Embarking on a Journey of Self-Possession. Women and Slavery in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Bachelorarbeit, 2012

38 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background
2.1 The Middle Passage and the Following Work Exploitation in the New World
2.2 Sexual Exploitation: Breeding and Rape

3. Dehumanization and Degradation through Sexual Abuse
3.2 Beloved’s Ambiguous Fate, and Ella and ‘the Lowest Yet’
3.3 Sethe’s Humiliation through Schoolteacher

4. Mothers and Daughters
4.1 Sethe’s Dysfunctional Relationship to Her Mother
4.2 Sethe’s Overly ‘Thick’ Love for Her Children

5. Women and the Community
5.1 Baby Suggs’s Disrupted Family and Her Importance for the Community
5.2 Sethe’s Role as Head of the Nuclear Family

6. Love and Sexuality
6.1 Slavery’s Notions of Love and Sexuality and the Male and Female Trauma
6.2 Paul D’s Significance for Sethe’s Recovery Process

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own (Jacobs 85).

Harriet Ann Jacobs, author of the above quote, was an African-American slave and abolitionist, who published her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861 - 16 years after Frederick Douglass’ highly successful, but male-centered autobiographical narrative - thereby providing one of the first accounts of female slaves’ struggle for freedom and self-determination and the physical and sexual abuse they had to endure during slavery. While slavery was an extremely painful and dehumanizing experience for all slaves, it was, as depicted by Jacobs, in many ways even more difficult for females. Their sexual vulnerability rendered them easy prey to the exploitation and abuse of power both by their white masters and fellow male slaves. However, until the 1980s, this relevant aspect of African-American history had been largely neglected by historians and writers alike, even those of African-American heritage themselves. As Bell Hooks argues in her feminist work Ain ’ t I a Woman, this might be due to the fact that “sexism [seemed] insignificant in the light of the harsher, more brutal reality of racism” as “[r]acist, sexist socialization had conditioned us to devalue femaleness and regard race as the only relevant label of identification” (1).

When Hooks notes that “[c]ontemporary black women could not join together to fight for women’s rights because [they] did not see ‘womanhood’ as an important aspect of [their] identity” (1), she points to the sad truth that sexism against black females has had a long tradition and, due to lacking awareness of the severity of the issue, continues to affect even present generations. Yet, with the emergence of authors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou, a new awareness has been created for the unique fate of black women in the pre- and post-Civil War period, and the impact that slavery had on their identity formation as well as their role in the African-American slave community. Toni Morrison, the first African-American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, was in fact among the first writers to draw attention to the double marginalization of African-American women. As she points out in her literary essay Playing in the Dark, Morrison was inspired to write about the situation of black women during slavery and its immediate aftermath by her own reflections on “how free [she could] be as an African-American woman writer in [her] genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world” (4). As she has consequently dealt with the impact of sexism and racism on African-American women throughout American history, the issues she touches in her works continue to be relevant for African-American women’s struggle for social equality today.

Morrison’s novel Beloved for instance, published in 1987, is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave, who upon being chased down by her former master decided to take her own as well as her children’s lives to spare them all a life in slavery. After having killed one of her daughters, she was, however, stopped by bystanders and eventually brought to trial, not for murder, but for theft of her master’s property. Beloved itself primarily explores the traumatic circumstances that led to the event, as well as the protagonists’ painful process of psychological recovery, which is long hindered by the haunting presence of Sethe’s dead daughter Beloved. The novel is primarily told from the perspective of Sethe, the mother and character based on Garner, and her surviving daughter Denver. This highly personal account of female slave experience allows us to examine the influence slavery had on African-American women and their families, and its impact on their relations to the black community.

For both during slavery and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, women were of vital importance for the reconstruction of families and as such for the African- American community as a whole. While many families were falling apart as a result of death and separation caused by the deplorable conditions on slave plantations, women had the power to pass on their memories and knowledge about their cultural heritage to their daughters and granddaughters and thus tried to provide a limited feeling of belonging and safety in the boundaries of their homes and within the community. Nevertheless, their means were limited, for under the impact of slavery, many of them suffered from rape, dehumanization and objectification, being doubly marginalized as both slaves and women. Treated as commodities rather than human beings and deprived of the right to own and love others as well as themselves, most of them struggled, once free, to start a new life and create a sense of subjectivity. Female solidarity, however, to some extent managed to turn this former powerlessness into a new source of strength and potential for self-development. Against this background, I would like to discuss the confining as well as enabling factors slavery brought for black women in establishing a sense of identity and subjectivity after the abolition of slavery as exemplified in Beloved. For this purpose I will first explore the historical background of the novel and then go on analyze Morrison’s work by examining the sexual exploitation and objectification of slave women at the hands of the white dominant culture, as well as the significance of mother-daughter relationships for preserving a sense of wholeness and identity, the role of women in the African-American community, and the significance of love and sexuality in establishing a new sense of self in their newly acquired freedom.

2. Historical Background

2.1 The Middle Passage and the Following Work Exploitation in the New World

In order to fully understand the situation and motivation of Morrison’s protagonists, it is vital to place their personal life stories into a larger historical context and consider the beginnings of the physical abuse as well as sexual and work-related exploitation that would usher in their degradation to ‘subhuman’ beings at the hands of the white dominant culture. Therefore, I would first like to outline the historical background of the novel as described in detail by Bell Hooks in her account of black women’s struggle for equality, Ain ’ t I a Woman.

To begin with, it is important to note that the process that would transform free human beings into slaves by destroying their dignity (cf. Hooks 19) did not only start after the African slaves’ landing in the New World. It had already begun back in Africa, and even then the situation of females differed dramatically from that of men. Women were commonly sold into bondage by their own mostly male, tribe members or chased down, kidnapped and raped by white slavers. Once on their journey to the Americas, however, the suffering even got worse. The so-called Middle Passage was one of the most traumatizing experiences for all slaves and proved to have a tremendous effect on the collective psyche of Africans for generations to come: this was where the dispersal of families began, as well as the dehumanization through cruel punishment and torture designed to strip the prospective slaves off their dignity and break their wills. They were usually considered cargo, not human beings and, treated accordingly, presumably millions of Africans died on the Middle Passage as a result; most of those who entered the New World were close to death and severely traumatized. Black women were subject to even more brutalization, for, unlike their male counterparts, they were not considered a potential threat for rebellions or mutinies on board. While the white ship crew was afraid of male slaves and chained them up for this reason, black women were usually allowed to move around freely on board. Rather than a sign of sympathy this was clearly a case of slavers exercising absolute power over women without fear of retaliation. Women represented an easy target for abuse, and they were repeatedly exploited and tormented, branded with hot irons, lashed, and even beaten for crying, with rape being a widely used method of torture. Many African women arrived in the New World pregnant with a child, many others miscarried or died on the journey, due to the harsh treatment and malnourishment they experienced during their pregnancy; some were even ordered by slavers to throw their children overboard. Morrison for instance deals with these experiences through the characters of Sethe’s mother, a first generation slave, who was shipped over from Africa and repeatedly raped impregnated by white slavers, and Beloved, who in a dream-like episode re-experiences the abuse and torture which thousands of female slaves had to go through on their journey to America.

Upon arrival in the New World, too, females generally took the brunt of terrorization for several reasons. Those female slaves who labored in the fields did not receive more lenient treatment than males; they had to work just as hard as them, had to plow, plant, and harvest. Yet, this ‘social equality’ did not go beyond the area of work: they could, for instance, not rise to overseer or driver, forever remaining subordinates of men. Moreover, by performing work that was not considered respectable or appropriate for women by the dominant culture - not even white indentured slaves had to carry out such work except as a punishment - black women often felt degraded as members of the female sex. Particularly on plantations, they were not considered women by white masters, but rather ‘surrogate men’ and were therefore expected to assume traditional masculine roles. Many African-American women suffered from this devaluation of their womanhood, which left many craving for more femininity and a more positive self- concept.

Furthermore, a considerable percentage of female slaves worked intimately with white families in the boundaries of their homes instead of in the fields, mostly as cooks, housekeepers or nannies. It is true that in many cases this meant less physical hardship than working in the fields. However, white slave owners, who were naturally afraid of rebellious slaves poisoning the family or setting the house on fire, felt the need to ‘tame’ their house slaves so they would submit passively to their masters’ wishes. As a consequence, house slaves had to endure constant surveillance by their masters, were often severely punished for minor ‘offences’, and beaten just as harshly as male slaves, even while pregnant. Moreover, living and working under the same roof with their masters rendered them easy prey to sexual exploitation.

2.2 Sexual Exploitation: Breeding and Rape

As cruel and demoralizing as the work exploitation was, it was not even remotely as dehumanizing as the sexual exploitation that was usually limited to black females. Sexual assaults usually happened between the ages of 13 and 16, at a time when most female slaves knew hardly anything about their bodies. They were often forced to sleep in the same bedroom as their masters and mistresses, which provided ample opportunity for sexual assaults. Sometimes masters even tried to bribe their female slaves in order to place them in the role of a prostitute, thereby relieving their own conscience. Parents did little to prepare their daughters for sexual overtures and the possibility of rape by masters and fellow slaves. Slave girls often had to live with the constant awareness of their sexual vulnerability and a fear of being singled out and victimized, not only by whites, but also by black overseers and drivers. Those who did not willingly respond to sexual overtures, therefore presenting a challenge to the patriarchal system, were brutally punished. Those who did respond as wished often received presents or were promised freedom, and were thus rewarded for accepting the existing social order.

In effect, many young Southerners had their first sexual experience with slave girls, a fact later often downplayed by white historians as expression of normal sexual desires. As a justification for their actions white men tended to spread the myth of ‘Negro sensuality’. Coinciding with an idealization of white women as pure and virtuous, black women were degraded to evil temptresses and sexual savages and the responsibility for adultery thus placed upon the victims rather than their tormentors (cf. Hooks 33). Moreover, seeing black women as beasts rather than human beings relieved white males from feelings of guilt for their actions as, to their mind, “an animal cannot be raped” (Hooks 52). White patriarchy thereby socially legitimized the sexual exploitation of black females. As historian Eugene Genovese bluntly put it: “Rape meant, by definition, rape of white women, for no such crime as rape of a black woman existed at law. Even when a black man sexually attacked a black woman, he could only be punished by his master” (qtd. in Hooks 35).

In addition to rape, the use of slave women as ‘breeding mares’ was widespread and common practice. Sometimes female slaves even received monetary rewards for childbearing. Pregnancies were, however, difficult, as women were continually undernourished and overworked and those conditions hardly allowed for easy childbirth. As a result, miscarriages and death in childbirth were not uncommon. Fertile slave women were of considerable worth in the slave market and put under immense pressure to reproduce. They had absolutely no right to their own body and those women who refused to choose a man had one forced upon them by overseers or masters, as the example of Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, shows, who was forced by her masters to ‘couple’ with strange men.

The sexual abuse of African-American female slaves was not just a matter of satisfying white man’s sexual lust; rather, it was indeed “a random system of sorts forcing her to pay with her body for food, diminished severity in treatment, the safety of her children etc.” (Davis 96) and its debasing and dehumanizing nature made it a common and effective method of terror, with the aim of obtaining total allegiance and obedience from their slaves. Institutionalized rape served as a means of the devaluation of black womanhood, and the humiliation black women had to endure stripped many of their dignity and self-worth. This was driven by white man’s “obsessive desire to assert his power […] by constantly threatening rape” (Hooks 25). This degrading self-concept as well as the bad reputation imposed upon them during this time has permeated the psyches of Americans and shaped the social status of all black women to this day. When slavery ended, particularly during the Black Reconstruction from 1867 to 1877, the setting for Morrison’s novel, former slaves welcomed their newly acquired freedom to express their sexuality and freely choose their partners. However, black women were still subject to physical abuse and degradation, and having to come to terms with their traumatic pasts, they struggled to change the negative images of black womanhood perpetuated by whites, as will be explored in the next chapters.

3. Dehumanization and Degradation through Sexual Abuse

Morrison’s Beloved is loosely based on the true case of the runaway slave Margaret Garner, and recounts the life stories of several female slaves and their descendants. Even the lives of those who were not born in slavery are still overshadowed by its aftermaths. Against this background, Beloved can be regarded as a tale of a “journey from psychological mutilation to psychological wholeness” (Mitchell 104), depicting the special situation of women, the additional hardship they had to undergo compared to men, the objectification and sexual exploitation, and the severe impact those had on their self-image and sense of self. For “as long as issues of race and gender are approached within a conceptual framework that automatically defines white men as central and black women as marginal, a black and female person cannot be unambiguously occupy the position of subject, she will always already be reduced to an objectified ‘other’” (Sievers 129). This sexual repression affected the psyche of black women and consequently shaped their relationship to the African-American community as a whole. I would like to examine how this is mirrored in Morrison’s novel by focusing on the sexual exploitation of Beloved, Ella and Sethe, and their three distinctive traumas.

3.2 Beloved’s Ambiguous Fate, and Ella and ‘the Lowest Yet’

Rape and sexual exploitation of female slaves during slavery were not isolated incidents, but a widely spread phenomenon. In Beloved, consequently, many of the protagonists have suffered from abuse and have to find a way of dealing with their experience on their journey towards freedom and subjectivity. When dealing with the sexual exploitation of black females in Morrison’s Beloved, there are several reasons why it seems wise to start with the character of Beloved herself. The origins and the meaning of the girl who might or might not be the representation of Sethe’s murdered baby girl are indeed not easy to determine. There are different interpretations as to who or what Beloved actually represents, whether she is just a ‘negro girl’ showing up on Sethe’s doorstep or a ghost - and if so, whose. Yet, it cannot be denied that, in any case, her significance goes far beyond the story of an individual tragedy. Apart from the most commonly held opinion that she is the physical representation of the ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter, I will therefore briefly touch two more possible interpretations of her character which might be of importance for the larger context of black women’s exploitation.

Beloved’s dream-like ‘rememories’ which are presented in a stream-of- consciousness-like manner at several points in the book, in their highly confusing and dark nature, are generally thought to be more than meaningless nightmares, signs of her insanity or the result of a traumatic shock. In fact, they open up interpretations of her character that go beyond those of an individual person’s tragic case. In these dreams, she seems to realistically ‘remember’ the degrading circumstances of the Middle Passage, the ship journey that all slaves had to undergo that were brought over from Africa to the New World: the lack of space, privacy, and personal hygiene, the darkness and constant fear as well as the sexual abuse by “men without skin [white men]”, who called “her beloved in the night and bitch during the day”. She is therefore, at a larger scale, often thought to represent the ghosts of all those slaves who were, like Sethe’s own mother, raped and tortured during these early stages of the slave trade, and died on the ships to the New World or shortly afterwards as a consequence of the cruel treatment on board. This interpretation, with the belief in ghosts being an integral part of many African cultures, has been encouraged by Morrison herself. Against this backdrop, Beloved’s presence would thus be a constant reminder of the destiny of thousands of women whose bodies were exploited and who were humiliated and brutalized by white slavers. As such, this case of ‘transgenerational haunting’ (cf. Nicolas Abrahams) keeps alive the horrors of those first generation slaves and reminds the reader that even though these events might have happened a long time ago - hundreds of years even - they continue to be part of the lives of their descendants and their negative impact on the following, even today’s, generations is still palpable.

Another interpretation of the sudden emergence of the mysterious girl on the threshold of Bluestone 124 constitutes a more realistic approach to the subject than one that requires the belief in ghosts and spirits. Beloved’s hands and feet, all new and soft, look as if she had never done any physical work in her life or even been outdoors, and throughout her entire stay at Sethe’s house, she appears socially awkward and utterly traumatized. For instance, she refuses to speak and when she finally does, she speaks like a child, hardly able to formulate full sentences or to express more complex thoughts than her basic needs. The fact that she does not know how to behave age-appropriately, as well as her excessive hunger for Sethe’s love make it appear as if she had spent her life secluded from other human beings, without the company of family or friends and a chance of socialization. It therefore seems to make sense that Beloved, in fact, is rumored by the Cincinnati community to be a runaway girl who escaped from a life of imprisonment at the hands of a white man. A life spent in the company of a man who took advantage of her, would explain the peculiarities of her behavior. After all, a case like this occurred only shortly before she was found: a man, who had kept a black girl locked up “since she was a pup” (Morrison 277) and sexually abused her, was found dead in his house and the girl gone. What also supports this theory is that she does not know how to deal with Paul D’s presence, the only man in the house. Often jealous of him and sometimes even hostile towards him, she ends up seducing Paul D, which might be a logical consequence of her experience as this is the only way she knows how to behave towards males. Although particular theory may play a minor role in the secondary literature on the novel and the clues presented could also be interpreted in favor of Beloved being the physical manifestation of a ghost, it does not necessarily contradict other interpretations. As black history is full of individual tragedies, Beloved’s case being so open to interpretation might reflect this appropriately. The ambiguity of her existence emphasizes the fact that such a fate was not uncommon at the time and sexual abuse of black women, and women in general, took place on a large scale.

Ella, for instance, member of the Cincinnati community and a friend of Baby Suggs’, is another example. She was the victim of two whites, father and son, who locked her up in a cabin when she was only a teenager: “[h]er puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called ‘the lowest yet.’ It was ‘the lowest yet’ who gave her a disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities. A killing, a kidnap, a rape - whatever […]. Nothing compared to ‘the lowest yet’” (Morrison 301). They abused and humiliated her over and over again, kept her locked up like an animal or a plaything, with no regard for her feelings or human dignity. She was only used for their pleasure, as black women often were, and she had not right to her own body. Seen as an object, a tool for satisfying their sexual lust, she was sexually and physically abused: “Ella had been beaten every way but down. She remembered the bottom teeth she had lost to the brake and the scars from the belt were thick as rope around her waist” (305). Furthermore, she became pregnant and had to give birth to a child fathered by her tormentors.

The physical and psychological torture she had to undergo all those years, she regards as worse than death. Even though she seems aware of the fact that it is the whites who have a “jungle” inside, are uncivilized and beast-like in their ruthlessness and emotional coldness, she cannot seem to shake off their perception of her as a subhuman creature without a right to feelings or love. The cruel and inhumane treatment took away her dignity and her sense of self-worth, and distorted her way of seeing herself, which substantially shapes her relationships to other people even after her escape. ‘The lowest yet’ shattered her belief in other human beings as she has seen the abysmal depths of human nature and knows now what atrocities people in general are capable of.


Ende der Leseprobe aus 38 Seiten


Embarking on a Journey of Self-Possession. Women and Slavery in Toni Morrison's "Beloved"
Universität Mannheim  (Anglistisches Seminar)
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embarking, journey, self-possession, women, slavery, toni, morrison, beloved
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Linda Schädler (Autor:in), 2012, Embarking on a Journey of Self-Possession. Women and Slavery in Toni Morrison's "Beloved", München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/274936


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