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Culture & Resistance Posts

Nobody Saw Their Fall

In Beloved, Morrison often employs repetition to convey a deeper, and sometimes darker, meaning. My attention was drawn early in chapter 19 to Morrison’s repetition of the phrase “nobody saw them fall” in the scene of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved ice skating. This phrase is repeated four times, and its exact meaning is not made clear. This moment appears to be a pleasant departure from life within the confines of 124, laughing and skating under “winter stars, close enough to lick,” offering their “perfect peace.” The notion that nobody saw them falling can be taken as their opportunity to enjoy life without the judgement of the community, with nobody to laugh or ridicule them for falling on the ice, where the trio are free to be carefree and spend time together as a family. In this moment, nobody and nothing mattered to the women besides each other.

Although the literal meaning of the repeated phrase refers to them ice skating and stumbling through the snow, it can be interpreted as referencing their social isolation and fall into madness. It could be conveying to the reader that because of the ostracization Sethe and Denver face from the community, nobody was there to watch them deteriorate to their current mental states, nobody was there to catch them and care for them. Even Baby Suggs was left to fall from her place of prominence with nobody but her family to watch. It is clear from chapters 20 and 21 that Sethe and Denver’s minds are scattered, and both deal with heavy truths that each has trouble coming to terms with. For Denver, it is that her mother tried to kill her and that she is someone to love out of fear, and for Sethe it is the constant obligation to justify attempting to kill her children. Sethe appears to be reminded of this when all three are laughing at Denver’s fall and Sethe “rises to her hands and knees” and begins to laugh and cry until the laughter stopped and the tears continued. Being on her hands and knees could have reminded her of Paul D referring to her as an animal, and briefly realizing that she could have had many moments on the creek like these had she not acted as the animal Paul D labeled her as.

Most striking to me was the fourth and final repetition of the phrase, where she instead writes “but nobody saw them fall.” Morrison’s departure from the present participle in favor of the infinitive form of the verb “ to fall” gives the reader a sense that their fall is complete. Perhaps this could just be Morrison’s way of closing the scene by the creek and transitioning back inside 124, or does this foreshadow something sinister to come? Does it mean that it is too late for Sethe and Denver? This line does come when the trio are walking through the woods, arms around each other, holding on tight. Does this represent the unity and bond between the mother and daughters, or does the final repetition’s use of the infinitive suggest Sethe and Denver have already fallen too far into Beloved’s spell?

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Who Are The Real Animals?

In this section, we hear a lot from Stamp Paid, who has seemingly replaced the only other male character, Paul D. Stamp Paid brings about this concept of “The Jungle.” Stamp Paid uses the metaphor of The Jungle to help understand how slavery is so terrible for everyone involved. Blacks are described as jungle-like, while the actions of whites help emphasize and promote the jungle-like behavior. The whites create jungle-like instincts within people and in turn, they behave like brutal animals in order to control those instincts. And yet, white people are never described as animals, only black people, even though the acts of white people are the most animalistic of them all. Stamp Paid highlights how slavery affects everyone, and while black people are obviously the ones who have horrible acts done against them, individual white people are reluctant participants and are often just doing what they think their role is in life.

“The Jungle” made me reflect on the discussion we had last class about black people often being described as “animalistic” when it is often the actions of others that bring them to that point. When discussing who should be blamed for Sethe’s horrible act against her children, it was hard to pinpoint a single person. One could blame the Schoolteacher and his nephews, but they are also a product of their environment. Sethe made the physical act, so blame can be placed there, but she would never have had to make that choice had the world been a different place. White people grew up believing that they had this power over those that were enslaved, and so the individuals cannot always be fully blamed for their actions. The Schoolteacher was, of course, unnecessarily cruel, but his actions were only permissible because the institution of slavery existed. Everyone is part of The Jungle and everyone suffers in some way because of slavery. No one of that time could be untouched by the effects of slavery. Yes, white people as a group are to blame for the institution of slavery in America, but blaming individuals is nearly impossible because who’s to say how those individuals would have acted had the circumstances of the country been different.

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New Perspectives

What struck me the most about this reading was the new perspectives that in the series of monologues starting at Chapter 20. I was especially intrigued by Denver’s thoughts, given that besides, Beloved, Denver is the character where we have gotten the least from her perspective in the narrative. As readers, we have been apprehensive of Beloved’s presence and have feared for Sethe’s safety, given that we know that Beloved died at Sethe’s hands. We know that 124 has been haunted by Beloved’s presence, and she has returned in a corporal form with the possible intention of harming those who live there, namely Paul D (the outsider who was trying to find his place in their family), and Sethe (the person who killed her). We have seen that Denver is intrigued by Beloved and has tried to connect with her, but in this chapter we learn that Denver is also concerned for Beloved’s safety.

Denver has chosen to stay with and love Sethe out of fear, now that we know that Sethe’s two sons had to flee from 124 after Sethe tried to kill them after she murdered Beloved. This revelation completely changes the way that we read Denver and Sethe’s relationship, now that we know that Denver is afraid in her own house, and is still scared of what her mother might to do Beloved. It will be interesting to see if and how these revelations are brought out into the open and how they will force Sethe, Beloved, and Denver to address their relationships with one another.

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Beloved: A platform to promote new “Definers”

I want to focus on the quote that Morrison introduces in the first chapter of Part Two. In her rememory, Sethe comments on a time that Sixo redefines stealing, and how the whitepeople punished him for it: “Schoolteacher beat him… to show him that definitions belong to the definers–not the defined” (225). In the foreward, Toni Morrison notes that “to render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way” (xix). This feature of the use of definitions is really important, because the language we use to shape slavery is a language by and generally for whitepeople.

I believe those two quotes combined point to the purpose of Morrison’s novel inlaid with new words of her own creation. Morrison has made herself the definer to reclaim a narrative of slavery that has far too often been taken over by whitepeople. As a whiteperson, I have found myself often confused by the language and timelapse of Sethe’s narrative, and I’m finally beginning to understand how that disorientation is intentional. Whitepeople (specifically in the US) never had to adapt to learning new languages and understanding different cultures. This book forces whitereaders to challenge their expectations of literature and open themselves to a whole new form of narrative storytelling to empathize with the characters–who feel far realer than fiction–forced to exist in a world where words were used to oppress and define them without any regard for their humanity and experiences.

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The Concept of “The Jungle”

Stamp Paid’s portions of Chapter 19 discussed a common theme of a “jungle” that existed within people. In these parts, Stamp reflects on events of his past, from his life as a slave with his wife, to the horrors of Beloved’s murder and its impact on Baby Suggs. These reflections seem to be a reflection of the story so far, and tie it together under this idea of a “jungle.” According to Stamp, white people believed that there was a jungle within each black person, which was a savage side to them that made them more crude. He goes on to say that this jungle was put there by these very same white people for forcing slavery upon them and all the horrors that came with it. In response, white people themselves developed their own jungle as they became scared “of the jungle they had made” within black people. This led to increased savagery on their part as they became frightened of the very slaves that they owned.

This part to me was very important because it acknowledged the psychological impact of the institution of slavery on the enslaved. With increased punishment came increased resistance and an increased rage/desperation among the slaves, as shown in Sethe’s psychotic break when she considered it better to murder her own children than allow them to be returned to slavery. It also reminded me of how slavery differed from the United States to the West Indies. Slavery in the West Indies was considered to be far worse than in the U.S. because slaveowners were significantly more brutal to their slaves. In response, the slave uprisings in the West Indies were likewise some of the most horrific uprisings in the history of slavery. As Stamp would say, in the West Indies this “jungle” was far more prevalent among both the slaves and slaveowners, and it demonstrates what human beings are capable of when their mental state is pushed to its limit.

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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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