I presented this shortened version of a longer paper at the most recent Association of College English Teachers of Alabama (ACETA) conference held February 28-29, 2020 at the University of North Alabama.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child.”
– Sethe in Beloved
“We are together, my child and I. Mother and child, yes, but sisters really, against whatever denies us all that we are.”
– Alice Walker, “One Child of One’s Own” (1979), from In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)
“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”
– Baby Suggs in Beloved
Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, conjures the human need for communion under conditions of abject dehumanization, in this case, under American chattel slavery. Morrison’s work provides a way for us, as readers, to consider the lasting psychological trauma of slavery. More than mere survival, the narrative draws to our attention the sustaining of human ties, as threatened as these loving bonds amid hateful bondage may seem. As bell hooks discusses in her 2001 book, Salvation: Black People and Love, we find “little cultural space to talk psychoanalytically about post-traumatic stress and negative scars on the psyche,” those aftereffects which we see manifested as a result of the enduring legacies of chattel slavery and racial apartheid and their continuing impact, psychologically, upon Black people (97). In what ways, we might find ourselves asking, does love manifest itself, particularly for Black people, under the very “peculiar,” institutionalized, exceedingly cruel material conditions that actively suppress the feeling of pleasure itself?
On love, Erich Fromm emphasizes the social function of love not only between the self and the other, that dyadic relationship, but also between the self and the society. In Fromm’s 1956 book, The Art of Loving, he writes: “Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love” (43). “Whatever is going on outside my door ain’t for me. The world is in this room,” Sethe thinks to herself. “This here’s all there is and all there needs to be” (Morrison 215). Because she holds her daughter Beloved close, she feels that “the world is in this room,” with her discovering a sense that, in the moment of claiming motherhood for herself, she claims her freedom. Contrary to what may be assumed about Sethe, as if misinterpreted as selfish in her love, I find this passage moving, because her motherlove, the flame consuming her, demands its fulfillment; her drive to nurture aches to care for that child whom she lost. Sethe’s love burns brightly, as it does, because of her hunger for loving, after finding herself severed from Beloved for so long.
Memory fights against memorylessness in Morrison’s text, the remembrance of things past being at war with the simultaneous, pained desire not to know of those memories, jagged and sharp, stabbing in the brain and bleeding one’s heart. As we proceed through this analysis, I wish for us to consider what Morrison shares about her novel, Beloved, in her own words:
“History versus memory, and memory versus memorylessness. Rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past. And it was the struggle, the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting, that became the device of the narrative. The effort to both remember and not know became the structure of the text. Nobody in the book can bear too long to dwell on the past; nobody can avoid it.” (“Rememory” 324) (emphasis added)
To remember and not to know, Morrison writes. Like Morrison, hooks adds, speaking in a dialogue with Amalia Mesa-Bains, that memory allows for a knowing of oneself, a coming back to the site of the self. “When we lose sight of who we are, when we lose touch, when we lose our minds, we find ourselves through remembering, through talking cures, which are reenactments of remembering” (Homegrown 107-108). Reenactments of remembering, however, can be burdensome, when trauma remains stuck even to one’s more pleasurable memories, which, in recollection, result in pain. We see this burdening represented, particularly, in the character of Sethe, who, having committed what seems to be the unspeakable, feels at once a wish for (re)memory, while also a sense of forgetting what she does not wish to know. Because the reality of loss itself burdens her psyche, she finds herself defending against the memories which themselves threaten to pull her apart. What remains of the beloved is precisely that impression, left behind, which stays not only in the mind, but also lives somewhere outside, loose as the silk of the corn, where there is freedom from bondage.
Morrison’s novel explores not only the suffering and torture, the everyday social reality of being treated as property, as it occurred under American slavery, but also the struggle for love despite loss, this yearning for communion as a place beyond alienation. Loss, even the absence of the self, a feeling of somebody/something as nobody/nothing, factors into these configurations of desiring and longing, beyond that self which one feels also must be somehow not also oneself. One feels a coming apart. In the novel, we see how Morrison posits freedom as something that does not simply mean living unpossessed, not just surviving; it means, much more deeply, self-possession of that flesh which should be one’s own, that which should be together. “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” she writes (Morrison 111-112). Compelled to alienate herself from her children, told not to love too much, Sethe feels only a deeper compulsion to nurture and love them, both Denver and Beloved, which undermines the American slave system built upon killing the Black mother’s love for her own children.
Part of the complexity of Beloved is precisely the challenge Morrison’s novel poses to simplified understandings of what we think of love and protection; we might presume, wrongly, that a slave mother, much like Margaret Garner, killing her child must signify her craziness, that she does not also deeply love her child. But, in quite simplistically reading this woman’s individual act as crazy, we neglect giving necessary critical attention to the social circumstances under which she lives, such conditions that limit her choices, coercing her into doing an otherwise unthinkable act of violence in the name of love. “Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer” Morrison writes (155). And, indeed, we find motherhood in bondage a place where motherlove, the mother’s drive to make living livable for a child of her own, intervenes, by any means necessary. We forget, markedly, the meaning of this act as liberation in death that remains unachievable in life. Stamp Paid, a formerly enslaved Black man who helps slaves escape to freedom, provides a rebuttal to claims of Sethe’s craziness: “She ain’t crazy. She love those children. She was trying to out-hurt the hurter” (Morrison 276). Indeed, he himself, firsthand, knows the pain of this hurting as an act of love, for he did the same to his wife.
Sethe does out-hurt the hurter. In this mother out-hurting the hurter, she provides her child an escape, a way to go somewhere else, anywhere else, without finding oneself caught between the jaws of chattel slavery and struggling for life in living death. Morrison asks us to consider “the point of view of slave women,” a historically marginalized perspective, in relation to childbearing, “to claim them [the children] as one’s own; to be, in other words, not a breeder, but a parent”: “Suppose having children, being called a mother, was the supreme act of freedom—not its opposite?” (“On Beloved” 282). A mother who rejects the role of “breeder,” seeking to claim motherhood, Sethe sees her children as parts of her; she does not see them as detached from her being, dismembered, but rather a part of her entire being, that measure of her sense of self even beyond herself. A passage from the novel reads:
“She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.” (Morrison 192) (emphasis added)
This moment in the text describes, as we see, Sethe’s flight, with her children in hand, when she rushes to the shed, ready to kill them in order to save them. Indeed, she succeeds in killing Beloved, not entirely, of course, because, liberated, her baby lives within her and beyond her. She describes her children as “every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her,” these fragments of herself for which she feels “motherlove,” that forbidden love among loves for the slave mother.
Central to Morrison’s novel, we see Sethe’s refusal to disassociate herself from both her children, Denver and Beloved. I remember thinking of a moment in Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which she writes: “When I lay down beside my child, I felt how much easier it would be to see her die than to see her master beat her about, as I daily saw him beat other little ones” (71). A woman looks at her child, finding that it seems better for that child dead and in peace than alive and in pain. Jacobs describes how the lash crushes the spirit of the slave mothers, so much so “that they stood by, without courage to remonstrate,” that Jacobs herself feared being “broke in” like that (71). This scene from Jacob’s novel fits with a passage from Beloved: “What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children” (Morrison 28). One finds that the dehumanization coincides with the objectification, that children become mere pieces to be moved around at will, not seen as people, certainly not seen as babies with mothers.
Morrison’s representation of Sethe as a mother rebels against that broken spiritedness Jacobs writes about as she saw it possess other women; Sethe cannot refuse the desire to love and protect, even if her motherlove is a killer. In love, Sethe kills Beloved to protect her, although she finds herself feeling the presence of her loss with her, pressing down upon her mind. “To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay,” Morrison writes. “The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one” (51). Loss comes from the unspeakable, which marks Sethe’s unwillingness to utter it. It is, in this way, that I find the concept of melancholia helpful, used in a descriptive sense, as we consider Sethe’s psychological response to the social circumstances of slavery.
This reading of love, loss, and longing encompasses “stickiness,” as Sara Ahmed puts it in her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, a stickiness which we see in relation to how feelings exist “around” Beloved as the object toward which Sethe identifies her own sense of being. Morrison’s novel complicates any notion of interpreting Beloved as either this or that, either here or there, because the presence of an enslaved mother with her children remains constantly threatened by their potential absence from her arms. Paul D thinks to himself about the real danger of Sethe’s love for her children:
“For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a croaker sack, well, maybe you’d have a little love left over for the next one.” (54) (emphasis added)
Race, in its socio-political structuring under racism, produces the differences in how we perceive freedom from our differing standpoints. As such, Ahmed contrasts white feminist consciousness novels against Black feminist consciousness novels, writing that the former “tend to involve freedom-from-family and its narrow scripts of duty and obligation,” while the latter “may involve freedom-to-family, as family is what is lost through unfolding histories of displacement and dispossession” (86) (emphasis added). For the Black community, freedom to family becomes, as Morrison tells us, “the supreme act of freedom,” rather than a barrier to liberation. For Sethe, this emancipation from within the self takes the form of her self-naming as the mother of her children. Morrison’s novel, Beloved, fits into the paradigm of freedom-to-family, in that the central struggle, particularly that of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, appears to be their efforts to establish a family together.
Against the displacing and dispossessing mechanisms of chattel slavery, which still influence American racism as we know it today, we see characters in Morrison’s fiction resist by seeking each other, mother and child. They feel love together. They feel pain together. They feel pleasure together. They commune with one another, or at least they try desperately to meet their aim, all in rebellion to the imposed alienation that surrounds them and tries to strangle their spirits. Love matters, as that which exists as both personal and political. Indeed, as bell hooks tells us: “Loving blackness as political resistance transforms our ways of looking and being, and thus creates the conditions necessary for us to move against the forces of domination and death and reclaim black life” (Black Looks 20). More specifically, in the context of American society and culture, loving the flesh functions as self-possession in Morrison’s novel, because love between and among Black people itself becomes a revolutionary act against white-supremacist ideology.
What we see in Morrison’s Beloved exemplifies, as she writes herself, the threat that memory poses to forgetfulness, the knowledge of that which we wish not to know, because the pain feels so deep, the suffering so profound. Yet, also, we find revealed the value of communion, the way in which, for slaves, coming together functions in the narrative as rebellion against the pulling apart of the body, that is, the people who constitute its flesh, who make merriment and mourning together as one. Free, the flesh can be a text, not simply for pain, not just passively written upon, but rather for pleasure, an active seeking to belong, in the closest human bonds from body to body. “What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head,” Sethe says to Denver. “I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there” (Morrison 43) (emphasis added). Apparition or not, it does not matter; upon searching deeper, moving beyond the surface, we see the way in which motherlove, in Morrison’s novel, defiantly blooms forth under conditions that would otherwise kill it altogether.
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. 1956. Translated by Marion Hausner Pauck, HarperPerennial, 2006.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End Press, 1992.
— and Amalia Mesa-Bains. Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. South End Press, 2006.
—. Salvation: Black People and Love. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2001.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. Vintage Books, 2004.
—. “On Beloved.” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, pp. 280-284.
—. “Rememory.” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, pp. 322-325.