How much love is bearable? Motherhood in slavery

Essay, 2005

9 Pages, Grade: 1,0


“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.” (119)

It is a most horrible scene: A mother killing her own flesh and blood, out of deepest mother-love. Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved takes this gruesome deed as an approach to illuminate the tortuous and intricate slave mother/child relationship, a bond that in many respects reflects the atrocious nature of slavery. For this reason, my essay aims at elucidating the significance and extensive meaning of maternity in Morrison’s extraordinary slave narrative.[1]

The whole story of Beloved is branded by slave mothers’ loss of and separation from their children. Apart from the main character’s, namely Sethe’s, relation to her children, several (subsidiary) mother/child connections are focused on: Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother in law, had eight children, “[f]our taken, four chased” (5), and she almost did not look at the last one as “it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway” (139). Correspondingly, the protagonist’s own biological mother, who was executed by hanging when Sethe was an infant, was not even permitted to nurse her baby. And also Sethe herself soon must experience the supremacy of whites: When she is robbed of her milk by Schoolteacher’s nephews, she learns how the slave holder’s system degrades black women to some kind of breeding object. Indeed, it soon becomes manifest that slave mothers are not supposed to build up any emotional bonds wth their offspring, but they are rather equalized with manufacturing animals.[2] Jan Furman points out that

Sethe, like her mother, Baby Suggs, and all slave women, can never be wife and mother. She is biologically female, and she is a breeder, but she is exempt from all ideological considerations as woman. She is no more than a cow or goat subject to “milking” like any other beast.[3]

In this manner, the mother/child relationship emphasizes the equivalent status of slave and animal. What is more, Sethe has to face the complete destruction of the illusion that her children are hers and she can protect them from all harm when Mr Garner dies and cruel Schoolteacher takes the reins. She must realize a most abominable circumstance of slavery: Her children are not more than white’s property[4] to be bought and sold, beaten and raped.[5]

The denial of mother/child bonds is closely connected with the overall lack of identity most enslaved blacks were confronted with. Morrison herself explains in this context:

If you come from Africa, your name is gone. It is particularly problematic because it is not just your name but your family, your tribe. When you die, how can you connect with your ancestors if you have lost your name? That’s a huge psychological scar.[6]

Hence, for example, Baby Suggs lacks a personal self because she “has no frame of reference by which to establish one, no family, no children, no context.”[7] Also Beloved misses a real identity – all she can take descent from is the single word on her tombstone, for which Sethe had to pay with a piece of her own identity, namely with selling sexual services to the stonemason. Denver and Sethe herself, on the other hand, are two of the few characters of the novel who were given names – and, subsequently, individuality – by their own mothers. Their names are not only a symbol of relational identity, but also of an awareness of heritage and tradition.[8] Yet, naming a child, of course, is only a drop in the ocean – still being a slave woman and being a mother stay rather incompatible positions.

Despite all the imposed restrictions by slavery and the near impossibility of that role, Sethe sees herself as a mother. For her, mothering is the most essential thing, the core of her identity.[9] In view of that, Morrison portrays her main character as a person who loves something outside herself (her children) so much that she locates all the value of her existence in it.[10] Why? It is, first of all, needful to have a look at Sethe’s (meagre) relationship to her own mother. Although she hardly knew the woman who had given birth to her,[11] and although she has never experienced the comfort of being nursed, her natural origins still bother Sethe. This assumption is, for instance, substantiated when Sethe explains that her intention to kill her babies was “to take us all to the other side where my own ma’am is” (203). Some kind of singularity inhere in Sethe due to the fact that she has been the only child of her mother’s that was not the product of rape by sailors, and that, therefore, was not thrown away by the desperate woman.[12] Yet, the grown-up woman’s memory of her mother is full of shame and anger – conceivably, because she cannot forgive her that she chose the abandoning ‘solution’ to run away, and, consequently, was hung.[13]


[1] All quotations followed a page number in brackets are taken from the primary source.

[2] Cf. Peach, p. 104.

[3] Furman, p. 74.

[4] The matter of possession will be considered in detail later on.

[5] Similar thoughts can be found in Furman’s study about Beloved. (Cf. Furman, p. 70f.)

[6] Morrison in an interview with Thomas Le Clair, cited in Hill Rigney, p. 40.

[7] Hill Rigney, p. 39. (To underline this hypothesis, Hill Rigney quotes the following excerpt: “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.” (140))

[8] Cf. also Hill Rigney, p. 41.

[9] This theory is supported by Susan Bowers. Cf. Bowers, p. 216.

[10] Cf. Naylor and Morrison, p. 584.

[11] Sethe’s mother even felt obliged to show her daughter a burning mark under her rib, so that the little girl should be able to know her. The sign, reminiscent of animal husbandry rather than in connection with human beings, replaces the usual identification by face and, hence, takes away the slaves last piece of individuality.

[12] Cf. Morrison, p. 63.

[13] For more details on this aspect cf. Matus, p. 110.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


How much love is bearable? Motherhood in slavery
University of Siegen  (FB 3: Literatur-, Sprach- und Medienwissenschaften)
Slave Narratives
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ISBN (eBook)
File size
446 KB
Motherhood, Slave, Narratives
Quote paper
Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2005, How much love is bearable? Motherhood in slavery, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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