Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a novel about the enslavement of Black Americans and its lasting emotional, physical and psychic effects. It takes place in Cincinnati, Ohio right before and after the Civil War. Beloved is the story of Sethe, a woman so strong, she survives the unthinkable, over and over and over again.
Beloved is the name of the angry baby girl haunting the home of her younger sister, Denver, and Sethe, the mother who murdered her. The ghost, in her eighteen-month-old, non-physical form has driven everyone else out of the house, including Sethe’s two sons whom she tried to kill at the same time she killed Beloved, and Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, who wills herself to die after witnessing the event.
In 1873, after this poltergeist activity has been occurring for years—shattered mirrors, baby hand prints in cakes, “kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill”(Beloved 3), Paul D, an old friend of Sethe’s from the Sweet Home plantation across the river in Kentucky where they were both enslaved, comes to visit.
They have not seen each other in eighteen years. Not since 1855 when Sethe ran away, pregnant with Denver, her other three children sent to freedom with Baby Suggs in Cincinnati ahead of her. Upon encountering the ghost in the house, Paul D immediately sends her away. There is a period of quiet and deceptive “happiness” as Paul D and Sethe begin to set up house and fall in love. But it is only a matter of time until the ghost named Beloved crawls up out of the creek in the body of a twenty-year-old woman to pay a reckoning to her mother.
Readers we are left wondering, is she the child, the child who was murdered? How did she manage to get a body?
“I wanted a baby in human body, without past or future (having been killed so young), and also to be the embodiment of the past… a new segment of the history that has been unlived and unattended to. And because it is so fresh, much more painful to handle….The other part has to do with the African conviction regarding reincarnation. It is believed that, in particular, children or young people who die uneasily return out of the water in forms of members of your family. Water is a dangerous and haunted place because spirits dwell in it”(https://belovedcriticaledition.wordpress.com/background/).
In her book, The Grasp that Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women’s Texts, Venetria K. Patton, informs us that there is a traditional and well known belief in West Africa that children who die badly can return in this way. The Igbo name for this type of being is ogbanje, “a spirit-child… said to die early only to be reborn again and again to the same mother”(Patton 121). This child who returns is not necessarily an ancestor, but rather a sort of ghost. Ancestors are relatively settled in their deaths. In the case of the novel Beloved, Morrison reveals that the child who returns is also a representation or return of “the unnamed victims of the Middle Passage”(Patton 124).
“…after following a number of trails trying to determine the structure,” Morrison writes, “I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all….When I finally understood the nature of the haunting — how it is both what we yearn for and what we fear, I was able to see the traces of a ghostly presence, the side of a repressed past in certain concrete but also allusive detail”(SSR 283).
In the tradition of the ogbanje, Beloved comes back to torture her mother. She is “….set on claiming retribution from Sethe for her murder”(Patton 121). Patton explains that typically in these situations, “Though the parent is initially in control, as the situation worsens, s/he cedes authority to the child, who then enslaves the parent”(Patton 139). Ogbanje are “stunted ancestors—they do not reach ancestor status because their lives are cut short. …thus one should not expect Beloved to be benevolent, instructive, or protective, as these qualities have not had time to develop”(Patton 121).
However, in the novel, the return of the daughter is ultimately healing for Sethe who is able to slowly remember and face her past, then finally move forward from it. She does this for herself and the collective at the same time.
Brittanica defines the Middle Passage, as “the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. It was one leg of the triangular trade route that took goods (such as knives, guns, ammunition, cotton cloth, tools, and brass dishes) from Europe to Africa, Africans to work as slaves in the Americas and West Indies, and items, mostly raw materials, produced on the plantations (sugar, rice, tobacco, indigo, rum, and cotton) back to Europe. From about 1518 to the mid-19th century, millions of African men, women, and children made the 21-to-90-day voyage aboard grossly overcrowded sailing ships manned by crews mostly from Great Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and France”(https://www.britannica.com/topic/Middle-Passage-slave-trade).
Click here to read a post about Memorials to the Victims of the Middle Passage that were established after Morrison’s call.
In an interview Morrison muses how, like Beloved, “All those people who threw themselves into the sea had been violently ignored; no one praised them, nobody knows their names, nobody can remember them, not in the United States nor in Africa. Millions of people disappeared without a trace… So, it’s like a whole nation that is under the sea. A nameless violent extermination. . . . With Beloved, I am trying to insert this memory that was unbearable and unspeakable into the literature. Not only to write about a woman who did what Sethe did, but to have the ghost of the daughter return as a remnant of a period that was unspoken. It was a silence within the race. So it’s a kind of healing experience. There are certain things that are repressed because they are unthinkable, and the only way to come free of that is to go back and deal with them.
Memory has a dual function. On the one hand, to remember painful periods generates suffering. But on the other hand, remembering has a healing quality; suffering provides information and ultimately offers self-knowledge”(https://belovedcriticaledition.wordpress.com/background/).
Throughout the book is the theme of the loss of identity through the experience of the Middle Passage and enslavement. In beautiful and subtle ways, Morrison illustrates this in the characters as their memories and recollections resurface slowly and are revealed to one another with varying responses.
And then there is the issue of a mother killing her child, the central theme of the book— based on a true story that Morrison read in a newspaper— a theme that, in a lesser writer’s hands would not unveil what it does in Beloved.
“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination”(SSR 130).
And this Morrison does, as she takes the reader with her into the horror of slavery, a horror so intense that Sethe believes to kill her children and spare them from it is the merciful thing to do. The reader tends to agree.
When Paul D discovers what Sethe has done, those eighteen years ago, when the white men came to the house she was living in with Baby Suggs in Cincinnati. When they came to take her back to enslavement, (which they had a legal right to do because of the Fugitive Slave Law). When he learns that she beat her sons’ heads with a shovel and slit her eighteen-month-old baby’s throat with a saw; before he leaves her, he confronts her angrily:
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”
“What way?”(Beloved 165).
And the reader, searching their mind for another way, can’t find one. But that? To do that? But what else?
What Morrison reveals in this novel is not only the horrors of the enslavement of Black Americans but its enduring legacy. Sethe describes it as being “dirtied”
“That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon”(Beloved 251).
This dirtying has a way of removing one from one’s self, one’s soul. It creates a deep forgetting of everything, of what we might call one’s identity. The theme of identity is also explored in the way the characters are named — Paul A, Paul D, Paul F, Stamp Paid, Baby Suggs, Beloved — by whites or themselves, and by the ability to claim who you came from and to whom you belong.
“If slaves came with their own names they were ignored. People just named them something they wanted to. The purpose was to keep families separated in order to control them, and to give the slaves the last name of the master, as property. If I give you another name, then I own you; this is why black people had nicknames, names that they gave themselves. Stamp Paid is a classic example. He’s born Joshua, and he does something that is memorable: he changes his own name to Stamp Paid. Paul D’s name, for instance — all these letters — is a sign of contempt. So it’s rare and delicious to have a name that is given to you by a parent, based on a love relationship or maybe given by somebody in your family. Then you earn your name; it’s not just a name of a white person attached to you. Baby Suggs is another example. Her name is Janey Whirlow, but Janey she does not recognize, and Whirlow was the name of whoever owned her. She was married to a man named Suggs, and he used to call her Baby Suggs. So that’s her name. It’s her resistance”(https://belovedcriticaledition.wordpress.com/background/).
This deliberate disruption — created and perpetuated by this centuries long atrocity, first the forced removal from one’s ancestors and ancestral home, then the harrowing, abusive, tortuous boat ride, then the experience of enslavement and worse yet, the non-stop and deliberate separation of mothers from their children, the constant and persistent interruption of families and blood lines, of lineages—has devastating consequences.
Baby Suggs had all her children taken from her except for Halle. Halle is Sethe’s husband and the father of her four children. He was supposed to run away with Sethe but didn’t. She doesn’t know why or what happened to him until Paul D tells her. Halle, years earlier bought his mother’s freedom from the Garners, owners of the Sweet Home Plantation.
“The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try and learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway. Seven times she had done that: held a little foot; examined the fat fingertips with her own—fingers she never saw become the male or female hands a mother would recognize anywhere. She didn’t know to this day what their permanent teeth looked like; or how they held their heads when they walked. Did Patty loose her lisp? What color did Famous’ skin finally take? Was that a cleft in Johnny’s chin or just a dimple that would disappear soon’s his jawbone changed? Four girls, and the last time she saw them there was no hair under their arms. Does Ardelia still love the burned bottom of bread? All seven were gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at that youngest one? But for some reason they let her keep him”(Beloved 139).
Sethe does not know her mother, her ma’am is not allowed to mother her. She must work in the fields all day and someone else is forced to nurse and raise Sethe. When Sethe is still a young girl, her ma’am is hung when she tries to flee the plantation Sethe lived on before Sweet Home. She tried to flee without her daughter, without Sethe. Fully opening to this realization and the pain she carries around it is part of what Sethe must integrate to heal.
Sethe’s mother has come from the Middle Passage. Sethe understood her language when she was young but has since forgotten it. Sethe’s mother threw all her children away except for Sethe because the others were all the products of rape by white men. Sethe has the name her mother gave her from her African father. Sethe’s name belongs to her.
After her mother is murdered, Sethe tries to find her in the pile of dead bodies. She is pulled away and comforted by a woman called Nan
“the one who she knew best, who was around all day, who nursed babies, cooked, had one good arm and half of another. And who used different Words. Sethe understood then but could neither recall nor repeat now. …The same language her ma’am spoke, and which would never come back. … Nighttime. Nan holding her with her good arm, waving the stump of the other in the air. ‘Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe,’ and she did that. She told Sethe that her mother and Nan were together from the sea. Both were taken up many times by the crew. ‘She threw them all away but you. The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never. Never. Telling you. I am telling you, small girl Sethe’”(62).
When the white men come to take Sethe and her children back to Kentucky from Ohio 28 days after Sethe’s arrival in Cincinnati, Sethe’s actions are an absolute claim to power, identity and selfhood. She will claim ownership of her own children and in this claim she will make decisions of their fate, no one else. She will have access to her children. She will claim herself as mother, as human. She will claim her children as her property, no one else’s.
“From the point of view of the slave women, for example. Suppose having children, being called a mother, was the supreme act of freedom—not its opposite? Suppose instead of being required to have children (because of gender, slave status, and profit) one chose to be responsible for them; to claim them as one’s own; to be, in other words, not a breeder, but a parent. Under U.S. slavery such a claim was not only socially unacceptable, it was illegal, anarchic. It was also an expression of intolerable female independence. It was freedom. And if the claim extended to infanticide (for whatever reason—noble or crazed) it could and did become politically explosive”(SSR 282).
This was an act of resistance. The ultimate resistance to enslavement, the Middle Passage and the Fugitive Slave Law.
“You could get slaves to do anything at all, bear anything,” Morrison observes, “if you gave them any hope that they could keep their children. They’d do anything. Every impulse, every gesture, everything they did was to maintain their families.
Well, under those historical pressures, the desire for choice in partners, the desire for romantic love, operate as a place, a space, away, for individual reclamation of the self. That is a part, maybe the largest part, certainly an important part, of the reconstruction of identity. Part of the ‘me’ so tentatively articulated in Beloved. That’s what she needs to discover” (SSR 319).
In a particularly poignant passage in the novel, Baby Suggs experiences this tentatively articulated ‘me’.
“And no matter, for the sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home. Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.
Could she sing? (was it nice to hear when she did?)Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?…
“When Mr. Garner agreed to the arrangements with Halle, and when Halle looked like it meant more to him that she go free than anything in the world, she let herself be taken ’cross the river. Of the two hard things—standing on her feet till she dropped or leaving her last and probably only living child—she chose the hard thing that made him happy, and never put to him the question she put to herself: What for? What does a sixty-odd-year-old slavewoman who walks like a three-legged dog need freedom for? And when she stepped foot on free ground she could not believe that Halle knew what she didn’t; that Halle, who had never drawn one free breath knew that there was nothing like it in the world. It scared her.
Something’s the matter. What’s the matter? What’s the matter? She asked herself. She didn’t know what she looked like and was not curious. But suddenly she saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, ‘These hands belong to me. These my hands.’ Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing? She felt like a fool and began to laugh out loud”(Beloved 140-141).
The reconstruction of identity—so crucial to the healing—not who anyone else tells you you are, not what the dirtying has made of you, not someone abandoned and forsaken by circumstances thrust upon you, but a human being with an intact self, an identity nurtured, cultivated and beloved by you.
At the end of the novel, after Beloved has been exorcised by the community of women who come and sing her back to the ancestral realm, Paul D returns to Sethe.
“He wants to put his story next to hers.
‘Sethe,’ he says, ‘me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’
He leans over and takes her hand. With the other he touches her face. ‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.
‘Me? Me?’”(Beloved 273).
“Sethe is now going to concentrate on taking care of herself,” Morrison acknowledges, “the beloved that is inside her, which is her. She is the beloved, not the child”(https://belovedcriticaledition.wordpress.com/background/).
Sethe is the beloved. Sethe becomes beloved to herself. This is the birth of her new identity and the beginning of the reconstruction of her life and lineage.
Toni Morrison is a Righteous and #NastyWomanWriter.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Featured image by Mia Szarvas 2020
Carabi, Angels. “Beloved Critical Edition.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women. Spring 1994. .https://belovedcriticaledition.wordpress.com/background/
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Plume, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations. (Vintage International, 2019.)
Patton, Venetria K. The Grasp That Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women’s Texts. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013.