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Tongue in Cheek: From the Metaphor to the Literal

By Faith Ruetas

In the context of American slave narratives, the tongue is a common vehicle for metaphor: the “runaway tongue” signifies oral resistance, the “broken tongue” a lost dialect (Mullen, Dunbar). Though long normalized in daily parlance, this manner of abstraction functions to separate characters from their viscerally embodied realities in autobiographical slave narratives. For Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, the tongue is a concept of wildness—a separate entity to be tamed. The body is thus disassembled and replaced with a discursive unit, distancing the depicted individuals from their lived oppression. In contemporary narratives of slavery, by contrast, the tongue is literalized and returned to characters’ bodies. For Toni Morrison, this precious organ is the means through which characters are wounded both physically and spiritually. Continuing this concretizing trend, Yaa Gyasi expands the tongue into a powerful means of personal reclamation. Not only do contemporary slave narratives re-embody the tongue, then, but in doing so, they restore the bodies of the characters to rightful self-ownership. By tracking this evolution of the tongue from an idiom to a personal organ, one sees a parallel progression of the genre’s characters: whereas earlier speakers of autobiographical slave narratives served editor-mediated, abolitionist motives, later contemporary writers reformed the genre by depicting fully fleshed, self-governing individuals.

Throughout their autobiographical recounts of slavery, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass use the tongue as a metaphor, thereby disassociating the narration from the characters’ corporeal experiences. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs describes a scene in which an enslaved woman is sold by the man who impregnated her: “When the mother was delivered into the trader’s hands, she said ‘You promised to treat me well.’ To which [Dr. Flint] replied, ‘You have let your tongue run too far; damn you!’” (24). By personifying the tongue at the same time that she abstracts it, Jacobs transforms the act of disclosure into an unruly force of which the woman lost control. The tongue, by “run[ning]” off in disobedience, becomes a self-autonomous entity that separates itself from the woman and steals away—as if she were betrayed by someone or something other than Dr. Flint. In reality, this is a woman who has been physically violated, then discarded upon reporting this fact. By conveying this situation through a metaphor that, in turn, displaces the focus from bodily transgression to forbidden admission, Jacobs disembodies the woman’s trauma. In the words of Christine Okoth, this substitution of the discursive for the physical is a “means of avoiding confrontation with the real violence inflicted on the bodies of Black people” (3). Given the external, abolitionist-motivated editors influencing Jacobs’ writing, this metaphorizing makes sense. At the time, autobiographical slave narratives communicated slavery’s routine dehumanization to promote the abolitionist cause, but to thoroughly transmit its material anguish would alienate white readers. By using the tongue as an abstraction of resistance, Jacobs thereby mitigates the corporeal terror implicit in this scene and renders the illustrated situation more digestible for her intended white audience.

Frederick Douglass employs a similarly abstracted tongue to evade viscerality in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. He describes how the slaveholders dispatch     “spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves a maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head” (Douglass 19). Of course, what Douglass omits here are the punitive actions taken by the slaveholders with the intelligence gleaned. Through his metaphor of the “still tongue,” suggesting repressed internal strife, he implies that preemptive punishments are dealt to those expressing negativity “in regard to their condition.” If this is true, then it is not simply the “frequency” of the espionage that taught the enslaved people to remain silent, but also the corporeal abuse meted out to those who were not. Rather than detail this punishment, Douglass, like Jacobs, shifts the focus to an abstracted, personified “still tongue” and “wise head.” He dispenses an adage that deconstructs the enslaved people into body parts, conveying the maxim resulting from their torture and not the torture itself. Through this act of disassembly, we see how “the real bodies of racialized people come to be replaced by a discursive composite” that “refuse[s] to let the bodies of Black people speak” (Okoth 1, 2). Both Jacobs and Douglass brush past the bodily horror in these scenes, instead relying on metaphorized tongues to gesture toward what actually occurred. The overall effect is a distanced abstraction befitting characters whose purpose is to reveal to white readers the injustice of slavery, but without steeping them in the harrowing corporeal experience therein.

Diverging from autobiographical narratives of slavery, Toni Morrison literalizes the tongue as a receptor of injury and lets it speak, to use Okoth’s terms. This occurs in Beloved when Sethe and Paul D discuss their past at Sweet Home Plantation, toeing the subject of how the latter was gagged like an animal: “He wants to tell me, she thought. He wants me to ask him about what it was like for him—about how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep you cry for it. She already knew about it, had seen it time after time” (Morrison 84). Unlike the metaphorical tongues in Jacobs and Douglass, that of Paul D is literally “offended” and “held down.” Though never explicitly named, the bit’s weight on the tongue here is textually palpable. Note the repetition of “He wants,” the layering of hard [h] sounds, and the incomplete clauses in “how offended the tongue is, held down by iron, how the need to spit is so deep” and “had seen it time after time.” This consonance, when paired with the repeatedly thwarted semantic completion, creates a heaving lilt, as if the narration is itself hampered by the “iron” bit. Morrison thus evokes the ache of Paul D’s tongue through the very sentence structure that describes it, underscoring his pain as one that moves beyond the mere physical. After all, the “violations of the physical and psychological personhood of the enslaved… were borne on and by the body” (Wallace 1). As both the receptor and the carrier of pain, the tongue is a physical tether to historical suffering. By focalizing its anguish through her narration, Morrison allows the Black body to speak this truth, thereby recognizing and concretizing Paul D’s trauma without separating him from his embodied experience. Through this emphasis of the tongue as a literal body part, a receiver of pain, and a narrative focalizer, Morrison effectively fleshes out past wounds, retroactively reincarnating Black bodies lost to time and audience-placating abstraction.

Though Morrison returns corporeality to her characters’ experiences, the tongue’s continual hurting betrays that Paul D’s body is not fully his; in Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, however, Abena evidences her liberty by choosing to use her tongue as a means for personal reclamation. Generations after her great-grandmother’s death, Abena learns the former’s name: “‘Effia,’ Abena repeated. It was the first time she had heard the name of one of her ancestors, and she savored the taste of the name on her tongue. She wanted to say it again and again. Effia. Effia” (Gyasi 152). Although Abena is only given a name—not a photograph, place, or story—receiving and echoing it for “the first time” anchors her to her lost family. Notice, further, how Abena uses her tongue to affect this restoration. While one might read this detail as metaphorical, consider that “[w]hat can be tasted is always something that can be touched” (Aristotle 421b1–9). Through this lens, one comes to understand Abena’s experience as both physical and transcendent. Abena, importantly, does not simply “speak” her great-grandmother’s name, but “savor[s]” it. By forming the phonetic shape of this new information with her tongue, she touches the family line from which she was hitherto disconnected. What might initially seem to be abstraction or metaphor, then, is actually an expansion to a fuller, multisensory incorporation of knowledge within and through the body: she “repeat[s],” “hear[s],” “savor[s],” and with this final act reaches beyond her present physicality to identify and reclaim an ancestry previously unreachable. When her stated desire to “say it again and again” is followed by the narrational refrain of “Effia. Effia,” Abena’s reclamatory agency literally permeates the text itself. By using her tongue to catalyze a metaphysical revelation, Abena takes full control of her body for her own, personal discovery. Gyasi therefore breaks from Jacobs, Douglass, and Morrison by not only returning corporeality to her characters, but returning the Black body to rightful self-ownership.

The tongue can be many things: an idiom, a maxim, a wet piece of flesh. By tracing its form through the evolution of the autobiographical slave narrative to the contemporary narrative of slavery, one sees a parallel progression—from the abstract to the concrete—in the depicted characters. For Jacobs and Douglass, the tongue is conceptual just as their conceptual selves are disseminated for abolitionist motives, elucidating the injustice of slavery without making the reader feel this corporeally. For Morrison and Gyasi, on the other hand, the tongue is literalized and focalized just as the characters themselves are fully realized individuals, generating reclamatory works that reaccess the voices of the enslaved. Though an often-overlooked aspect of the American narratives of slavery, the tongue, then, is not just a pithy metaphor or a mere body part. In measuring its level of abstraction, the trauma it carries, and the power it reclaims, one finds reflected the authorial intentions of the one who speaks (or writes) it into existence.

Works Cited

Aristotle. De Anima (On the Soul). Translated by J. A. Smith, Classics in the History of Psychology, York University, Accessed 14 April 2023.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Dover Publications, 1995.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “The Poet.” The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1913, p. 191.

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. Anchor Canada, 2017.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Publications, 2001.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Books, 2004.

Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved.” The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America. Edited by Shirley Samuels, Oxford UP, 1992, pp. 244–64.

Okoth, Christine. “15 – The Black Body and the Reading of Race.” The Cambridge Companion to American Literature and the Body, by Travis M. Foster, Cambridge University Press, 2022, pp. 227–241. 

Wallace, Maurice. “3 – Slavery, Disability, and the Black Body/White Body Complex in the American Slave Narrative.” The Cambridge Companion to American Literature and the Body, by Travis M. Foster, Cambridge University Press, 2022, pp. 44–58.