The Destruction of Motherhood in Beloved
Sunday is gloomy; the hours are slumberless. Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless. Little white flowers will never awaken you; not where the dark coach of sorrow has taken you. Darling, I hope that my dream hasn't haunted you. My heart is telling you how much I wanted you.
“Gloomy Sunday” –Bjork
Toni Morrison’s Beloved explores the many horrors of, as well as emotional and physical damage incurred by, slavery. One of the most poignant and potentially devastating effects is the effect it has on motherhood. Slavery, as illustrated by Morrison, destroyed mother-child relationships. Slavery turned children of slaves into property—property that was not the slaves,’ but the masters;’ mothers could not nurse or raise their own children: a provision to ensure they would not become attached to them; and the horrors of slavery caused emotional disconnects that led to mothers mentally neglecting their children. This was perhaps because mothers knew they would be losing their children sooner or later anyway.
Morrison explores the fact that slave mothers often were not allowed to raise or nurse their own children, and shows the damage it does to the mother-child relationships. She illustrates this with three episodes in the novel: (1) Sethe’s relationship with her own mother; (2) Baby Suggs’ relationships with her children; and (3) the milk stealing scene. Each of these experiences demonstrates the harmful effects of slavery on motherhood.
Sethe did not get the chance to know her mother, and only encountered her one time that she could recall; her mother pulled her aside to show her a branding under her breast, and told her that if anything happened to her, Sethe could recognize her by that mark (72). When her mother
is hanged, Sethe recognizes her branding. According to Lynda Koolish, of San Diego State University, Sethe was deeply affected, not only by her lack of a relationship with her mother, but also by her mother’s hanging.
Sethe’s mother labored in the fields and had no choice but to allow her daughter to be wet-nursed by Nan, the one-armed slave who functions as a surrogate mother for Sethe. Denied her mother’s succor when she was alive, Sethe lives with an even greater deprivation when her mother is hanged: not only the absolute loss of her mother’s continuing concern and love, but the terrible knowledge of her mother’s apparent deliberate choice to leave Sethe behind. [This assumption is made because her mother is hanged; this punishment is reserved for those who try to escape, to serve as a warning to other slaves.] (183)
Slavery had so destroyed Sethe’s mother that she chose to leave her only living child, presumably the only child she loved, to try to escape. Nan tells Sethe that she was with her mother on the ship from Africa, and they were both raped and impregnated several times by the crew. She explains, “’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” (Morrison 74). So it is clear that Sethe was loved by her mother, but her mother still tried to leave her behind.
Sethe would rather kill her children than subject them to the horrors of slavery once she had escaped with them. She shows this when she tells Paul D, “I couldn’t let her nor any of em live under schoolteacher. […] I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (192-3). Her mother,
however, perhaps knew that if she tried to escape with Sethe and had been captured, Sethe would have also been hanged. While Sethe tries to kill her children to save them, her mother killed her other babies in order to challenge her sexual and economic oppression, according to Michele A.L. Barzey of Black Theology in Britain: A Journal of Contextual Praxis (12). Sethe does not see that her mother did not want to put her life even more at risk by trying to escape with her. This forever shapes the way Sethe thinks of motherhood and slavery. The fact that Sethe does not know her mother or understand her motives affects her relationship with her own children in different ways: she hates that her mother could not nurse her, so she places extreme importance on nursing her own children; and she tries to be disconnected from her children for fear that she will lose all of them, as she lost her mother.
While Sethe’s emotional disconnect with her children comes after she has been able to “love em proper” (Morrison 190), Baby Suggs’ emotional disconnect with her children starts immediately. According to Barzey, she “refused to let herself love children who could be taken away from her” (14). Morrison clearly illustrates this when she explains why she had prepared herself for Halle’s death.
She had been prepared for that better than she had for his life. The last of her childen, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to 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 lose 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 the youngest one? (163-5)
Baby Suggs had lost all of her children in one way or another, and her emotional block was a method of self-preservation: if she did not know her children, she could not miss them when they were gone.
Moreover, the metaphorical reduction of slaves to livestock constructs the idea that they are property to be bought and sold; slave children are a form of self-sustaining crop to slave masters—theirs to be bought and sold, and not the mother’s to love and nurture. According to Koolish, “While pregnancy thus creates for many women the illusion of an undifferentiated and relatively unconflicted fusion between mother and child, slavery makes impossible both in pregnancy and its aftermath, the ideal experience of mothering” (182). Slavery, in its very essence, prohibits mothers from bonding with their children. This is because it is understood that they are property. Barzey explains that when a slave mother kills one of her children, the main charge against her is “loss of and/or damage to property” (12). Sethe clearly alludes to this when she says that “they [her children] wasn’t [sic] mine to love” (Morrison 190). In fact, slaves, as well as slave children, were considered the same as work-animals to their masters. This point is made explicitly clear when schoolteacher thinks that Sethe had “at least ten breeding years left. But now she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her and made her cut and run. Schoolteacher had chastised that nephew, telling him to think—just think—what would his own horse do if you beat it beyond the point of education” (176). Schoolteacher,
and slave masters like him, did not regard slaves as human, but instead believed that they were sub-human, with human-like and animal-like qualities. This justified the horrible treatment slaves were forced to endure.
Not only did the horrible treatment leave physical scars, but also very deep emotional scars. This is especially the case when Sethe’s milk is stolen. Since she was not only deprived of nursing from her mother for more than the first few weeks of life, but she was also nursed last by Nan and left hungry, Sethe understood the importance of breastfeeding for both mothers and children. She said, “Nan had to nurse whitebabies and me too because Ma’am was in the rice. The little whitebabies got it first and I got what was left. Or none. There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holler for it, and to have so little left” (236). This was likely the reason Sethe was so concerned about providing milk for her children. She knew how it felt to not have a mother to love and provide for her.
Her milk was all she had for her children, but she made sure they had enough. As she imagines telling Beloved, Sethe thinks, “[…] only me had your milk, and God do what He would, I was going to get it to you. You remember that, don’t you; that I did? That when I got here I had milk enough for all?” (233). She desperately wanted Beloved to understand that, even though she was violated, she still had enough milk for her baby. Barzey explains:
Sethe’s love for her children, her striving to nurture them, her desire to keep them safe is symbolized by her ability to breastfeed them. The schoolteacher and his sons had held her down and drank her breast milk. When she told Mrs. Garner what had happened, she was beaten. Yet when she spoke of the incident, she was more angry about the fact that
they had stolen the milk intended for her child than the whipping that had left her with a back so scarred she had no feeling in it. She had to get away from Sweet Home, not for herself, but so that she could feed her baby daughter whom she had entrusted to another runaway slave. (14)
Sethe was so appalled that they dare try to steal from her child, by stealing her milk, that it was a far worse atrocity to steal her milk than to open her back for telling on them. By stealing her milk, they had not only committed a crime against Sethe, but against her child, too. They had attempted to take away the only thing Sethe could provide for her children. But they could not steal the milk from her child, though they’d tried. Sethe says, “[Beloved] She my daughter. The one I managed to have milk for and to get it to her even after they stole it; after they handled me like I was the cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses” (Morrison 236-7). So, while the milk-stealing had scarred Sethe emotionally much worse than her completely scarred back, in her mind she still won since she still got the milk to her Beloved.
While slavery may have destroyed motherhood and mother-child relationships, it did not succeed in destroying the love between slave mothers and their children. Barzey concludes,
Sethe’s love was so strong that it overcame the indignity and humiliation of being milked, it carried her and her unborn child to freedom in spite of an open back and feet that were no more than pieces of meat. It carried her to a woodshed where, to save her children from the slavery that had destroyed Baby Suggs and all the men from Sweet home except Paul D, she took a handsaw and prepared to send her children to a safe place. (14)
Sethe had such love for her children that she couldn’t fathom them living the life she endured; death was much kinder than slavery. Slavery could never destroy maternal love, but it forced mothers to make decisions no mother should have to make: showing your child how to identify your lifeless body; forgetting all of their features to make their absence less painful; and ultimately killing them to spare them. Yes, motherhood was destroyed, but maternal love? Never.
Barzey, Michele A. L. “Thick Love: Motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Julian of
Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love.” Black Theology in Britain: A Journal of Contextual
Praxis. 2000. 5.9. 9-20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12-04-11.
Koolish, Lynda. “’To be Loved and Cry Shame’: A Psychological Reading of Toni Morrison’s
Beloved.” MELUS. 2001. 26.4. 169-195. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12-04-11.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. First Vintage International Edition. Random House, Inc. New York,
NY. 2004. Print.