Thomas Satterwhite Noble
The Modern Medea, 1867
Oil on canvas
Spoiler warning ahead. I am going to discuss central plot details of the Toni Morrison novel Beloved, including information that the reader is not made aware of until the end of the first major division of the story. To be fair, in my edition of Beloved, Morrison herself spoils the plot detail in her Foreword, and she gives no spoiler warning. But she is the master, and I am not.
In her masterpiece Beloved, Toni Morrison depicts for us the complex reality of motherhood amidst freed (and escaped) slaves in antebellum America. Time and again, for instance, Baby Suggs — the mother-in-law of the main character, Sethe — wonders if she truly had any children beside the one she herself raised. We are told that she birthed many children, of course, but in her mind only Halle (Sethe’s husband) really counts as her son. There’s something about the structure of chattel slavery that not only dehumanizes and destroys individuals but also dehumanizes and destroys family units, societies, and cultures. Drawing upon Morrison’s language (though expanding it using the work of Frantz Fanon and the like) Hortense Spillers, in her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” observes that chattel slavery did more than transform people into bodies, but, even further, it deformed bodies into flesh. Bodies could, perhaps, have familial relations with one another, but pieces of flesh, ripped at will, cannot.