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Month: September 2019

Parents and the Approach of Freedom

A common theme that seemed to be interwoven throughout chapters fifteen through eighteen is the relationship between mother and daughter. These bonds seem to go far beyond any other relationship and the lack of a main father figure works to describe this sentiment. This is also why Paul D has met so much resistance from Beloved since he acts as a divider between her and Sethe. In this portion of Beloved, we are confronted with two motherly figures who sacrificed immensely for the sake of their children. Baby Suggs didn’t want freedom at the costs that would be associated with it, but she knew that Halle was uncompromising when it came to his mother’s wellbeing, so she reluctantly accepted to be bought freedom. Baby Suggs immediately felt the conflict that arose from this situation. Because Baby Suggs left Sweet Home before the Schoolteacher took over, she never knew that hardships of slavery that her peers did. But in particular, one event really stood out that makes me question Baby Suggs’ freedom. On page 180, directly after he grandchild died and her daughter went to jail, two children reminded Baby Suggs that she had to fix their boots. Even in freedom, Baby Suggs is indentured and still a slave to pay off her house.

We can find the parallels between this instance in Beloved and today, as many African Americans still treated as second class citizens. One example that I came across in Justice and Civil Society is directly related to the public school system in Richmond. Many predominantly black and poorer areas don’t have access to the same resources that much of America has. Because of this, these areas are stuck in self-fulfilling prophecies of poverty. The freedom that is promised to everyone and the “American Dream” are often illusions for many populations, even after decades of social growth.

We see a similar situation infold with Sethe, who would rather kill her children than have them go back to slavery. What I find interesting about this is that Sethe was not willing to have her children killed while they were in the midst of slavery. It was once she saw freedom that she realized just how bad their situation had been. What happens today when people don’t even know what they are deprived of? Regardless, these mothers were willing to risk everything in their lives, and even their children’s lives, for the sake of their children instead of themselves. It is the mother’s love that allows her children to move forward in life and work towards being truly free. 

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Self-Identity & Slavery

During the beginning of this section of the novel, Baby Suggs struggles with the concept of her own self-identity. After Halle buys her freedom, Baby Suggs and Mr. Garner leave Sweet Home to make Baby Suggs a new life for herself as a freed slave. Through this experience, Baby Suggs has difficulty adjusting to being her own person after years of being someone else’s property. She’s never had anything of her own including her own name. At Sweet Home she was called by the name of Jenny which she indicates was not her real name, and she was unsure as to why everyone called her Jenny there. When Mr. Garner asks what she was called beforehand she responds, “Anything, but Suggs is what my husband named me.” Even the most simple and basic human expectations of what one should have, such as a name, are lacking for Baby Suggs as a result of her life in slavery. 

Baby Suggs also describes how little she knew about her children. She intentionally did not get to know them because she knew they would either be taken from her or they would grow up and leave her. Despite this, Baby Suggs explains how she still knew more about them than she knew about herself. She thought, “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.” She can barely recount what her children’s faces looked like, but in comparison to the knowledge she has about herself it is still greater. Many other subtle comments like these demonstrate how slaves like Baby Suggs lacked their self-identity. They did not have the sense of self-ownership that the average American citizen typically has, and they did not get to know themselves as whole, complex individuals with agency. 

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Radical Compassion

On September 23, 2019, writer and journalist Andrew Solomons visited the University of Richmond to speak on the topic of “Radical Compassion” at the Weinstein-Rosenthal Forum on Faith, Ethics, and Global Society. In times like today, or any time for that matter, Solomons argues that there is a need for unconditional love and compassion. Although he offered a variety of different stories and anecdotes, each revolved around the idea concept of the distinction between insiders and outsiders. Each society is beautiful, but each also has outsiders. Solomons questions what mainstream society is and acknowledges that being different is good, but being alone and different is difficult. Radical compassion is a way to forge meaning and build identity among individuals. It invites everyone to share joy, and doing so changes the world.

One aspect of Solomons’ talk that stood out was his reference to Toni Morrison (how relevant). Through this comparison, Solomons points out that the idea of freedom is not static. Because freedom is a verb, it must be lived every day and entails commitment. Once one is set free, he or she must claim a free self, but that does not mean this is without pain and oppression. It is hard for someone to live an oppressed life alone. For Sethe in Beloved, her children give her meaning and her future gives her meaning. She is able to endure the hardships of her life because she has a purpose, but more importantly, because she is not alone. She received radical compassion from Amy on her journey away from Sweet Home and she found community at the 124 house. Without these, Sethe might not have endured. 

This idea of radical compassion should be an important factor in our own lives. Naturally, people will create walls and group themselves. But to Solomons point, each group is unique and special in its own way. It is our job to build and relationships and understand each other unconditionally in the same way a parent loves his or her child unconditionally. It takes effort but being closed-minded shields us from the beauty of others. Because we need meaning, we should also pay it back and give others meaning. I found this talk extremely interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking and I would urge everybody to look into Andrew Solomons books and TED Talks. 

 

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The Truth Hurts

In the final section of Part I, Morrison discloses the tale of Beloved’s death. Although Sethe escapes from Sweet Home, she lacks true freedom. Schoolteacher, his nephew, a slave catcher, and a sheriff all arrive at 124 with the goal of recapturing Sethe. When the men go around to the back of the house, they find Sethe “holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other” (175).  This powerful scene uncovers the truth about Beloved: Sethe killed her. On page 176, Morrison notes that “neither Stamp Paid nor Baby Suggs could make her put her crawling-already? girl down” which confirms that the “blood-soaked child” is Beloved (178). Sethe’s attachment to the dead child indicates that the killing was an act of love.

Despite Stamp Paid showing Paul D the newspaper clipping, relating to the tragic story of Beloved’s death, Paul D refuses to believe it was Sethe who committed the atrocity. When Paul D discusses the situation with Sethe, Sethe explains that she “took and put [her] babies where they’d be safe” (193). This statement suggests that Sethe thinks that death is a better option for her child than life as a slave. Although Paul D cannot comprehend Sethe’s decision, Sethe finds that she was successful as she kept her children away from Sweet Home. Finally, Paul D asserts that he finds what Sethe did “was wrong” (194). Moreover, Paul D proposes that there could have been some other way from protecting her children because Sethe has “two feet…not four” (194). Paul D’s statement suggests that he finds Sethe’s behavior to be animalistic. In this moment, the love between Sethe and Paul D dies. Paul D’s classification of Sethe’s behavior as animalistic parallels that of a slave owner. The contention between Sethe and Paul D, combined with Beloved’s presence causes Paul D to leave 124 at the end of Part I.

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Paul D and Beloved: A Battle Between the Future and the Past

Paul D’s ongoing struggle with the past comes to a head in this section. Paul D has locked his past in a tin box, refusing to recognize it or deal with any of it. He has learned how to guard himself so that the pains of his past cannot happen to him again. Paul D has such a tumultuous relationship with Beloved because she is the living embodiment of the past. He feels uncomfortable around Beloved and is not sure how to act around her, just like how he feels uncomfortable about his past and chooses to keep it locked up instead of confronting it. Paul D and Beloved’s sexual encounter is a message that it is impossible for Paul D to escape the past and that it is more powerful than he ever imagined. Beloved is able to control Paul D and make him do things that he normally would not do. The past is controlling the future and Beloved is beginning to have too much of an impact in the present.

Paul D and Beloved are at a constant battle over Sethe, deciding whether or not she should move into the next phase of her life or if she should settle in the past forever. It seems as though Paul D has won this battle and won the attention of Sethe. He sees a future with Sethe and won’t let Beloved get in the way. Sethe is still unsure of who Beloved is, however, and the discovery of her true identity might break Sethe and pull her right back into the past. The way that Beloved died is the one element of the past that Sethe has yet to confront and reflect on.

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The Conflict Between Past and Present

The discussions that we had in class regarding Paul D and his relationship with wanting to move forward and pursuing the future really came to fruition in the most recent chapters of Beloved. We learned in these chapters that Paul D has a history of sexual abuse and is still wrestling with these demons as he contemplates his autonomy and his masculinity. So far, in the novel, Paul D has adamantly resisted the arrival of Beloved and her role in 124. This is because Beloved is the manifestation of the past coming back to haunt Sethe and the people in her life, while Paul D is trying to look towards the future with the potential of raising a family of his own with Sethe.

Despite Paul D and Beloved being at odds throughout the story so far, Beloved is able to assert her power over Paul D when she seduces him. This brings back the difficult and painful memories that Paul D was suppressing in his “tin tobacco box,” as he repeats the phrase “red heart” as he has sex with her. Paul D is ashamed of his actions and his past, and can’t bring himself to tell Sethe the truth when he tries to confess to her. The fact that Paul D has such a conflict with his past and refuses to embrace the horrors that he endured are detrimental to him.

This idea becomes evidently clear when Paul D asks Sethe if she wants to have a baby together. Instead of being honest, he chooses to try to again simply move on and pursue the future. This is a problem because instead of wanted to have a baby with Sethe out of love with genuine hope for a family, the baby is considered a “solution” for Paul D. Having a baby with Sethe will bring back confidence in his sense of masculinity and identity. However, the opposite is true, as Paul D is just running further and further from the truth as he continues to burry his past.

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Beloved as a Symbol of Punishment

After reading this section of the book I have no doubt in my mind that the theory we discussed in class about Beloved being there to punish Sethe is completely true. The scene that comes to mind is the one in the Clearing, where Sethe asks Baby Suggs (or rather, the ghost of her) to massage her neck. This turns dark quickly as the soothing presence turns violent and begins suffocating and strangling Sethe. When this is discussed later between Denver and Beloved, Denver confirms that she saw Beloved try to strangle Sethe. So far Denver has always been the one who saw Beloved for what she really is, the ghost of her dead older sister. So I have reason to believe that she is right when she says she saw Beloved try to strangle Sethe. With that established, it is pretty obvious that she is trying to punish Sethe for some previous wrongdoing.

What that wrongdoing is I am not sure yet. The obvious speculation is that Sethe somehow caused her daughter’s death, and Beloved is there to haunt Sethe and make her never forget what happened in the past. I’m very interested to find out what exactly Sethe did to Beloved that would make her want to come back to haunt her, or even strangle her. All of this being said, I find the characterization of Beloved to be very interesting. In most stories, the return of the ghost of a dead family member or friend is typically seen as a happy event. To be able to see a specter of a lost family member is usually a blessing for someone in mourning. But in Beloved, the appearance of Sethe’s dead daughter has only wrought mystery and stress. To me Beloved’s scenes are always very eerie, and honestly creep me out the more we learn about her as a character. Especially when you consider what happens between her and Paul D, which I have no idea why that happened or what it represents. Either way it is obvious to me that Beloved’s appearance at 124 is not a happy one, and she really does represent a figure of punishment, notably for Sethe.

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Paul D’s interference: Harsh but needed

 Denver and Paul D’s relationship is rough at the start but I hope his presence will allow Denver to learn a lot. Further I hope she will learn to appreciate him. Within a couple days of Paul D’s arrival, Denver was hearing her mother tell stories of which she may have never heard unless Paul came around. His presence, although jolting and aggressive was needed as he could play the role o mediator between Denver and Sethe. Paul further acted as some pathway of communication between the two. Interestingly, when the three are enjoying the carnival, Sethe notices this glowing potential which Paul D brings out of them. “They were not holding hand but their shadows were.” (59) Although at first it seems Paul D could add another level of tension to the household, I believe he enters the stage at a perfect time where exactly someone of his assertiveness and questioning was needed to solve deep seeded issues within and between Denver and Seth. 

On the last page of Chapter 4 Denver expressed her potential liking to Paul D after he persuaded her with all types of candies and treats at the Carnival. She described the comfortability Paul D commanded as he “pleased her enough to consider the possibility that Paul D wasn’t all that bad. In fact there was something about him – when the three of them stood together watching Midget Dance – that made the stares of other Negroes king, gentle, something Denver did not remember seeing in their faces.” (61) The last part of this quote stuck out to me the most as it inferred that Denver always had seen negroes as harsh, even ugly. For some reason, Paul’s  entertainment allowed her a different perspective. Perhaps, Denver only heard ugly stories which her mother shared and never was introduced to the idea Paul D brought that African-Americans could be beautiful both physically and mentally as well. 

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The Future is Bright, But the Past is Darker

The Beloved story is starting to pick up with the entrance of Beloved and the integration of Paul D within the 124 household. While this surely adds to an already complex story, I instead would like to focus on the idea of the future. Previously, we discussed how Toni Morrison appears to blend time; it is hard for the reader to identify what is now and what is the past. While this has worked to show Sethe’s fear of the past, we see on page 71, for one of the first times, a shift towards the future on the topic of the eatings when Morrison narrates, “she wouldn’t say another word. Until the next time when all three of them ran through the wind back into the house.” Similarly, Sethe acknowledges her preoccupation with the future when she says “I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow” on page 83.

It is no coincidence that this shift occurs in tandem with the introduction of Beloved and Paul D. While Sethe had been running her whole life, working to forget the past, this is the first time when things are starting to look good for the residents of the 124 house. Beloved seems to take the place of the dead baby (we also have not had any ghost interactions lately) and Paul D is working to integrate the “family” into society by bringing them to the carnival. For the first time since this book began, Sethe and Denver finally have direction and are excited for what the future holds. That is not to say that the past is gone, though. Morrison does say that Sethe’s “brain was not interested in the future,” but we are beginning to see a shift that might be cognisant of a shifting time. Post abolition but still with a long way to go, the future might have been bright for many African Americans, but a preoccupation with all that has been done and a dark past are hard to forget and move on from.

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Return of Beloved

With the arrival of Beloved, it is almost immediately assumed that this character represents the return of Sethe’s baby that died years ago in some eerie, supernatural way. Apart from the obvious, that being her name, there are many other signs indicating she is in fact the child from Sethe’s past. It began with a quiet devotion to Sethe that could only be compared to that of a child’s devotion to its mother. Beloved wanted to spend every moment she could with Sethe, and often acted in ways that gave off a fear of potential abandonment by the older woman. She became enamored with hearing Sethe speak and tell stories of her past. Sethe noted that storytelling, “became a way to feed her.” (69) However, what Denver noticed in this is that occasionally Beloved would indicate she wanted to hear a certain story that she should not have been able to know about like in the case of the earrings. This leads to the sense that Beloved comes from Sethe’s past and knows more than she is letting on. 

The language used to describe Beloved’s connection with Sethe is well-suited to describe a mother-daughter like relationship. With words and phrases like “desire” and “pet-like adoration,” the way Beloved feels about Sethe could be described as love. The words Beloved uses to describe where she was before staying with Sethe, Denver, and Paul D depict imagery in line with the idea she was in-fact Sethe’s baby. When Sethe asks about where Beloved was beforehand Beloved responds, “‘Dark,’ said Beloved. ‘I’m small in that place. I’m like this here.’ She raised her head off the bed, lay down on her side and curled up.” (88) Immediately, this description conjures up the image of a small child in the fetal position. Beloved goes on to describe the temperature where she was as “hot,” and saying how there was no room to breathe or move as if she is describing her time in the womb, or also potentially, her grave. These eerie descriptions of Beloved’s past only serve to compel and confuse the reader further on how this character could in-fact be Sethe’s past child returning.

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