Beloved as a Slave Narrative
Table of Contents
As a black writer, Tony Morrison is fully aware of the wrongs the blacks suffered, especially their women folk, during the days of slavery. It is a past very few African-Americans can forget. Toni Morrison’s writing centres round the predicament of the blacks in the past as well as the present, but she scrupulously avoids any direct censure of the whites because she is least interested in the racial confrontation and wants to write for the people of her own race in particular.
Realistic Portrayal of Slave
Beloved offers a most realistic picture of the black life, as portrayed from within. It is based on an actual incident Morrison came across in a news clipping she found while compiling a history of the blacks. The news clipping entitled ‘A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child‘, narrated the incident of a slave woman, Margaret Garner, a Kentucky slave, who killed her child because she did not want her children to suffer as she had in her life. Just before and after the Emancipation Act, such was the suppression of the blacks during those years that
William Styron wrote, “Beat a nigger, starve him, leave him wallowing in his own shit, and he will be yours for life.” In Baby Suggs’s words, “Men and women were moved around like checkers.” Always living on the edge of life, they were beaten, bartered, bruised, raped, hanged, rented out, loaned out, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized. This is exemplified through the dialogue between Paul D and Stamp Paid:
“Tell me something, Stamp,” Paul D’s eyes were rheumy.
“Tell me one thing. How much is a nigger supposed to take?
Tell me. How much?”
“All he can”, said Stamp Paid. “All he can.”
“Why? Why? Why? Wiry? Why?”
Sethe as a Slave
Sethe represents the silenced voice of millions of black slave women. Through her, Morrison probes deeper into the psychological effects of missing other-infant bond and unearths the psychic damage of slavery to mother-child relationship. Beloved is characterized by mothers losing their children. Sethe’s own mother was hanged when Sethe was a small child, and she had not been allowed to nurse Sethe. It was to avoid a future in slavery for her children that led Sethe to plan escape from the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky and get her milk to the baby, she sent ahead with the other children that made her attempt it alone. She experiences her milk being stolen by schoolteacher’s nephews as the ultimate brutality, even worse than the savage whipping she received just before escaping. Later when the slave-catchers came to 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati, to recapture her and her children, she injured her sons Howard and Buglar, and killed her infant daughter.
Though ruined by rapes and untold humiliations by her white masters, Sethe considers her children “the best thing” about herself, She would go to any extend to dirty herself to retain the sanctity of her children, “even rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, for ten minutes as a price to be paid for engraving the word ‘Beloved’ on the tombstone of her dead daughter.” And those ten minutes were more unbearable than even the killing of her child: “but those ten minutes were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
Paul D as a Slave
Sethe’s history unfolds, bit by bit, with her after-prison life with the return of Paul D, another slave, who was with her at the Sweet Home plantation, to 124 Bluestone Road, Cincinnati. The year is 1873, years after the Emancipation Edict when, technically, all blacks are free now. But they have to live with their harrowing past of only a few years ago. Influenced by the fighting spirit of Sethe’s mother-in-law,
Baby Suggs, when he sees Sethe after eighteen years Paul D is slightly unnerved at the news of Baby Suggs’s death. His past life, too, is full of unbearable horrors. He does not remember his mother and he has not seen his father. Youngest of the three half-brothers, he is sold to Mr. Gamer and has to live in Sweet Home for twenty years. After Mr. Garner’s death, the new master, ironically called “schoolteacher” is so odious that the slaves plan to run away from the plantation. Paul D is caught and, as part of punishment, his tongue is held down by an iron bit and his hands are chained behind his back. Thus, when there is need to spit, it wound be so deep down that he has to cry for it.
Paul D is then sold to another master, Brandywine, whom he attempts to kill. Later, along with forty-six other slaves in a chain gang, Paul D is imprisoned in the ground and made to work in mines. After years of “mule work” there is a flood and all the slaves escape.
During his period of enslavement, Paul D puts up with “anything and everything to stay alive”. Gradually he becomes physically very strong, “taller than tall men, stronger than most” but the whites have “clipped” him. It is less the physical and more the emotional and moral clipping. He remembers how his body is evaluated in terms of money, and not human consideration, “the dollar value of his weight. his strength, his brain, his penis, and his future.” But he keeps all this “in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut.”
At 124 Bluestone Road, he spends a few happy days with Sethe but when he hears of Sethe killing her own baby, who now visits 124 Bluestone Road as a ghost, he abruptly leaves her with a heavy heart. Finally, he returns to Sethe and decides to take her up for what she is, as they are two lost souls and everything is not lost, yet:
“Sethe, me you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” This would mean real freedom for both because for Paul D freedom means a place where you could love anything you choose – not to need permission for desire.”
Epitome of Black Courage
Baby Suggs is the epitome of black courage in Beloved. She is rather a more powerful presence than Sethe when it comes to strong nerve. She receives Sethe at 124 when Sethe returns after running away from slavery. Baby Suggs asks Sethe to be thankful to have all her children (that, too, from the same father) with her:
“Be thankful. why don’t you? I had eight. Everyone of them gone away from me It is the care and concern of Baby Suggs that infuses a new life into Sethe.”
Except for her brave heart, there is nothing left intact in Baby Suggs’s sixty-year-old body because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb, and tongue.” She had been bought her freedom by her son, Halle, for which he had to labour hard during the weekends during the holidays at Sweet Home. Even though she wonders initially, “What does a sixty-year-old slave woman who walks like a three-legged dog need freedom for?”, soon Baby Suggs realizes the pulsating feeling of breathing free air into her expanded lungs. She discards the name of Jenny Whitlow on her bill of sale and adopts her husband’s name, Suggs, who was Halle’s father.
Baby Suggs has had eight children from six different fathers. She doesn’t recall them (“because it wasn’t worth the trouble”), except her last child Halle from the slave she loved. She then assumes the role of groit, in African sense, the historian of the race. Accepting no title or honour before her name … she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it… Uncalled, unrobed, unanorieted, she let her great heart beat in their presence.
She collects the black community in the Clearing and exhorts the blacks to forget their miserable plight. She tells them to dance, cry, and laugh. She invites them all to love their limbs, not to be ashamed of their blackness, not to be discouraged and disheartened by their past slavery. She tells them to love their “unnoosed neck”, otherwise it would be wrung by some white man, even your life-holding womb and your life-giving private part”.
However, all the courageous attempts of Baby Suggs to bring the blacks together break down because of the misconception that she is something special, something different from them, “blessed in some ways they were not”. Further, her non-committal attitude toward her daughter-in-law Sethe’s shocking murder of her child alienates her from her own community and the spirited Baby Suggs cracks. Despite hard-won freedom for her by her son, she dies of heartbreak caused both by the whites and by the blacks. And she is “buried amid a regular dance of pride, fear, condemnation, and spite.”
Chronicling a non-linear account of almost five decades of Sethe’s life, Beloved attains epic dimensions as a saga of suffering and courage of the black community. The narrative meanders back and forth through the consciousness of various characters from 124 Bluestone Road to Sweet Home and the slaves’ attempts to escape. Beloved’s burial, the killing of the children, etc., swing back and forth. Beloved creates a tangled web of near incomprehensibility, lacking both chronology and continuity. Time flows without restriction, past and present intermingle to highlight, as Toni Morrison observes, “the sustaining power of the blacks, to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence, and integrity.”