Owning in the Midst of Being Owned in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Toni Morrison bases her famous novel, Beloved, on a famous event from Margaret Garner’s life during the 19th century. Prior to Morrison’s novel, the story of Garner’s infanticide was told by white voices. With that said, one of Morrison’s primary goals in writing Belovedis to give a voice back to Margaret Garner; the woman who owns the original story. Lack of ownership–in all aspects of one’s life–persists throughout 19th century slavery as well as in Morrison’s Beloved.Barbara Christian writes “Beloved, She’s Ours,” and contends that “to know what it means to be owned, and that such ownership is based on one’s flesh, one’s appearance…is the African American legacy” (Christian, 39). Belovedexemplifies that slavery is the thief of ownership for all, but more specifically, for African American mothers. In the novel,Morrison givesvoice to the voiceless slave mother by, ironically, amplifying what is takenfrom her under the institution of slavery. Though the text affirms that slave mothers lack ownership, Morrison reveals agency moms such as Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Sethe’s mom, maintain through the midst of being owned. Though slave mothers do not have any rights, Morrison shows how their maternal love drives them to own what is innately theirs. Another literary scholar, Michele Mock, closely discusses the mother and child breastfeeding relationship, where she analyzes how “Power comes with ownership” but, “to own is dangerous when you are enslaved” (Mock, 120). Morrison explores the tension of mothers taking ownership of what is theirs, such as their bodies and their children, while they are in the dangerous bondage of slavery.
Under the horrific conditions of slavery, the slave mother can’t control what is done with and to her body. Though Sethe’s mother is not the first mother we are introduced to in Beloved, she is chronologically (besides Baby Suggs) the first mom that breastfeeds, or rather is denied the right, to breastfeed her baby. A slave owner owns Sethe and her mother. Sethe recalls her mother working in the fields all day long, even “if the moon was bright they worked by it’s light” (Morrison, 72). Slavery commanded Sethe’s mom–and her body–to work in the fields. Also, her daughter, Sethe, legally belongs to someone else as a piece of property. Thus, Sethe’s mom was completely stripped of her and her body’s right to breastfeed her child (who is not “hers”). Sethe recalls, “She must have nursed me two or three weeks–that’s the way the others did” (Morrison, 72). Sethe’s mom nurses her baby for less than a month, which leaves Sethe’s body insufficiently fed and proving that “a slave cannot ‘own’…her milk” (Mock, 118). Although Sethe’s mom does not own her body and the milk that comes with it, Morrison wants readers to see how she is able to claim back ownership of her breasts and the purpose they are supposed to serve for Sethe. When Sethe is a baby, her mom “lifted her breast” to show her daughter “a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin. She said, “‘This is your ma’am. This,’ and she pointed. ‘I am the only one got this mark now.’” (Morrison, 72). As an owned piece of property, Sethe’s mom can’t feed her child with the milk made from her own body. Thus, she finds a way to not only reclaim a connection with her daughter, but to reclaim her body. The branded mark under her ribs is a painful reminder that she is not her own person. A slave owner has power over Sethe’s mom, and has marked her as his property. But Sethe’s mom transforms the branded symbol into something useful. She points to her body and tells Sethe, “you can know me by this mark” (Morrison, 72). She uses the scar to restore her owned body and to empower herself as a mother. Now the mark, rather than being a sign of pain and slavery, demonstrates how Sethe will remember her mother.
Like Sethe’s mom, Sethe’s body and breastmilk are owned under the institution of slavery. But again, Morrison restores the body and milk back to Sethe, the owner. One of the most brutal scenes in Belovedis when School Teacher’s nephews rape Sethe and suckle her breast milk. The nephews extremely violate Sethe’s body, but when she retells the incident to Paul D., the first words that come out of her mouth are: “Those boys came in here and took my milk” (Morrison, 19). Sethe experiences rape, but she “insists on drawing [Paul D.] back to the ultimate horror she experienced as a woman and mother in a violation worse than genital rape” (Mock, 122). As a woman and a mother, Sethe values her body for how it can provide for her children, she “insists on having, possessing the one last thing that a slave woman could own–her children who will taste her milk, and only her milk” (Christian, 42). Therefore, more horrifying than the physical rape is the act of taking her source of motherly provision. As a slave, breast milk is the one thing Sethe can physically own and nurture her kids with. Morrison reveals that Sethe is able to claim back her body and what it contains as she reaches the 124 house. Sethe’s babies escape Sweet Home ahead of their mother, and Sethe is alone and pregnant as she journeys to 124. Besides keeping her unborn baby safe, “All [Sethe] knew was [she] had to get [her] milk to [her] baby girl,” (Morrison, 19) and “She would get that milk to her baby girl if she had to swim” (Morrison, 97). Although the nephews’ actions inform Sethe that her body and milk are not her own, Sethe is determined to reclaim her body by physically bringing milk to her “crawling-already?” baby. Morrison, like with Sethe’s mom, exposes Sethe’s own restoration when she arrives at 124. Upon her arrival, “The crust from her nipples Baby softened with lard and then washed away. By dawn the silent baby woke up and took her mother’s milk” (Morrison, 109). Here, Sethe’s body is healed while simultaneously the “crawling-already?” baby receives milk. Although Sethe’s body is legally owned and her breast milk is taken from her, Morrison creates a path to ownership when ownership should not be possible.
As a slave mother, not being able to own your body is certainly painful, but arguably more agonizing is being stripped of the right to own your biological children. In Beloved, Baby Suggs knows this pain better than anyone. Before moving to the 124 house, Baby Suggs lived on Sweet Home with the only child, of seven, she was ever allowed to “keep,” Halle. Baby Suggs “barely glanced at [Halle] when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway” (Morrison, 163). Baby Suggs can’t legally own her child and she also can’t even claim a memory of what his features look like. Baby Suggs loses all but one child, thus remembering a son that she may inevitably lose is far too painful. “Memory seen only as the property of one individual cannot move towards healing” (Christian, 47) for Baby Suggs. She cannot physically or mentally own Halle. But yet again, Morrison crafts motherly redemption of ownership into her story. Though Baby Suggs is unable to claim her child, Halle demonstrates agency by setting his mom free. Halle does this by knowing the woman who feared to know him: “Her hip hurt every single day–but she never spoke of it. Only Halle, who had watched her movements closely for the last four years” (Morrison, 165) knew her pain. Upon Halle’s request, Mr. Garner accepts Halle’s labor in exchange for Baby Suggs’ freedom. She doesn’t understand leaving Sweet Home because she is old and broken, but it was what made Halle happy (Morrison, 167). Then, Baby Suggs steps on free land, and this is where Morrison reveals a unique reclaiming of one’s self and child. As she steps on the free ground Baby Suggs “cannot believe that Halle knew what she didn’t” (Morrison, 166). Although Baby Suggs could not legally claim her son, Halle was able to claim her by setting his mom free. This is complicated because Halle exchanges his slave work for her freedom, however, we still see a victorious ending for their relationship as Halle is happier if Baby Suggs leaves rather than stay a slave at Sweet Home. Halle is able to give her mother freedom, something Baby Suggs didn’t know she wanted. Thus, Baby Suggs realizes her sonknewwhat she did not. Though Baby Suggs does not legally own Halle, she is able to own his happiness. Furthermore, her son takes ownership of his life by doing what he can–work off his mother’s debt–in order to set her free.
Margaret Garner’s violent act and the central plot of Beloved is a moment that directly applies to the tension between lacking ownership and claiming ownership throughout the story. The “crawling-already?” baby’s murder is arguably the strongest example of an African American mother taking agency in Beloved.Though Sethe demonstrates agency that has–some might say–an unfortunate ending, we must analyze what brought Sethe to that point. Simply put, I contend that Sethe’s duty as a mother is to love and protect “all the parts of her that [are] precious and fine and beautiful” (Morrison, 192). Sethe is passionate about her children and loving them hard. She initially takes radical steps to claim her children by getting them out of Sweet Home, and finally they are all together again at 124. When the four horsemen come into Baby Suggs’ yard, Sethe’s mentality does not shift; her thinking is the same as the day she left Sweet Home. In reference to escaping Sweet Home, Sethe tells Paul D., “I did it…I got us all out…up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own” (Morrison, 190). Similarly, when explaining the “crawling-already?” baby’s death, Sethe says to him, “I stopped him…I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (Morrison, 193). Sethe’s parallel and passionate testimonies about each “escape” demonstrates the vast responsibility Sethe feels as a slave mother. Christian’s “Beloved, She’s Ours,” notes that the real baby Garner killed in 1856 was a mulatto girl, however, Morrison makes the “crawling-already?” baby fully African American. Morrison does this because she wants to ensure that she “eliminates another rationale that might have obscured the paradox she is exploring;” (Christian, 41) the paradox being taking ownership when Sethe, a slave, is already owned. In Beloved, Morrison disqualifies the assumption that Sethe’s act of murder was out of “resisting the role of perpetuating the system of slavery through breeding” (Christian, 42). Rather, since all her children, including the “crawling-already?” baby are fully black, we know that Sethe’s act of murder is an act of claiming back her babies and freeing them in her own way. She sees the choice as “simple” (Morrison, 192), because in her mind, what other option is there? Sethe got them out of Sweet Home, but now she is confronted by slavery once again. The murder was not a moment of defiance, because “More important than what Sethe had done was what she claimed” (Morrison, 193). Some may argue that Sethe’s actions were irrational, but you can’t argue that her decision was based on doing what was best, in her eyes, for her baby girl. Slavery owned her body, her milk, and her children. When the four horsemen came, Sethe was faced with the choice to own her child or return her to the ownership of a slave holder. She chose to claim her child that she loved so much, and through death, the baby was set free of unwanted ownership.
It is safe to say each slave mother in Beloved realizes that “to own is dangerous when you are enslaved” (Mock, 120). But, Morrison empowers the mothers in her story to face danger in order to take back what is rightfully theirs. Morrison’s goal in giving the slave mothers agency is not out of retaliation toward the white slave owners. Rather, Morrison was “not interested in writing a story about slavery…she wanted the “heart of the story to be in the minds of the slaves themselves,” –an exploration…most literature had denied them” (Christian, 37). By creating made up slave mother characters such as Sethe’s mother, Baby Suggs, and Sethe, Morrison demonstrates that she is interested in sharing the raw depth of the story, not just historical facts. Margaret Garner’s infanticide is just one of many slave stories that was told for her. Fortunately, Morrison puts the heart of the story in the minds of three slave mothers and shows how being owned does not stop a mother’s passionate will to own what is rightfully hers.
Christian, Barbara. “Beloved, She’s Ours.” Narrative,vol. 5, no. 1, 1997, pp. 36-49.
Mock, Michele. “Spitting Out the Seed: Ownership of Mother, Child, Breasts, Milk, and Voice in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” College Literature, 1996, pp. 117-126.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved.New York, Random House, Inc., 1987.