience, remaking and empowering themselves along the way as they take control and ownership from their oppressors in a cathartic process that ends only when the bonds and chains are broken. These chains and bonds took many years to establish and also require many years and retellings to completely exorcise the ghosts from the collective of the women victims.

Works Cited

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean diaspora: shame, secrecy, and the forgotten war. Minneapolis,

MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, NY: Plume, 1998. Print.

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