Terry Otten suggests that while Sethe and the other slaves “might be considered simply victims in slavery, once they move towards freedom north of the Ohio River … they assume responsibility for their own ‘criminal’ act and become `victims’ of their own flawed humanity as much as the viciousness of whites.” In this essay, the validity of this statement will be tested against Beloved. References from the novel will show how Terry Otten is incorrect.
Otten compares “the viciousness of whites” with the actions of Sethe and the other slaves. Even a Canadian court of law punishes a crime differently based on the accused’s explanation for committing the crime. Just as sure as there is a battered woman’s syndrome that excuses the crimes of battered wives who kill their husbands, the same should be recognized by for slaves such as Sethe.
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved. (Romans 9:25)
The question in this novel, Toni Morrison told PBS host Charlie Rose, was “Who is the beloved? Who is the person who lives inside us that is the one you can trust, who is the best thing you are? And in that instant, for that segment, because I had planned books around that theme, it was the effort of a woman to love her children, to raise her children, to be responsible for her children. And the fact that it was during slavery made all those things impossible for her.”
Sethe is a woman who escaped from slavery but is haunted by its heritage. It shows how even when free, Sethe and the other slaves continually struggle to be free in their lives.
Same as Sethe’s dead baby haunts their house in Ohio, slavery haunts their lives. Just as Denver, Paul D, and Sethe sit in their home talking about the ghost in their house, they also talk about their former home in slavery.
`How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talking about it? Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed.’
`Girl, who you talking to?’
“Paul D laughed. `True, true. She’s right, Sethe. It wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home.’ He shook his head.”
`But it’s where we were,’ said Sethe. `Altogether. Comes back whether we want it to or not.'(Morrison 13-14).
This conversation between Sethe, Denver and Paul D shows the hold slavery still had over their lives. So much so that when Sethe had a chance to bring up at least one of her children without ever knowing slavery, she killed the child herself. Baby Suggs had eight children, all of them taken away from her because of slavery, no opportunity to know what beloved means.
“Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.” (Morrison 23).
The “viciousness of whites” seemed to be the playing of a game of checkers. Unmotivated by the actions of blacks to whites, but justified in their beliefs of superiority. Whites in America did not know the horrors of slavery at the hands of blacks. What was freedom after a lifetime of bondage? Sethe had known many tragedies under slavery, and she also knew that this baby’s life was doomed to be hard, doomed to working in other people’s kitchen, hopefully getting some sewing on the sly, and this would be her free life.
Sethe killing her baby is a criminal act. But is she a flawed human being? Do her actions compare to “the viciousness of whites?”
`Men don’t know nothing much,’ said Paul D, tucking his pouch back into his vest pocket, `but they do know a suckling can’t be away from its mother for long.’
`Then they know what it’s like to send your children off when your breasts are full.’
`We were talking `bout a tree, Sethe.’
After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in there for. Held me down and took it. I told Mrs. Garner on em. She had that lump and couldn’t speak but her eyes rolled out tears. Them boys fould out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and when it closed it makde a tree. It grows there still.’
`They used cowhide on you?’
`And they took my milk.’
`They beat you and you was pregnant?’
`And they took my milk!’ (Morrison 16-17).
The action of these young white boys who treated Sethe as though she were a cow, and were then responsible for her beating while pregnant did not have their experience with slavery to explain their actions. These were young boys who saw Sethe not as a human, not as their mother or sister or friend. She was black, a slave, and therefore as useful to them as a cow. This judgment of another human being is indeed a flaw in their humanity. They showed no humanity to Sethe, and most likely not to any black.
Now despite all the horrible things Sethe went through during slavery, she did live to tell the story of what the white boys did, unlike what millions of other slaves went through. Sethe killed her baby, denying it life. The baby was born at the same time that her freedom was born. But even Sethe’s baby did not promise beloved for her.
“Sethe couldn’t think of anything to do, so grateful was she, so she peeled a potato, ate it, spit it up and ate more in quiet celebration.”
`They be glad to see you,’ said Ella. `When was this one born?”
`Yesterday,’ said Sethe, wiping sweat from under her chin. `I hope she makes it.’
Ella looked at the tiny, dirty face poling out of the wool blanket and shook her head. `Hard to say,’ she said. `If anybody was to ask me I’d say, `Don’t love nothing.’ Then, as if to take the edge off her pronouncement, she smiled at Sethe. `You had that baby by yourself?’
`No. White girl helped.’
`Then we better make tracks.’
Sethe’s baby held much promise. Born with the help of the very race who had taken so much of her life away, so many of her children, a white girl helped her give birth to her baby. Sethe herself says that she hopes that the baby makes it. But was this child ever going to be free?
Eighteen seventy-four and white folks were still on the loose. Whole towns wiped clean of Negroes; eight-seven lynchings in one year alone in Kentucky; four colored schools burned to the ground; grown men whipped like children; children whipped like adults; black women raped by the crew; property taken, necks broken (Morrison 180). This was all going on while Sethe and the other slaves lived in 124. Sethe killed her baby because she believed it would have a better life dead than alive. Just as slavery haunted their lives, so did the baby. After Paul D scared the ghost out of the house, it came back in the form of Beloved.
“Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She comes back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quickly. Quick. She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be. Paul D ran her off so she had no choice but to come back to me in the flesh. I bet you, Baby Suggs, on the other side, helped. I won’t let her go. I’ll explain to her, even though I don’t have to. Why I did it. Now if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear to happen to her. When I explain it she’ll understand, because she understands everything already. I’ll tend her as no mother ever tended a child, a daughter. Nobody will ever get my milk no more except my own children. I never had to give it to nobody else-and the one time I did it was took from me-they held me down and took it. Milk that belonged to my baby.” (Morrison 200).
Sethe tries with Beloved to make up for everything she did to her baby, but Beloved leaves anyways. What Sethe is left with to understand, is what Paul tells her.
`She was my best thing.’
Paul D sits down in the rocking chair and examines the quilt patched in carnival colors. His hands are limp between his knees. There are too many things to feel about his woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. `She is a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gathers them and gives them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.’ (Morrison 272-273).
`Sethe,’ he says, `me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.’
He leans over and takes her hand. With thoe other he touches her face. `You your best thing, Sethe. You are.’ His holding fingers are holding hers.
`Me? Me?’ (Morrison 273).
This is the only point where Sethe comes close to freedom when she realizes that the best thing is herself. She is bound by slavery, bound to the horrible memories, bound to the guilt of killing her child, then bound to Beloved. This is not a woman motivated by viciousness, acting as a flawed human being. She wants to understand what beloved is. She wants to be more than a slave. Paul D once again helps her to chase away the ghosts that keep her from truly being free.
The “`criminal'” acts of Sethe cannot be compared to “the viciousness of whites.” Sethe killed her baby because she did not believe it was going to live. This was a mother, a woman, looking to be beloved, to know what this word means. Everything was taken away from her in slavery, even the milk to nourish her beloved children. Slavery taught her not to love anything, but Sethe still tried. As much as she wanted her baby to live, she killed her child out of love. Without the haunting of slavery, without provocation, “the viciousness of whites” enslaved black people physically, mentally and emotionally. The end of Beloved shows a glimmer of hope, a sign that Sethe may find her beloved within herself, and ultimately finding the finest part of her humanity, rather than the flawed. Sethe remains a victim of slavery until the very moment she begins to realize her freedom. The ending of the novel shows a glimmer of hope. Sethe and the other slaves can not be considered outside the contexts of slavery until their own lives seem free.