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Delve Seminar Summaries “Haunting Legacies: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Contemporary Representations of Slavery”

[by Kirstin Fulton]


Week 1

My fellow Delve participants and I began our six-week session on Toni Morrison’s profound and complex novel Beloved with a conversation on Morrison the writer. In preparation for this first meeting, our guide Béalleka sent us a New York Times article to familiarize ourselves with Morrison, her work, and the history surrounding her writing. Titled “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,” this article offered us a peek into her purpose for writing and her intended audience–namely African American readers. While working as an editor at Random House in the 1980s, Morrison recognized an absence of black voices within literature: She rarely came across work that was written for an African-American audience, and even more rare were works for African-American women. So she wrote what she wanted to read.

This was our jump off point into a discussion of the social and literary context of 1987, when Beloved was written. When this book appeared, it radically challenged the common perception of the African-American experience. Through the ‘white male gaze,’ which had long been the default for literature and history, the world had been profoundly misinformed about the personal experience of black people in America. Writing against, or perhaps alongside, the literary canon, creating a new dimension for the black voice, Morrison began retelling the African American story.

Our conversation of gaze organically led to one on intersectionality, meaning the intersections of one’s unique history that affect one’s self perception. Indeed, each character’s intersections affect how they see themselves as a member of a group. Referencing the text, we studied the scene between Sethe and Amy, a former indentured servant who stumbles upon the runaway Sethe in the forest. Both women, both ‘throw-away’ people, have disparate self-views as ‘women’ given that Sethe is black and Amy is white, an intersection that in itself marks a difference in ‘humanness’ in the period of this novel.

We Delvers touched on the point of dehumanization as a tool of slavery, something that we saw shadows of in the first nine chapters of the novel. Trauma and abuse is an assumed condition of slavery, but more profound is the absence of physical autonomy. Within the boundaries of this tale, and the historical context from which it arose, the slave had no autonomy over their own body. Without that, a person is continuously acted upon, driven into a non-human state. This concept is worked through Sethe in the stealing of her milk, a brutal physical trauma, and we questioned how autonomy can be learned after a lifetime without it.

Toward the end of our meeting, our guide readdressed a concept that will thread through our entire seminar series: the idea of being ‘touched’ versus being ‘moved’ by a novel. Morrison felt that Beloved did not accomplish her goal to move readers. We Delvers had spent the session recalling moments from the story that confused or discomforted us. We learned that Morrison’s handling of language and narrative style were often meant to dislocate readers–similar to being snatched up and loaded into a slave ship. Morrison is forcing us to engage with uncomfortable moments in a unique and circular way that is both subtle and discombobulating. In a method that Béalleka calls ‘peculiar intimacies,’ Morrison is offering moments that cause readers to struggle to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. She is using a masterful device to move us, one that I personally found very effective.

For some of the Delvers, this is their first reading of Beloved, while others have a deeper knowledge of the text, having read and studied it many times. Our spectrum of experience with this and other works by Toni Morrison has set the stage for a seminar full of rich conversation underpinned by personal, social, and historical context. Beloved is a work which ‘benefits from re-reading,’ promised our guide. And after one session, I can see why. The subtly of symbolism and intentionally of narrative style is awesome in the truest sense. The most influential lesson I brought from this first meeting is to take nothing in the work for granted: If any of us are going to grasp the intended meaning and emotion of the piece, we’re going to have to work for it.


Week 2

“Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer.”

 This week’s session started with a short writing prompt based on the above quote taken from Chapter 11 of Beloved. After silent reflection and recording, we shared our thoughts, interpretations, and feelings about this quote, perhaps a major underlying message of the text.

Our group response was as thoughtful to the context of the story as it was subjective to each Delver’s personal experience. Beloved tells of a woman who commits infanticide to prevent the re-enslavement of her child, and the quote is well embedded in the magnitude of that choice. We Delvers shared interpretations that focused on more personally driven ideas of what ‘mother’ means, as well as more theoretical notions that asked: Who is the recipient of this love–the mother or child? Who is being assaulted by the motherlove exactly–the mother herself? We then discussed the role of ‘mother’ within the slave experience through the function of mother figures in the text, from Sethe to her own mother to Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs.

These character examples allowed us to consider what it means to have attachment to a child in the context of slavery. Through multiple relationships, Beloved stresses a slave mother’s lack of freedom to bond with or form an emotional attachment to her child, in part for self-preservation but also due to the unpredictability of the child’s fate as property easily sold or traded. Slaves couldn’t depend on children being their own. Throughout Beloved, Sethe is repeatedly warned of the danger of loving her children, a clear message about what motherlove can do to the self and the recipients of that love.

From this, we discussed the history of infanticide within the slave experience, reflecting on the prevalence of this act during the middle passage. Sethe’s own mother, victim of sexual violence during the passage, committed infanticide with each child born of that violence by throwing the child overboard. This example shows how generations of enslaved people were extinguished both physically and from historic record.

As a direct consequence of the abandonment of ‘mothering’ among slaves, there was little to no passage of child-rearing knowledge from one mother to another—again, the effacement of generational inheritance. In the text, we see how little Sethe learns from others about how to mother, love, and care. Our conversation honed in on this point, paying special attention to Sethe’s determined and rebellious identity as a ‘mother.’ In reference to Sethe’s nurturing of Beloved, Paul D, and Denver, she acknowledges “she had milk enough for all.” With this defining phrase, we see who Sethe believes she is, despite the lack of legacy education and in spite of the culture of mothering in the slave community.

Here we stepped away from the novel to have a look at a cyclorama of Kara Walker, whose piece The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven ties into the topic of peculiar intimacies such as we’ve seen thus far in the novel. An impactful piece, we see Walker challenging the references to the slave story in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, just as Morrison is doing with Beloved. Another overlapping effect is the way the contemporary viewer/reader is forcibly brought into the piece—a peculiar intimacy at work on us.

We concluded our second session with an analysis of Chapter 10 of the novel: the story of Paul D. after his time at Sweet Home. The incredible darkness and lyrical descriptions in the chapter’s key passages caused many of us to re-read to decipher their meanings both on the page and in history. Toni Morrison’s subtle use of language makes us work for the reality of the situation, forcing us to read again and again. Through this chapter, we see the recurring use of narrative style as a tool, even as a character in itself.

Paul D., himself a victim of sexual violence, stands in this chapter as an example of how such acts were limitless and widespread. Within this literary context, we can see how the enslaved body was a source of racist pleasure and how it manifested in the slave as an internalized sense of oppression.

We were left with the question: Where and when–if even possible–can Sethe, Paul D., and the many millions like them find agency after such experiences?


Week 3

This week we focused on the end of Beloved’s first part. To prepare for a conversation on the climatic moment of action that sits at the center of the novel, our instructor Béallaka sent us the detailed scholarly essay “A Historical Margaret Garner” by Steven Weisenberger. For those unfamiliar with Beloved, Toni Morrison’s reasons for writing the book were myriad, but the kernel of historic inspiration that got her started was the true story of an enslaved woman named Margaret Garner and the actions Garner took to obtain freedom for herself and her family.

The subject of infanticide, which was a large focus of last week’s class, continued to underline our talk tonight, as this is what ultimately brought Margaret Garner’s story to the public spotlight and sparked a large argument on both sides of the slavery movement as to the innate tendencies of an enslaved person. In short, Margaret Garner was matriarch of a fugitive slave family who one winter’s night fled their Kentucky plantation for freedom in Cincinnati. To quote Weisenberger:

After walking across the frozen Ohio River at Covington, Kentucky, the fugitives found temporary shelter on Cincinnati’s west side, at the cabin of a free man of color named Joseph Kite. The Garner party sojourned no farther northward than that point. Pursuing federal Marshals and the slave master who claimed Margaret and her four children had surrounded Kite’s cabin. The twenty-two year old mother of four made a fateful decision: rather than return to slavery she would take her children’s lives, then her own. By the time deputies broke in and subdued her husband Robert, Margaret had killed her two-and-one-half year-old daughter Mary.

Margaret went to trial for the infanticide. This opened the public dialogue to debate. Pro-slavery voices claimed that such violence was part of a slave’s intrinsic nature, supporting the institution of slavery to save them from themselves, so to speak. Anti-slavery activists insisted that Garner’s choice was a result of the brutal institution of slavery, that she was a victim of extreme trauma. The question we focused on was: What is the effect of an image or example that is appropriated by both sides of the divide?

To address this complex question, we discussed ‘voyeuristic abolitionism,’ an arguably counter-productive approach of anti-slavery activists to reproduce brutalized black bodies in images. Historically, slaves’ bodies had been used as ornaments. Black women were viewed as licentious, their sexuality considered distinctly different from that of white women. This belief supported the argument that, concerning black women, female virtue was at stake and because of that licentiousness, sexual violence against a black woman could not be deemed ‘rape’. With the objectification of the black body deeply ingrained in the slave narrative of the time, we considered whether voyeuristic abolitionism serves against or, unwittingly, for this narrative.

At this point, we Delvers honed in on the topic of public narrative. Who creates the narrative and how can that narrative be undermined and disrupted? In general, the narrative has historically been dominated by white men. In Weisenberger’s essay, we see that Mrs. Garner and a female supporter try to change the dialogue, but to no real consequence. More than a century later, Toni Morrison, in giving a fictionalized version of a similar story in Beloved, was attempting to not only disrupt, but redefine the narrative.

Beloved offers myriad examples of the narrative being defined by the white population. Indeed, the narrator states, “Definitions belong to the definer–not the defined.” We narrowed in on a conversation between Mr. Gardner and Baby Suggs in which he is driving a discourse that is superficially portrayed as a two-way conversation. As a slave, Baby Suggs must respond in accordance to whatever a white person declares, the flexibility of truth and perspective aside.

We ended the first half of our meeting with an example of slave rebellion against the white man’s discourse. Sixo, an outspoken and willful slave, repudiated control by maintaining his former culture and by refusing to use English when he sees no future in it. Language has historically been a revolutionary device, and we can see that through Sixo’s actions.

From our discussion of narrative, we passed to the topics of safety, boundary, and place. To begin, we did a free write on the quote: ‘This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw.’ Our discussion brought many perspectives on the notion of safety, such as it being more a state of being than a physical act, or safety lying in predictability. Within the text, we see that the characters also have disparate ideas of safety. For Paul D, who seems to yearn the most for safety, it is seemingly tied to place. For Sethe, who offers safety the only way she knows how, it is death. For Baby Suggs, it is through personal boundary, represented by the fence that borders her yard.

Just as safety is a subjective concept, so is this idea of boundary. Baby Suggs’ fence is her principle boundary, and when the four horsemen cross into her yard, that is the offense that ultimately breaks her spirit. Later, the fence is completely pulled down by white boys, undermining the notion of both the physical and figurative boundary.

Finally, we discussed the concept of place, including the resounding nature of place, what it really means, and what it means to Sethe to get her kids ‘out’. If ‘out’ means more than ‘out of the plantation’ or ‘out of the slave condition,’ then the word is not really associated with the term ‘place’. As an unstable concept, ‘place’ cannot be tied to a sense of safety or escape. Thus, Sethe puts her baby in the only place she would be safe: death. Yet, with the appearance of the ghost Beloved, even the permanence of death is undermined.

Morrison is cultivating a constant sense of dislocation in the reader; she is causing us to question not only the historic narrative, but time, place, safety, and boundary–some of our main devices for understanding our world.


Week 4

The subject of pride is resonant in Beloved. This evening’s Delve conversation began with this: the keepers of pride in their myriad forms throughout the text. We uncovered that, similar to the concepts of safety, place and boundary, pride is a fully subjective experience.

For Stamp Paid, an agent of the Underground Railroad, pride manifests through asking permission to enter Sethe’s home, an act that he considers beneath him.

Stamp Paid raised his fist to knock on the door he had never knocked on (because it was always open to or for him) and he could not do it. Dispensing with that formality was all the pay he expected from Negroes in his debt … Rather than forfeit the one privilege he claimed for himself, he lowered his hand and left the porch. (203)

This is not the only moment of pride we see in Stamp Paid, but is one representing the willing elimination of boundary. Like him, Baby Suggs also experiences pride through boundary—through the mistaken impermeability of territory marked by a fence, door, or the symbolic line into one’s personal space. The boundary that surrounds her home is all the freedom that Baby Suggs has ever know, and its invasion by the four horsemen on the hunt for Sethe is the greatest offense she has experienced. It’s arguably this offense, more that witnessing the book’s central act of infanticide, that drives Baby Suggs ultimately inward until her death.

As for Sethe, pride comes from defining oneself, rather than being defined by the white folks, slaveholders, even one’s own community. In one influential scene, Sethe comes across schoolteacher–her new slave master–teaching his children to identify Sethe’s ‘human’ versus ‘animal’ characteristics. A painful moment of enlightenment, Sethe realizes that ‘definitions belong to the definers–not the defined’. She attempts to disrupt that reality by escaping with her children, saving them the suffering of being defined.

Yet, even in her new home with Baby Suggs, Sethe recognizes that her own community of free black folks also defines her–most explicitly for her act of killing her daughter, albeit in an effort to save her from a life worse than death.

So as we Delvers focused on a central scene of Chapter 19, we did so through the lens of pride, community, memory, and the gaze. The ice-skating scene (pp.204-6) finds Sethe, Denver, and Beloved ice-skating on a frozen river, only Beloved having a full pair of skates–perhaps a representation of the control she has over the trio. Sethe, in her shoes alone, slips and falls again and again, a sign of the danger that she’s in. It’s a moment for the reader to see that Sethe is not independent.

This scene conveys a strong sense of isolation. Even outside, beyond the walls of the home that they bar themselves within, no one sees them. Throughout the playful moments of love and connection–behind which lies something more sinister–repeats the phrase: Nobody saw them falling. The community has abandoned them, long ago denying help or a strengthening sense of belonging to the women. The absence of gaze here shows an utter hopelessness to the dangerous intentions that Beloved has for Sethe, as well as solidifying the idea that these women are in their own lingering purgatory. Apart from the outward gaze, the women can’t even see themselves metaphorically falling into that place of dismal limbo.

We concluded with a free write and conversation on the topic of dehumanization that is ever-present in the novel. To extract one heavy metaphor from the text, appearing at the end of Chapter 19, we discussed ‘the jungle,’ a changing tangle that exists ‘under every dark skin’. This metaphor laid on black people by ‘whitepeople’ is a complicated thicket in that the more the slaves challenge it, the more they are tangled in it. But such violent oppression exacts an equal impact on both the oppressor and the oppressed. In terms of the slave owners, one must consider what they give up of their own humanity through their acts of physical and psychological violence. What can dehumanizing others do to the self? How is it harming and who is it harming? We ended with these questions and the punctuating statement that though dehumanization appears systematically, it never ceases to feel personal.


Week 5

How does form contribute to the concept of rememory?

We Delvers started off the evening with a free write on the topic of ‘rememory,’ a recurring theme in Beloved. This can be loosely defined as the act of mentally returning to a place and, once there, remembering a memory–a complicated concept developed through the text with statements like this one from Sethe:

I was talking about time. It’s so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened. [43]

This quote suggests that memory exists independent of the rememberer—that it can constantly be recreated and that it is informed by each person’s experience and is therefore fluid, malleable, subjective, and occasionally dangerous. Toni Morrison uses form masterfully to show the working and reshaping of memory in the human experience.

To study this, our evening’s conversation focused heavily on Chapter 22, a structurally complex chapter that bounces between the narratives of Denver, Beloved, and Sethe—sometimes so subtly that the points of view becomes blurred. Morrison is showing us through intersection of narrative how multiple memories can meld together. In fact, Beloved’s character passages in particular go even deeper down this rabbit hole as they are amalgamations of her own memories, those of Sethe, and those of slaves on the Middle Passage, which she clearly couldn’t have known directly.

The complicated structure of this chapter nonetheless clarifies the notion that rememory is a unifying idea. As a descendent of slaves who has traversed the boundaries of time and place, Beloved becomes a receptacle of memory and a symbol of how rememory cannot be confined by those same boundaries. Through Beloved’s character, Morrison is bringing ‘unspeakable thoughts unspoken’ into public memory while also emphasizing how African Americans have to hold onto their people’s story, no matter how horrific. Doing so pushes against the erasure of the African American experience, one that can’t be tied to physical place, as it has been largely about itinerants in constant movement.

So much of our evening was dedicated to the ideas of unification and the African American story that it brought us organically back to Baby Suggs’ community and her status as the matriarchal figure. Though Baby Suggs was instrumental in teaching free blacks to care about themselves, newly freed slaves were cautious of black spiritual leaders. For many Delvers, this was a new piece of historical information. It allowed us to better see not only how seriously Baby Suggs had misread her community by overstepping her holiness and her extravagance with the influential ‘loaves and fishes’ party. We questioned the connection between this act, which allowed the community to pass judgment on one of their own and consequently bring about vindication, and the act of infanticide that occurred the next day.

Our evening ended on these questions: Why did the community not provide any warning to Baby Suggs’ family when the four horsemen arrive to collect Sethe and her children? What can Morrison be suggesting through the silence of the community, a group’s rebuke of their own people?


Week 6

As we Delvers began our final session, the general sentiment (or at least on my part) was that we’d barely broken earth on this monumental text. Topics abound and run deep in and in-between the lines of Beloved. Nonetheless, we were able to circle back to the beginning of the six-week series to some key questions that were originally posited by our instructor:

What is the contemporary legacy of the haunting legacies found in Beloved?

What is the role of African American historical literature–particularly written by black women–in the modern context?

We began with a free write on a repeated statement that punctuates the closing of the text: This was not a story to pass on. Group interpretation varied enormously. Largely, we honed in on verb use and questioned whether pass or the compound verb pass on was the intended function. With the former use, one could say that the story of the American slave experience is a story to be dealt with now, always, in every present moment. There is a critical need to remember, to engage, to not ignore the story of slavery and how it has shaped our contemporary society.

On the other hand, if we’re to emphasize pass on, analysis splits in many directions. Perhaps the intention is to suggest that passing on this story is near impossible due to the ‘disremembered and unaccounted for’ people that it recounts, or that it’s difficult to pass on a story that is still reverberating–but it is necessary to do so. One could also interpret the genetic sense of this statement, suggesting that the institutional trauma of enslavement is in the DNA and shouldn’t be passed down to the next generations.

Finally, the poetry of Toni Morrison’s lyrical repetition perhaps invokes irony. Do pass this story on. Do.

Perhaps this statement shows in large part of the contemporary legacy of this text, or the possibility of a legacy. What do we do with Beloved? How are we moved by it to action?

Thinking on the point of Beloved’s role in the modern context, we touched on Toni Morrison’s relationship with the American literary community, which Morrison termed ‘playing in the dark’. She was addressing an audience that was, and still is, grossly underserved. While there are long strides to be made to change the staunch traditionalism of the American literary canon, Toni Morrison’s work has carved out a place for black feminist literature within it.

We finished the session with an open conversation on some main thematic points within the text, particularly the role of education. We saw many examples of education in this work, from the schoolmaster’s warped teachings to his nephews to Denver’s early childhood instruction from Lady Jones. As the book closes, Denver is destined to attend Oberlin College, to which Paul D thinks, ‘Watch Out. Nothing in the world more dangerous than a white school teacher.’ We have seen in this text how education can be an oppressive system that may instill a further sense of self-hatred. One Delver explained that African American families still raise their children to be cautious, but that often it’s necessary to face clear risks to progress as a person and a people.

To close, we looked at Sethe’s last scene in Beloved, in which she has taken to Baby Suggs’ death bed to presumably follow in the old lady’s footsteps and retire from life slowly and deliberately. Paul D confronts her and challenges the thought that she has held on to her entire life: that her children are the best part of herself. He tells her, “You your own best thing, Sethe. You are.”

We questioned whether or not Sethe had ever actually heard this. Her response ‘Me? Me?’ can be widely interpreted by the reader, but we felt that it indicated an awakening. That this is a hopeful and optimistic moment, perhaps even offering a glimpse of hope for the future. And Paul D is himself becoming an instructor, teaching self-worth and undoing the self-hatred that Sethe is crushed beneath.

Each Delver from this series would have enjoyed many more discussions on the workings of Toni Morrison’s evocative storytelling, but for now we will have to do with reading and re-reading Beloved independently, striving to see something new, differently, or more profoundly every time.

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