‘Beloved’ sheds light on hidden issues during slavery


Toni Morrison Lecture 012 I Flickr

Melani Bonilla, Multimedia Editor

Beloved was written by Toni Morrison in 1987. It is set in the period after the American Civil War and focuses on Sethe’s life.

Taking place during 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sethe is a formerly enslaved woman who lives in a house inherited from her deceased mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. She lives there with her daughter Denver while her sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away because they were afraid of a supposed ghost living amongst the family.

The family predicts that the ghost could be the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter, Beloved. The book opens with how Sethe’s daughter got this name, with her not having enough money to engrave “Dearly Beloved” on the tombstone.

“…engraved on her baby’s headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old…”Morrison wrote.

During the Reconstruction era in the United States, it is ironic that Sethe is only able to get the engraving on her deceased daughters’ headstone by having sex with the engraver. It reveals the major issues Black Americans faced during this time. The 19th century was a time when former slaves, and Black citizens born into freedom, were subjected to violence and kidnapping even if they could prove they were free citizens.

When speaking about this time period, it is important to note the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As historically noted, “The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The act also made the federal government responsible for finding, returning, and trying escaped slaves.”

Under this act, many slaves that had been granted or purchased their freedom were illegally brought back into slavery. This act favored slaveholders, allowing them to capitalize on their plantations through forced labor, under the pretense of federal law and compliance.

The book flows between Sethe’s current life in Ohio and her time back in a slave-holding plantation in Kentucky, named Sweet Home. Her time in Sweet Home is what leads her to killing her eldest daughter, Beloved, traumatized and frightened of possibly bringing her into slavery.

Sweet Home starts as honorable as a slave plantation can be, with the master, Mr. Garner, continuously bragging about how respectful the men on his plantation are. Garner even allows Halle, who would later become Sethes’ husband, to buy his mothers’ freedom. With Suggs free, Sethe is introduced to the farm and the men’s lives.

“And so they were: Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner, Halle Suggs and Sixo, the wild man. All in their twenties, minus women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape, thrashing on pallets, rubbing their thighs and waiting for the new girl—the one who took Baby Suggs’ place after Halle bought her with five years of Sundays…” wrote Morrison.

Due to the animal-like treatment slaves were victim to, enslavers held the belief that bestiality was acceptable amongst them. Treating the enslaved as livestock, with whips, chains and derogatory language made them believe they should be classified as such.

Slaves experienced extensive psychological trauma that took away components of themselves that humanize them. Socialization, sexual connection and personality were stripped away at the farm. Morrison is able to convince the reader how extensively inhumane the slaves’ treatment was to make them abandon the principles of what is considered acceptable behavior.

This can be connected to Sethe in the book, who murders her eldest daughter when her new slave master comes to bring her back to Sweet Home. Scared and traumatized from being raped and the conditions she faced at the plantation, Sethe slits the throat of her baby — believing she has sent her to a “better place” wrote Morrison.

Throughout the book, readers are also privy to Paul D and his experience in Sweet Home under their new master, Schoolteacher.

Schoolteacher uses psychological and physical torture on the slaves at Sweet Home, ending in most of them escaping, killing themselves or going insane. As a result, Paul D tries to escape with his friend Sixo only to be caught.

Paul D then gets sent to a new master named Brandywine, who he tries to kill. Due to this, Paul D becomes part of a chain gang.

“The wrists he held out for the bracelets that evening were steady as were the legs he stood on when chains were attached to the leg irons.” (Morrison, 53)

Chain gangs, rape, beastiality and psychological warfare only scratch the surface of the horrors slaves endured during this time period. Things not addressed in our educational system, but addressed in crucial pieces of literature like Morrisons’ eye-opening “Beloved.” Novels like possess an invaluable role in our understanding of the atrocities marginalized and abused peoples endured throughout history.