Beloved received the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award, which is named for an editor of Publishers Weekly. In accepting the award on October 12, 1988, Morrison said, "that 'there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby'" honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States. 'There’s no small bench by the road,' she continued. 'And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.' Inspired by her remarks, the Toni Morrison Society began to install benches at significant sites in the history of slavery in America. The New York Times reported that the first 'bench by the road' was dedicated on July 26, 2008, on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, the place of entry for some 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States. Morrison said she was extremely moved by the memorial. In 2017 the 21st bench was placed at the Library of Congress. It is dedicated to Daniel Alexander Payne Murray (1852–1925), the first African-American assistant librarian of Congress.
The novel received the seventh annual Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award in 1988, given to a novelist who "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes - his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity."
The publication of Beloved in 1987 resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison. Although nominated for the National Book Award, it did not win, and 48 African-American writers and critics — including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Angela Davis, Ernest J. Gaines, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rosa Guy, June Jordan, Paule Marshall, Louise Meriwether, Eugene Redmond, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, John Edgar Wideman, and John A. Williams — signed a letter of protest that was published in The New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988. Yet later in 1988 Beloved did receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award.
Despite its popularity and status as one of Morrison’s most accomplished novels, Beloved has never been universally hailed as a success. Some reviewers have excoriated the novel for what they consider its excessive sentimentality and sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, including its characterization of the slave trade as a Holocaust-like genocide. Others, while concurring that Beloved is at times overwritten, have lauded the novel as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination. Noting the work’s mythic dimensions and political focus, these commentators have treated the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, and the repression of memory as well as an attempt to restore the historical record and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans. Indeed, critics and Morrison herself have indicated that the controversial epigraph to Beloved, "sixty million and more", is drawn from a number of studies on the African slave trade which estimate that approximately half of each ship’s "cargo" perished in transit to America.
Scholars have additionally debated the nature of the character Beloved, arguing whether she is actually a ghost or a real person. Numerous reviews, assuming Beloved to be a supernatural incarnation of Sethe’s daughter, have subsequently faulted Beloved as an unconvincing and confusing ghost story. Elizabeth B. House, however, has argued that Beloved is not a ghost, and the novel is actually a story of two probable instances of mistaken identity. Beloved is haunted by the loss of her African parents and thus comes to believe that Sethe is her mother. Sethe longs for her dead daughter and is rather easily convinced that Beloved is the child she has lost. Such an interpretation, House contends, clears up many puzzling aspects of the novel and emphasizes Morrison’s concern with familial ties.
Since the late 1970s, there has been a strong focus on Morrison’s representation of African-American experience and history. The idea that writing acts as a means of healing or recovery is a strain in many of these studies. Timothy Powell, for instance, argues that Morrison's recovery of a black logos rewrites blackness as "affirmation, presence, and good", while Theodore O. Mason, Jr., suggests that Morrison’s stories unite communities.
Many critics explore memory, or what Beloved’s Sethe calls "rememory", in this light. Susan Bowers places Morrison in a "long tradition of African American apocalyptic writing" that looks back in time, "unveiling" the horrors of the past in order to "transform" them. Several critics have interpreted Morrison’s representations of trauma and memory through a psychoanalytic framework. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy explores how "primal scenes" in Morrison’s novels are "an opportunity and affective agency for self-discovery through memory" and "rememory". As Jill Matus argues, however, Morrison’s representations of trauma are “never simply curative”: in raising the ghosts of the past in order to banish or memorialize them, the texts potentially “provoke readers to the vicarious experience of trauma and act as a means of transmission". Ann Snitow’s reaction to Beloved neatly illustrates how Morrison criticism began to evolve and move toward new modes of interpretation. In her 1987 review of Beloved, Snitow argues that Beloved, the ghost at the center of the narrative, is "too light" and "hollow", rendering the entire novel "airless". Snitow changed her position after reading criticism that interpreted Beloved in a different way, seeing something more complicated and burdened than a literal ghost, something requiring different forms of creative expression and critical interpretation. The conflicts at work here are ideological as well as critical: they concern the definition and evaluation of American and African-American literature, the relationship between art and politics, and the tension between recognition and appropriation.
In defining Morrison’s texts as African-American literature, critics have become more attentive to historical and social context and to the way Morrison’s fiction engages with specific places and moments in time. As Jennings observes, many of Morrison’s novels are set in isolated black communities where African practices and belief systems are not marginalized by a dominant white culture but rather remain active, if perhaps subconscious, forces shaping the community. Matus comments that Morrison’s later novels "have been even more thoroughly focused on specific historical moments"; "through their engagement with the history of slavery and early twentieth-century Harlem, [they] have imagined and memorialized aspects of black history that have been forgotten or inadequately remembered".