The Unspoken Spoken

Toni Morrison’s Beloved analyzed in the context of the African American experience of slavery, and slave narratives.

by Marie C. E. Burns
The race of the intended readership is immaterial. One does not have to be black to realise that slavery was a holocaust, or to empathise with the suffering of the generations who were worn down, physically and mentally, but who had the forbearance to survive against such adversity. Reaction to the catalogue of injustice and abuse perpetrated upon the members of the black race, as depicted here, can be nothing but revulsion and horror. And reaction to their fortitude could be nothing but respect.  


The discrimination that continues to be the African American experience has brought forth in Toni Morrison one of the most significant voices of her race and age. She contends that the American history of slavery had been consciously “disremembered” [1] so that it is conveniently shrouded by a comfortable state of national amnesia. This is consistent with the view that the literary canon had not reflected African American scholarly achievement or artistic ability. As a consequence, her people had been part of American life, participating in, and contributing to, American culture, but, through enforced circumstances, as silent witnesses, this evidenced by her observation, “we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse, even when we were its topic”. [2]

Although the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ‘70s had initiated an interest in African American studies and was accompanied by an upsurge in black writing, black female historians and creative writers remained outside the parameters of the canon. Morrison was partly instrumental in forging a way for herself and her contemporaries into the public arena. Even there, she recognises that history does not document the individual private lives that together form the experience of a community:

Individual players are unimportant except as they contribute to the final already determined conclusion. Individual lives outside of such a grand narrative, however, are much more chaotic, contradictory and unpredictable. [3]

As a novelist who has set her fiction in key periods of black U.S. history, Morrison has dedicated her literary career to ensuring that black experience under, and as a result of, slavery would be neither left to interpretation solely at the dictates of whites, nor to an academic history that by its nature, records only the hard impersonal facts. She has succeeded in this by placing the characters of her novels in the positions American society had designed for African Americans and revealing their lives as they endured, coped with or reacted to, the effects of the racism that had its birth in the institution of slavery.

In this dissertation, I intend to show that, in her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison makes the reader become aware of the physical and psychological damage done to the African American people by the brutal inhumanity that constituted American slavery. To accomplish this, there will be three chapters. In the first, using primary sources of the period and contemporary secondary texts, I will provide a backdrop to slavery from its inception until the aftermath of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. In it, I will demonstrate how blacks were perceived, used and treated by the American population.

The second chapter will feature the slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. [4] I will assess her account of her experience as a young woman and mother under slavery and show that it is heavily influenced by other considerations. There will also be references to how writers of the time approached the slavery question.

The third chapter will be devoted to the novel Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Here I will show that the novel has the capacity to personalise history, and to convey an understanding of the way slavery abused the state of motherhood.

Chapter One. Background to Slavery

The African American experience began when colonists bought twenty “Negars” from a “Dutch Man of Warre” that landed its human cargo in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. [5] From then on, “the planters bought slaves as rapidly as traders made them available”. [6] The diversity in occupations they filled, different geographical locations, views of individual slaveholders and other such factors provided, also, diversity in the terms of employment and conditions under which the blacks had to live. Some were bought to serve for life, others were indentured for a number of years. After some time, still others were bought by blacks who had gained their freedom and were now in a financial position to acquire slaves of their own.

Formal institutions had not been established and, as a consequence, a black population was growing wherein the status of blacks was fluid. Some of those enslaved were able to buy their freedom if they could amass the figure that the owner thought they were worth. This fluidity was eventually to see the formation of a black elite of wealthy land and property owners and educated professional classes. In the meantime, however, white prejudice saw the introduction of racial laws that would regulate terms of servitude. In 1664, officials of Maryland decreed:

that all Negroes or other Slaves already within the province and all Negroes and other Slaves to bee hereafter imported into the Province Shall serve Durante Vita And all children born of any Negro or other Slave shall be Slaves as their fathers were for the terme of their lives. [7]

Aware of having brought, and of bringing, among themselves, a body of people who had every reason to be rebellious, Virginia, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, adopted laws condemning “Negroes” to be punished more severely than others for similar offences, they “being a brutish sort of People and reckoned as goods and chattels”. [8] With the increasing slave numbers, the laws became more severe against the blacks, while they “specifically exonerated the master who accidentally beat his slave to death”. [9] Virginians could repress the black slaves by denying them any opportunities or rights and subjecting them to any punishments, without fear of the law.

Furthermore, in a land where man had the need and right to bear arms for his own protection, this the black was denied. As an explicit denotation of intent to keep the black in his place, in 1681, Virginia had prohibited all interracial liaisons, their fruits being described as “that abominable mixture and spurious issue”. [10]

Over the years, a tolerance of this “issue” seems to have been instrumental in changing the outlook, since, in the early 1700s, colonial legislators decided to redefine offspring of blacks by the status of their mothers rather than their fathers. While curtailing any licentious behaviour by white women with blacks, this allowed white men free access to black women, a liberty they availed themselves of with impunity.

An idea that blacks were “submissive and promiscuous” [11] originated with the first Englishmen who went to Africa to buy slaves. They misrepresented black practice according to tribal cultural traditions and tropical climate, as lewdness. That black women often worked bent over, with the hems of their skirts tucked into the waistband, because circumstances of their labour under slavery in America decreed, further fostered the promiscuous image assigned to them.

Their adjusted state of dress and enforced posture contrasted sharply with the modesty that the white men expected from “respectable” white women, who, according to puritanical norms, adorned themselves with layers of clothing that prevented the legs from being exposed to public view. [12] “The slave woman’s body . . . commanded no such respect.” [13] It was examined intimately on the auction block and was an ever-present target for the hypocritical master who succeeded in celebrating and emphasising white woman’s purity while sexually abusing and dehumanising his black slave girl, presenting her “with the prospect of unwanted children” [14] and nurturing the lascivious characterization that members of her race had to bear.

Survivors - and there were thousands who did not survive the brutality of capture and transportation - of the Middle Passage were sold to the highest bidder, stripped of their African names and dispatched all over the inhabited American states where, in rural and urban areas, they filled every skilled and unskilled labouring position it took to build the nation, and, in doing so, ensure the prosperity and comfort of the white colonists. Their experience of agricultural methods was of paramount importance to northern planters who knew nothing of growing the particular crops that could flourish only in this climate.

Among much else, African knowledge saw the introduction of medicines, unknown until then in the New World, and necessary for survival from tropical maladies. Skills in all branches of trades were needed and utilized, dangerous mining occupations were filled and the black’s former life experience in Africa guaranteed that navigation and boating, so crucial in the swamps and waterways of the new country, were competently handled. [15]

Ubiquitous black presence on the domestic scene allowed whites to have a life of gentility. Aaron, in his slave narrative of 1845, reports how, from childhood, whites were “reared up in complete idleness”. [16] Young men went on to spend their time at “gambling and cockfighting”. [17] He relates how three female slaves, after toiling all day “had to take night about to sit up all night and fan their master and mistress to keep them cool”. [18]

Labouring from dawn to dusk, unless there was a full moon when they were kept at it longer, [19] slaves were overworked and underfed, and were punished with severe physical brutality for even the most minor misdemeanour under the harsh regime of owners or overseers. Lashings and whippings were commonplace. “The diary of William Byrd, a cultivated Virginian gentleman, and the colony’s most learned judge, shows him lashing one or more of his servants every few weeks.” [20]

Herbert Aptheker, quotes from the same memoir, “I had a severe quarrel with little Jenny, and beat her too much, for which I was sorry”, [21] but “nine days later he was at it again”. [22] For those who ran away rather than accept whippings, “punishments…included hangings, castration and other forms of mutilation, including the poring of hot molten fat or pitch on a captive’s naked body”. [23] Running away was so widespread that, in 1793, a Fugitive Slave Law that allowed slaveholders to attempt to recover their property was introduced to minimise the practice. [24]

Blacks were dispensable, many owners believing it was cheaper to import new workers than take care of the health and safety of those they had. Resources had been in danger of drying up when importing slaves became unlawful in 1808, although William Wells Brown attests to the fact that men occupying high positions in society and holding high offices of honour in the councils of the nation, continued to make their fortunes in the trafficking of slaves. [25]

A rising cost of the “merchandise” through supply and demand, may have occasioned the slave owner to take slightly better care of his “property” because, from 1.2 million at that time, a healthier population became self-producing until, over the next fifty years, it tripled to almost 4 million and rather than being an African workforce, was now African American. [26]

The growing demand for black labour implanted a breeding mentality where blacks, particularly females, were further exploited and valued for their procreative potential, the slave owner wishing “to turn every young black woman into a brood mare”. [27] A thriving internal, domestic trade in black human stock spread widely. [28] These buying and selling enterprises did not depend on the labour of the slave, merely on their value as merchandise. Children were often sold by the pound weight. [29]

Children were to hold great significance in slavery and the slave debate. In practice, they were a powerful tool in regulating parents’, particularly mothers’, behaviour. Although some mothers ran off and suffered the trauma of leaving their children in slavery, most refused to abscond without them. Youngsters made it almost impossible for them to escape safely. William Still, the Chairman of the Vigilante Committee of the Philadelphia Underground Railway believed “females undertook three times the risk of failure that males” [30] faced. White masters used all psychological and physical means to force slaves into obedience and, in the case of black females, this had the added dimension of sexual submission. For whichever purpose, threats to the welfare of the child lessened resistance.

Deborah Gray White argues forcibly that, in the slave community, women “in their role as mothers are the focus of familial relationships”, [31] and that the most important element of this matrifocality “is the supremacy of the mother-child bond over all other relationships”. [32] While this is not in any way minimizing the pain fathers suffered on account of their families, it is stressing the particular hold that slaveholders had over mothers whose bond with her children was “more sacred than the husband-wife bond”. [33] Whipping children was common. Leslie Howard Owens quotes an instance, “Many a day my ole mama has stood by an’ watched massa beat her children ‘till dey bled an’ she couldn’t open her mouf”. [34]

The threat of having her son or daughter sold at auction or having them taken from her was ever present for a mother. The practice of such an abomination as “the tender babe” being wrenched “from the arms of its frantic mother” was widespread enough to feature in the Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention of 1833. [35]

William Wells Brown chronicles his distress at witnessing such an event while working as the hireling of a slave trader. A woman and her 4 or 5-week-old baby had been bought and attached to the column of slaves walking to market in St. Louis. The baby was crying a lot and the trader warned the mother to stop its noise – or he would. The mother did her best to quieten the baby but could not. The trader took the child by one arm, “as you would a cat by the leg”, [36] and gave it away to a female acquaintance in whose house he had rested. “Madam, I will make you a present of this little nigger, it keeps such a noise that I can’t bear it.” [37] The distracted, begging, broken-hearted mother was ordered to return to the ranks where she was chained for the onward journey, without her baby. [38]

Intrinsic to the slavery debate, the image of the black child was in sharp contrast to that of the fair white Anglo-Saxon child used incessantly and planted in the American psyche by Congress, to symbolise the birth of this new nation, free from the tyranny of its parent country. It was used to emphasise the maxim that “attachment to no Nation upon Earth should supplant our Attachment to Liberty”. [39] Jedideah Morse, in 1789, defined the American people as only those “descended from the English” [40] and insisted on the racial purity of this “national character” [41] regardless of the numerous racially diverse individuals inhabiting this new nation.

Caroline Lavander contends that no matter which side of the slavery debate it was representing, the image of the child established and then reinforced “a logic of racial difference that linked slavery to black bodies and liberty to white ones”, [42] and race was “a founding, though unstable, element of the new nation”. [43]

Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on Virginia, had expressed the attitude in an indictment of the black race in general, throughout which he translated their characteristics into inadequacies:

Because African Americans are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind, slavery becomes justified and necessary in a country founded upon the concept of freedom. [44]

This common perception of inherent and unalterable inferiority to whites was deduced by physiognomists and phrenologists to be attributable to facial angle and cranial thickness. [45] Alexis de Tocqueville proclaimed of the slave of African origin, “his physiognomy is to our eyes hideous”, [46] while the first issue of the African Repository and Colonial Journal in 1825 featured an article that read, “Negroes are a distinct order of beings; the connecting link between Man and monkees”. [47] They were reiterating Jefferson’s view, expressed 45 years previously that blacks were less than human, when he had proclaimed that there was “a preference of the Oran-ootan for the black woman over those of his own species”. [48]

Unashamed racial prejudice had been part of slavery since its inception, blacks being “publicly humiliated, ridiculed and caricatured”, [49] but it was not until the outlawing of the slave trade and the gradual emancipation of slaves in the North during the years after the Revolution that racism was formalised. Slaveholders in the South would not free their slaves, refusing to give up the economic and social advantages of bondage and insisting that they were contented, jovial and better off than their freed brothers. The release had freed large numbers of Northern blacks, who were trying to exist in a society where racism and discrimination had become endemic, and who were reduced to pauperism, vice and crime, resulting in an inordinate increase in the prison population.

In 1826, the Boston Prison Discipline Society reported that a disproportionately large percentage of the prison population in the North East States are Negroes, the cause being the degraded character of the coloured population. [50]

The slave debate intensified. Diverse groups and institutions considered society to be in grave peril from increasing disorder, idleness and criminality. Apart from the disruption their release was seen to be causing, and the social and financial costs as a consequence of their behaviour, the freed blacks were held responsible for the corruption of those still enslaved, who, it was deemed, became “idle, discontented and disobedient”. [51] Contrary to the view that blacks were inferior because of their race, humanitarians, notably the Abolitionists, believed that the “Negro” condition resulted from slavery and the circumstances under which they were forced to live. [52] They regarded it as sin on behalf of white America, a blight on its Christian character.

Expressing the belief that blacks were different from whites, they averred, nevertheless, that the black people had Christian virtues that whites did not have, remaining childlike, affectionate, docile, and patient under the exceedingly degrading conditions and provocations of slavery. [53] Imbuing the movement with a virtuous, benevolent, middle-class attitude, they expected this to be the soul of the Christian society they hoped to generate. They advocated immediate emancipation.

However, the rest of the whites, even those in the South who were anti-slavery, realised that free blacks would encounter such racist inequality that they would become a very dangerous people. [54] Alexis de Tocqueville, insisting that those who had introduced slavery had bequeathed an insurmountable problem, “was forced to conclude that racial prejudice actually increased with emancipation and was worse in the ‘free’ north than in the slave south”. [55] The powers-that-were recognised the dilemma that slavery had brought. Thomas Jefferson, had summed up why he thought it impossible ever to incorporate blacks into the state:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; the real distinction nature has made; and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.” [56]

He did, however, harbour a belief at the time of writing Notes on Virginia that emancipation may be feasible if combined with colonization of blacks outside the United States. Colonizationists, from the Calvinist and Federal traditions, did not want to upset the status quo by disrupting well-established institutions, customs and prejudices that they considered were fundamental to society’s equilibrium, but they stressed that the colour line was so ingrained in white psyche that blacks would never be assimilated. [57] They formed societies to assist in having them shipped out to Liberia, a country secured for the purpose, “but many free blacks refused to be turned aside from their campaign for full rights as American citizens”. [58]

Freed blacks of the North saw themselves as Americans and very few had any wish to settle on a continent they had never seen. Southerners presented their case against accepting adoption of either abolition or colonization. They argued that the slaves were entirely unfit, morally or economically, for a state of freedom among the whites.

Thomas R Dew, purporting to speak for the whole country, said that free blacks were looked upon as the very drones and pests of society. [59] Winston Churchill recorded some southern concerns in the wake of the Nat Turner insurrection of 1831, “If the Negro were freed, it was asked, would a white man’s life be safe? or, to press the question more closely home, a white woman’s honour?”. [60] Of the economic front, in 1832, Dew warns, scathingly:

There is slave property of the value of $100,000,000 in the State of Virginia, etc., and it matters but little how you destroy it, whether by the slow process of the cautious practitioners, or with the frightful despatch of the self-confident quack; when it is gone, no matter how, the deed will be done, and Virginia will be a desert. [61]

When the creation and rights of new states, in the “frantic western expansion”, [62] wakened the “sleeping serpent” [63] that had lain “coiled up under the table from 1789”, [64] the growing political unrest between the North and the South was accompanied by an escalation of anti-slavery activity against southern doctrines. Abolitionists intensified their campaign to rid the country of slavery. This helped to endorse the perception that the North was seeking domination over all.

The South had no intention of allowing anyone to destroy their heritage. In a series of political manoeuvrings, in 1850, it wrung from the government a compromise that included a more strict form of the existing Fugitive Act. Under it, the southern slaveholders were permitted, now, to invoke the services of the law to recapture runaway slaves who had escaped into free states, and anyone who helped one to escape was liable to a fine of $2000 and six months in jail. [65]

About 7 o’clock this morning the masters and their agents arrived in pursuit of their property. They swore out a warrant before J. L. Pendery, Esq., U. S. Commissioner, which was put into the hands of Deputy U. S. Marshall Geo. S. Bennet. [66]

This newspaper article went on to read:

In the house were…young Simon and his wife, and four children…the oldest near six years and the youngest a babe of about nine months. One of these, however, was lying on the floor dying its head cut almost entirely off. There was also a gash about four inches long in the throat of the eldest, and a wound on the head of the other boy. [67]

Killing her children was the ultimate sacrifice this fugitive mother, Margaret Garner, was prepared to make, since “she was unwilling to have her children suffer as she had done”. [68]

It was in this atmosphere that slave narratives had become recognised as a distinct form of literature, and a promotion in the cause of abolition.

Chapter Two. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Slave narratives are the genre of literature that came into being through the success of some literate African Americans in escaping from slavery to freedom. Always in the first person, they are autobiographical and, as such, record experiences and stories personal to the runaway, related in the order in which they were experienced.

The narratives were written with the express purpose of demonstrating that, contrary to how he was perceived, the black was human; that he was capable of intelligent reasoning; that he had the capacity to be literate; and that spirituality was of utmost importance to him. [69] Because blacks were prevented from receiving education and were kept in ignorance, the narratives spoke for the majority who could not tell their own stories. As one former slave woman wrote:

We were no more than dogs. If they caught us with a piece of paper in our pockets, they’d whip us. They was afraid we’d learn to read and write, but I never got the chance. [70]

Some hundreds of slave narratives exist that were penned in the mid 1800s, but, commensurate with the social status of the black female of the era and the difficulties faced by many in fleeing, it is not surprising that they are predominantly male accounts, the most representative being The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, [71] Having been written to help in the struggle for the abolition of slavery, the narratives were used as propaganda by Abolitionists, who encouraged those who had escaped from bondage to record their experiences, and had them published.

As Toni Morrison notes, “slave narratives were a nineteenth century boom”. [72] Most of them had attached to the title, “Written by Himself” or “Written by Herself”, not only as an indication that the writer was literate, but that the work was his/her own. Many editors inserted disclaimers of any assistance or factual changes, aware that any fraudulent accounts would damage the abolitionist cause, although as Robert A. Gibson observes “they may have occasionally injected abolitionist rhetoric into the testimonies of the slaves”. [73]

Aaron, somewhat of an exception, was an escaped slave who gave talks in churches and public buildings throughout the North. Rather than detailing his past, the bulk of his account concentrates on the-then-prevailing religious views and those who practised them. Having had his narrative written, in 1845, by anyone who could write, whom he met on his travels, gave him an independence that allowed him to express his personal view of the Abolitionists. To him, abolitionist ministers and other professing Christians publicly supported freedom for slaves, but were hypocritical in preaching holiness while taking advantage of female slaves. He accused them of being “wolves in sheep’s clothing”, noting that they “often refused him when he asked for food or shelter while travelling”. [74]

Aaron would seem to be giving proof of the racist feelings prevalent in the North, even among Abolitionists, which gave rise to George M. Frederick’s findings, that the South could be described as, “having manifested a desire for both slavery and Negroes, while a Northern majority provided indications that it wanted neither”. [75] Abolitionists were open to the charge from the pro–slavery sympathisers that the narratives were written by, “the most talented and gifted and are, therefore, not representative of the thought and experiences of the “average” slaves”. [76] This view was sustained well into the late twentieth century by historians who refused to accept their authenticity or reliability.

Although male narratives included references to black women, the most intimate feminine details are to be found in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, which she wrote under the pseudonym of Linda Brent. Jacobs’s narrative is usually taken as the most representative of her sex.

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. [77]

Admitting that it would have been more pleasant not to broadcast them, she is, however, forthright in revealing her experiences for the sole purpose of arousing “the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered and most of them far worse”. [78]

She ably fulfils the criteria of a slave narrative, documenting the dehumanising aspect of slavery and providing evidence of black humanity. These are simply, but succinctly, encapsulated in the exchange between Dr. Flint and Jacobs when he learned of her love for a young black man:

If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my slaves Don’t you suppose, sir, that a slave can have some preference about marrying?

Do you suppose that all men are alike to her? (Ch 7)

That she was reasonably literate and able to demonstrate an ability to apply reason would make a mockery of the “buffoon, a degenerate beast or a subservient lackey” [79] image, and abundant references and invocations to the spiritual deities would indicate that she possessed and was aware of her immortal soul. Harriet Jacobs, throughout her testimony, demonstrates that she was representative neither of the black race nor her sex, in some aspects. There is a distinct air of personal superiority emanating from her text. Hers being a mulatto family would elevate it over the full African American not least in that its members had economic advantages and social opportunities denied to those of darker skin. [80] Her grandmother, freed very late in life, was depicted as being very comfortably off and associating with the white female elite of the community. Reported speech of the other slaves was in dialect, as opposed to Jacobs’s or her family’s. Her brother had, on occasion, passed as white.

Although slavery had made Jacobs “prematurely knowing” (Ch 10) concerning the evil ways of the world, as it had on other young girls, she professed, “I had not degraded myself like most of the slaves”. (Ch 10) She held a privileged position in her owner Flint’s regard. By her own admission, her “life in slavery was comparatively devoid of hardships”. (Ch 10) This slight degree of bestowed and embraced superiority, not experienced by the pure black, may have afforded her the ability to stand up to Flint’s advances and resist the racism she encountered in the North when she became a fugitive. But it would detract from the subjectivity of the narrative, suggesting that this was a plea on behalf of a lower class to which she felt she did not belong.

With very few exceptions, Jacobs’s testimony abounds with invocations for God’s blessings on most of the white people with whom she came in contact - she only appeared to meet humane people; even the slave-trader who said the next trip would be his last because, “this trading in niggers is a bad business for a fellow that’s got any heart”. (Ch 19) It is as if she is looking to absolve them, and blaming the institution of slavery itself for their inhumanity. Noting that “no pen can give an adequate description of the all-pervading corruption produced by slavery”, (Ch 9) she peppers her testimony with admonitions on those whites of the North who are perpetuating the system, emphasizing that it is a system that causes denigration to their own race.

Slavery is a curse to the whites as much as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensuous, the sons violent and licentious, it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched. (Ch 9)

Nevertheless, in chronicling a female life under slavery, she is representative of her sex when testifying to the sexual harassment one may experience at the hands of a white master. She describes how a young black girl, reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear, where “the lash and the foul talk of her master and his sons are her teachers”, (Ch 9) is enticed, whipped or starved into submission, and insists that resistance was hopeless.

Very early in life, also, by the hatred directed at a master’s favourite, the young girl recognises that jealousy on the mistress’s behalf causes resentment that rebounds, with malevolence and actual violence, on the girl. When this became Jacobs’s fate, she resisted Flint’s approaches, spending months treating him with contempt, but reluctant and ashamed to tell her grandmother, who had promised, “to be a mother to her grandchildren, so far as she might be permitted to do so.” (Ch 2)

In this capacity, the grandmother “knows there is no security for her children” (Ch 10) and “would live in daily expectation of trouble” (Ch 10) once a girl reaches her teens, although Deborah Gray White observes, “In the long run, however, a mother could do little but hope that her daughter made it through adolescence and young womanhood unscathed by sexual abuse”. [81] Obviously, Jacobs is appealing to the white women readers that they might sympathise with the slave mother, whose natural role of mothering has been removed, deliberately, from her and she has no power to protect her children.

Jacobs’s response to Flint’s attentions, in having a baby to a white unmarried lawyer, might appear extreme to the modern reader. She makes much of the scandalous nature of her action, but, according to form, it would be no more than the whites would have expected from one of her race, as far as they cared. Her self–depreciation has a feigned ring to it. It could almost evoke a feeling of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”. [82] However, her reasoning clearly demonstrates that while being owned reduces the slaves to a common state of subservience, the basic instinct for self determination prevails and efforts to suppress it forces the individual to resort to subterfuge.

It could require a stretching of credulity to accept the outrage with which the grandmother received the news of Jacobs’ pregnancy, “You are a disgrace to your dead mother”, (Ch 10) when she was speaking from a life time experience of enslavement herself. Jacobs’s lament that there was no chance of now being respectable appears at variance with Gray White’s findings, “prenuptial intercourse was not considered evil”. [83] She further reported that, “slaves did not condemn motherhood out of wedlock”. [84] Herman Gutman, in his book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, argues that there were well-defined sexual mores under which “a girl typically had intercourse fairly early and bore a child, but then settled down with one man and had the rest of her children by him”. [85]

While purity was an expected element of white female society of the era, Jacobs does not seem to have transgressed according to the norms of her own community. There might appear here a sense of exaggerated outrage and mortification that not only emphasises her aloofness, but could suggest abolitionist influence, denoting that she, and by association, all black women, conduct their sexual lives according to the same principles as whites. The inference would be that black sexual practice, if allowed to be natural, would conform to the morals of the white race. This could indicate that she had succumbed to abolitionist propaganda.

The assumption could be endorsed further by the significant absence of any details regarding her relationship with Mr. Sands, the man chosen by Jacobs to be the father of her child. That she was a slave girl of fifteen and he was white, could suggest some exploitation on his part; that he was white, educated and eloquent, might suggest some on hers. Having had two children to him would indicate that she engaged in some form of connection with him over the period of a few years, even after she had achieved what she set out to do, and found that it did not lessen Flint’s persistence and so had not produced the desired result. This is not documented.

The nature of their relationship has been glossed over, apparently to concentrate on the one that disturbed her, and was of more significance to the abolitionist cause. It does point to her being selective in her narrative. Her interior life wherein, Toni Morrison contends, lie the innermost thoughts, is not brought fully to the fore. She has not said why she put herself in the position of having another child when she was fully aware of its fate. “I knew the doom that awaited my fair baby in slavery”. (Ch 16) She gave numerous examples of how children were hired out to work for unscrupulous masters and of them being sold at a master’s whim.

I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction-block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away…I met that woman in the street, and her wild, haggard face lives today in my mind. (Ch 3)

The removal of children from their mothers, between whom there is a special bond, was one of the most devastating but effective implements of slavery. On an immediate level, it caused enduring heartbreak, with its emotional impact, on the mothers who were left bereft. T. Parsons contends that “the human personality is not “born” but must be “made” through the socializing process”. [86] He notes that for the child, “The central focus of the process of socialization lies in the internalisation of the culture of the society into which the child is born”. [87] Those children separated from their mothers were thus denied, not only their nurturing, but their true culture and were inculcated with that of enslavement. They were sold off, dispatched, one knew not where, and knowing nothing of their fore bearers, culture or history, to a life of uncertainty and suffering.

There are disclosures that might make one question the commitment Harriet Jacobs had to her children, one example being when she had everything prepared to flee and leave them, indefinitely, with the aged grandmother, who pleaded with Jacobs not to do so, on the grounds that no one respects a mother who leaves her children. There could be an element of moralizing here. It would have been more believable had the grandmother put her from going on the grounds that she did not want the obligation. It would seem to be unreasonable, nay outrageous, for anybody to expect an elderly woman to take sole responsibility for two very young children.

What can be said in Jacobs’s defence is that it was the institution of slavery that put her in the position. In the event, grandmother got them anyway, since Jacobs concealed herself in the garret of a shed connected to her house. Here she was forced to endure severe discomfort, pain and illness, for almost seven years. Discovery would have had disastrous consequences, not only on her and the children, but on all those who were complicit in her deception. While awaiting an opportunity to get herself and the children to freedom, she was forced, in effect, to leave them motherless, although safely in the care of her grandmother. She watched them grow without ever being able to make herself known to them, for fear of them leading her into Flint’s clutches again, since he continued to make every attempt to trace her, even going to the North in his search.

Her eventual escape to freedom was to a North that enacted the updated Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. A life of insecurity had become the lot of thousands of fugitives, on what they considered free soil.

The slave Hamlin, the first fugitive that came under the new law, was given up by the bloodhounds of the north to the bloodhounds of the south. It was the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population. (Ch 40)

Slaves who had made it to freedom were hunted down by their owners and were dragged back to their previous lives, an event that is central in Toni Morrison’s portrayal of slavery.

Fortunately, Jacobs’s employer in the north bought her release and gave her the papers, meaning that she was free to begin life with her two children. Her experience of slavery as a woman and mother had been menacing and traumatic, but the more harrowing tales of others overshadowed her experience. It could seem that Jacobs was defining herself through the white culture, and that her own image was of importance in her account. Her superior attitude and a tendency to pander to the whites augmented an overabundance of abolitionist rhetoric that lessened the sincerity of the narration.

Jacobs’s testimony was published in 1861. The white writers of the day preferred to steer clear of the contentious issues, an example being Nathaniel Hawthorne, who placed his The Scarlet Letter in a period two hundred years before. It is significant though, that of the little girl, Pearl, he retains the image of the white Saxon child that his forefathers used to represent the freedom of the new nation:

But how strangely beautiful she looks, with those wild flowers in her hair! It is as if one of the fairies, whom we left in our dear old England, had decked her out to meet us. [88]

Mark Twain, at least, introduced his black slave character, Jim, into his most recognised works, but in doing so, he put words into the children’s mouths that epitomised white perceptions of the black, “but I never see a nigger that wouldn’t lie”, [89] and their prejudices:

He likes me, becuz I don’t ever act as if I was above him. Sometimes I’ve set right down and eat with him. But you needn’t tell that. A boy’s got to do things when he’s awful hungry he wouldn’t want to do as a steady thing. [90]

Ann Douglas contends that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [91] is “a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, in which Twain sees to it that nobody gets educated”. [92] Toni Morrison goes further. She believes that to give themselves the feeling of freedom, whites needed slavery. For her, Twain’s view was expressed in the novel:

freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the spectre of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another; the signed, marked, informing and mutating presence of a black slave. [93]

Some novelists writing in the early eighteenth century felt that the purpose of the novel was its moral utility. Penelope Aubin’s aim was “to encourage virtue and expose vice”. [94] Uncle Tom’s Cabin [95] did just that. It was unashamedly anti-slavery, abolitionist propaganda, where Harriet Beecher Stowe displays “her laudable determination to flinch from nothing”, [96] except asking why they thought they had the right to assume that the black race was there for their comfort.

While she left no aspect of the descriptions of slavery untold, her denouement saw Uncle Tom, having served loyally in slavery, and dying as a result of a bad whipping, content to leave this world as a good Christian and looking forward to attaining happiness in the Kingdom of Heaven. Her gifted George and wife Eliza, mulattos, opted to leave the country altogether and settle in Africa. That was the solution to the slavery problem arrived at by an avowed Abolitionist!

She did not let the persecutors know what slavery did to the African Americans. That is what Toni Morrison undertook in her novel Beloved.

Chapter Three. Toni Morrison's Beloved

Beloved, written in 1987, could be considered a slave narrative of the twentieth century, since, from the unfolding of the story, we follow Sethe’s journey from enslavement to freedom. Unlike Jacobs’s work, however, it is set exclusively in the black world. A cultural heritage, that includes improvisation, allows Toni Morrison, “writing a part of herself into the narrative”, [97] to envisage for Sethe an experience of motherhood, and intertwining subplots for the other characters.

Through these, she unveils the interior life of the slave. This Morrison deems necessary to give a true representation of African American life, in and after bondage. Her novel “exposes the unsaid of the narratives, the psychic subtexts that lie within and beneath historical facts”. [98] Like Ella, one of her characters, Morrison “listens for the holes – the things the fugitives did not say: the questions they did not ask”. (92) She finds them, and in true African American tradition, has Paul D admit to his heartache, “sang it sometimes but never told a soul”. (71)

The medium of the novel lends itself to the process, one of its chief functions apart from moralizing, according to E. M. Forster, being “to express man’s pure passions, that is to say the dreams, joys, sorrows and self-communings [which circumstances] prevent him from mentioning”. [99] In this way, the “unspeakable things, unspoken”, namely, the horrors endured by the black people who inhabit the world of Beloved, can be unearthed and shared. Characters in a novel do not hold any secrets. Their inner as well as their outer lives can be exposed so that they are understood completely by the reader. [100] Ian Watt contended that “the defining feature of the novel is its realism, its ability to show ourselves to ourselves”. [101]

In the light of Sethe’s preoccupation with “beating back the past” (73) so that she may have a “liveable life”, James Baldwin agrees with Morrison that it is by acknowledging and confronting the darkness and complexity of humanity that “we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves”. [102] This power is “the power of revelation, which is the business of the novelist. [103]

As a vehicle to address “the necessity of historical memory, the desire to forget the terrors of slavery and the impossibility of forgetting”, [104] Morrison uses this novel to show, also, that “there is a necessity for remembering the horror…in a manner in which…the memory is not destructive”. [105] She extends the power of revelation to her characters who reveal the hidden degradation and humiliation they suffered, by telling what they want to tell, of their own volition, and at a time they are ready to tell it. When they finally come to putting their memories into words, Morrison demonstrates that, “the collective sharing of that information heals the individual – and the collective”. [106]

Morrison’s style of writing is both artistic and artful. One paragraph reads:

She might be hurrying across a field to get to the pump quickly and rinse the chamomile sap from her legs (6)

(a hypothetical occasion)

The picture of the men coming to nurse her was as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard (6)

(She was not thinking of the atrocity the men committed on her, or the reason for her scared back, but by this negation, the reader has been made aware of the horrible sexual act and that she has been physically abused.)

Then…Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling…out before her made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. (6)

(The most innocent occurrence or image has connotations that bring back the horror of what happened at the picturesque Sweet Home.)

Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world (6)

(This demonstrates that the trees are what she prefers to remember rather than the boys, while evoking in the reader a picture of a lynching.) [107]

When the last of the chamomile was gone, she went round to the front of the house. (6)

(A present situation.)

Apart from filling one paragraph with copious information, every word or phrase significant, and intimating some of the unspeakable things Sethe is trying to forget, Morrison has taken us from a hypothetical into a present situation seamlessly. In such ways, she moves between past and present, memory and fact, memory and memory etc. while “shifting from third person narration to omniscient narration to interior monologue”. [108] Weaving backwards and forwards through the lives of her characters, she gathers their thoughts, memories and deeds as they cope with their individual traumas.

Although the joins are seamless, they are bringing together and introducing fragments of unconnected stories, or, at times, the same one from a different perspective, so that they are told or retold in a piecemeal fashion, the event therefore never relayed in linear or chronological order. The structure of the novel creates an element of confusion, since changes in perspective are not always marked.

It has been suggested that this is the response desired by the authoress to instil in her readers the experience of confusion had they been “snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, without preparation and without defence”. [109] The activity of the child ghost in the house at the beginning evokes in Sethe, memories of her baby girl, which in turn conjures up images of a degrading sexual union with a stonemason as payment for a headstone. All we are told at this juncture is that the baby, whose ghost is haunting the house, had had its throat cut and that the blood “had soaked her fingers like oil”. (5)

It is not until halfway through the book that a third person narrator describes, from the hunter’s viewpoint, the arrival, into a yard, of a slave-catcher, a sheriff, schoolteacher and his nephew, who have come to reclaim unidentified fugitive slaves, a black woman and her children, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The use of this narrator, in this passage, allows Morrison to imbue the event with the inhumane feeling with which the white owner and representatives of the law viewed their prey. While they sneaked up on the unsuspecting Sethe, as a hunter would on an animal, their thoughts are revealed, “Unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin.” (148)

On discovering that the woman had had time to kill one of her children and was in the process of killing the rest, Morrison makes the white owner admit that he considers his slaves as less than human. He remonstrated with his nephew, “See what happened when you overbeat creatures God had given you the responsibility of – the trouble it was, and the loss.” (150) The reader knows that Sethe is the mother who has committed this terrible deed. But Sethe is not ready to confront or voice it yet; it was locked away with the rest of the horrors she endured under slavery.

Present events begin in the novel in 1873, after the Civil War and a decade after slavery had been abolished. They see Sethe and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Denver, living alone in nominal freedom, in a detached house on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Sethe’s two sons had run off at thirteen, ten years previously, spooked by continuing poltergeist activities of the baby ghost, whose actions Sethe considered “no more powerful than the way I loved her”. (4) Her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whose home it had been, had died of despair eight years before.

Paul D, one of the slaves, who had been owned by the Garners of Sweet Home with Sethe, enters the story, meeting her for the first time in the eighteen years since they had arranged their escape to freedom, which was the last time Sethe had seen her husband, Halle. Paul D clears the house of the haunting ghost.

In the first chapter, through their conversations, their individual thoughts and memories, the reader, gets a sketchy, rudimentary idea of some of the events connected to their escape from slavery and their state of mind at present. Sethe and Denver are living a solitary life were no one calls. It is a life that is not that other life, but one that entails continually “beating back the past”. (73) The daughter, Denver, is seen to be lonely, now resenting the dismissal of the only company she had besides her mother, that of the ghost of her sister.

She is envious of her mother and Paul D having shared a past life. Little is communicated openly between them except an element of Sethe’s experience at the point of the escape. She tells Paul D, that although she had been pregnant with Denver, she was still feeding her “crawling already” daughter, whom she had sent ahead, with her two boys, to freedom with other fugitives. It was when the white nephews on the plantation “came in there and took my milk” (16) that she had decided to flee. For telling Mrs. Garner what they had done, she was badly beaten by them, leaving a “chokecherry tree” (16) on her back. But that was not the overriding issue. It was “And they took my milk”. (17) Even in using cowhide on her, beating her while pregnant, it was still, again, “And they took my milk”. (17) The symbolism contained in the numerous references to having her milk taken from her is essential for the premise of Beloved. The importance she attaches to preserving black culture and connecting with one’s ancestry, so crucial to giving the blacks identity and history, is synonymous with the nurturing of one’s children. Sethe was denied her mother’s milk, only having seen her in the fields and remembered speaking to her once:

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. (200)

This, added to the fact that Sethe had had hers taken from her, accentuates this elemental destructive aspect of slavery which not only cuts the bonds that unite, and degrades womanhood, but removes the natural biological function of motherhood.

The nephews and their uncle, schoolteacher, had taken over the running of the plantation on the death of its owner Mr. Garner, who had exercised slavery without physical brutality, although Halle realised that “what they say is the same. Loud or soft”. (195) The new regime brought changes, a significant aspect of slave life, since theirs were totally dependent on either the change in circumstances of their masters, or a change in masters. Now, brutality reigned and subdued. Displaying his polygenetic view, schoolteacher took measurements and made notes of the slaves. Sethe, not understanding the significance of this, became traumatised when she heard him and the nephews discussing her human and animal characteristics.

Afterwards, when the younger men defiled her, in her own words, “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”, (200) it was the final straw that precipitated her plan to escape in an “emphatic rejection of slavery’s power to circumscribe her motherhood”. [110] She sent her three children ahead, intending to follow with her husband Halle, but the escape went wrong and Sethe found herself running alone. It is significant that, in her exhausted physical state, nearing her time of another confinement and badly beaten, she thought that “her baby’s ma’am” (31) was going to die. She saw herself only as a mother, having no identity outside of her children; they were an extension of herself; they were her best part, never been sullied by slavery. It is noteworthy that Morrison had a white girl, Amy Denver, administer to Sethe’s wounds and deliver her baby, the baby to be called Denver in acknowledgement. Morrison demonstrates the strong connection she herself feels to the generations of her people who had been brought to America in the slave ships by dedicating the book to them - “the “Sixty Million and more” who have never been known or recognised, and who were part of the beginning of black American history. The horrors they endured on the middle passage are an underlying feature of the account. Now, she takes the opportunity to use the movement of the coming baby in Sethe’s body, during labour and at the moment of birth, to give them a presence when she introduces echoes of them speaking in their African tongues and visions of them performing their African dances. The implication is that, although these are of the past, their memory still has power to influence.

These evocations were seen to bring forth from Sethe, affirmation and appreciation of the black culture which permeated her consciousness. As a mother, Sethe saw herself as the natural link by which her children would know their true heritage and was determined to convey it to them with pride. To do this, and to instil in them the same pride, she had to deliver them from slavery and the attitudes which classified them as animals.

It was only when Sethe, with her new baby, was reunited with her other three children in freedom that she felt what freedom meant. Her elation in self-determination is palpable. She had done something of her own free will, as an individual; she had got them “all out” (162) by herself. Her euphoria in being free is palpable. In one of the most affecting passages in the book, she radiates with her new-found liberty, and is able to bestow on her children the love that she now recognised had been curtailed by slavery:

I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon – there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. (162)

Paul D understood the freedom. “Not to need permission for desire – well now that was freedom.” (162) But he was more circumspect about allowing himself to love like that. He knew that such a love, for the slave who could have it snatched from him at any moment, was “too thick” (164) To him “a woman, a child, a brother – a big love like that would split you wide open” (162). It was such love that sent Sethe running to the woodshed when she spotted her owners and the law coming to bring her and her children back to a life of slavery. Rather than let them be taken into bondage and suffer as she had done, it was such love that allowed her to have one of them killed by the time the posse reached her.

And who is going to judge her? The black community did. They had adopted a way to hide their pain, even from themselves, locking it in their memory. They even inured themselves against it when they could. Baby Suggs had barely glanced at her eighth baby when it was born because she did not expect to see him into adulthood:

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 recognise anywhere…All seven were gone or dead. What would be the point of looking too hard at the youngest one? (139)

Slavery broke the mothers’ spirit and, not only rendered their nurturing function superfluous to the system, but left them dispassionate, with the result that the Beloved community did not appreciate Sethe’s reaction to the recapture of her children. (256) Being victims of an institution that was designed to remove personal regard, they saw her as being “prideful” (265) especially when, after she came from gaol, they perceived her remoteness as being aloofness. They disassociated themselves from her. Sethe spent the following years “loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left no room to imagine, let alone plan for, the next day”. (70)

Toni Morrison brought into the novel the only one she thought had any right to judge Sethe [111] – the eponymous Beloved. Ambiguity surrounds her personhood but there are indications to suggest that this young woman could be perceived as the reincarnated “crawling already” baby, appearing at an age she would have been had she lived. When Sethe reaches the conclusion that this is her daughter, she envelops her with love. She is not seeking forgiveness, because:

Nobody on this earth would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper…Maybe Baby Suggs could…live with the likelihood of it; Sethe had refused – and refused still.” (251)

But she wanted Beloved to understand why she had done what she did. Beloved proved an unsettling presence. She caused disruption but it was through this that Sethe was able to unburden herself from all her bad memories, while retaining the ability and will to love. It was through her presence that Denver was able to overcome her fears and go out into the world as an independent young woman. And it was through her presence that Paul D was able to commit himself to Sethe for the future. Beloved was the catalyst for such interaction between characters that the community, who had scorned Sethe for eighteen years, but whose own individual humiliations and atrocities against them had been unveiled, came to her aid when Beloved was seen to be draining the life from her mother.

They were in the yard when the former Abolitionist, Mr. Bodwin, rode towards the house. In her confused state, Sethe imagined he was schoolteacher coming to take her children, sending her into a rage. She made to attack him with an ice pick, but the women of the community, there to save her from Beloved, restrained Sethe and prevented her from committing damage. On the intervention of the neighbours, and evidence of their support, Beloved disappeared from their midst. Maybe her presence was no longer needed in the novel.

The ambiguity that surrounds the Beloved character is intriguing because she has been written into the work in such a way that, besides being the daughter, killed out of love, she could be the personification of slavery itself, in the manner in which she took all that her mother had. Another perspective could be that, from the experience she depicted of capture in Africa and conditions aboard the slave ships, she was representative of the millions of blacks lost without trace. Whatever her role, and it would appear that it was multipurpose, she is a central character in a novel that has portrayed an immediate, personal and comprehensive history of black American experience of slavery. It is also such a human response to the inhumanity of slavery that its message has to be universally received and acknowledged.

The race of the intended readership is immaterial. One does not have to be black to realise that slavery was a holocaust, or to empathise with the suffering of the generations who were worn down, physically and mentally, but who had the forbearance to survive against such adversity. Reaction to the catalogue of injustice and abuse perpetrated upon the members of the black race, as depicted here, can be nothing but revulsion and horror. And reaction to their fortitude could be nothing but respect.

But one could feel that Morrison’s urge to produce a truthful slave narrative free from any influences was many faceted. Details of horrible truths were kept out of the public domain for many years by policies and laws, and not least by the aforementioned practice of national amnesia. It was necessary for improvement in the future that the past be truthfully documented. It was also necessary that the elements of the black population, who still cite the yoke of slavery as the reason for all their ills and who allow themselves to be beaten by negativity and the system, should amend their way of life, and regain and display some pride in themselves and their families.

Morrison has used history to point the way. She has resurrected and exposed the buried ghosts and her characters have dealt with them. She has shown in Sethe, a character whose commitment to her children will not be compromised. She has enabled her individuals and community to come to terms with their past. She has brought them together. She has shown that blacks and whites have co-operated and were pleased at working well together. She has brought to life a history that many would prefer to forget. She has given her black community hope for the future. Toni Morrison has exorcised the ghost of Beloved and in doing so, has shown her black brothers and sisters how to exorcise the ghosts of slavery that still haunt many of her race. She has given them reasons to be proud.


As it is hoped can be seen from this work, the contribution of African Americans who were enslaved, was the foundation upon which the United States was built. While doing so, they endured severe indignities, degradation, dehumanisation and suffering under the law, and were consistently victims of prejudice from American society. White writers of the day were not inclined to broach the subject of slavery. Those who did introduce black characters in their works, or made a protest through their writing, had their own agenda which did not include incorporating the black community into the population as equal American citizens.

The impact of Harriet Jacobs’s experience was diminished by her personal attitudes and the influence of the Abolitionists. Particular trials and tribulations of motherhood were seen to be a result of designated policy to ensure the elimination of African culture and the perpetuation of slavery. Toni Morrison’s skill in writing has been responsible for depicting the horror of slavery, its effect on mothers and the devastation it leaves in its wake with such intensity, that, calling Wordsworth to mind, hard would he be of soul who could pass by a tale so touching in its majesty. It should send white American society to its knees, begging for forgiveness.

Notes and Bibliography > The notes and bibliography will open in a new window or tab, which you can keep open while you return to the essay.

© Marie C. E. Burns, December 2008

See also: The 'monstrous potential of love'. Moral ambiguity in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jazz


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