On Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Maternal Ambivalence
I lose myself in Toni Morrison’s * (1)* and I know that I am Sethe’s and she is mine. I see my own reflection in the black pools of her eyes; I recognize the curves of that wide mouth that drove the male slaves of the plantation to fuck cows in their longing for her. Beloved is Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning fictionalization of the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman who chose to murder her children rather than return them to bondage. Morrison reimagines Garner through Sethe, a slave forging a kind of life on Sweet Home, a Kentucky plantation, complete with a husband and four children: two boys and two girls. When Sweet Home falls into the cruel hands of a new owner, Sethe takes her babies and runs, crossing the mighty Ohio River and settling into a small Cincinnati community of former slaves.
There, in the home of her free mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, Sethe and her family enjoy 28 glorious days of freedom, where she can finally love up on her children in a real way because she feels that they are hers alone. When slave catchers close in, Sethe gathers her darlings and dashes to a woodshed, where she intends to kill them all, including herself. She succeeds in killing her crawling baby girl, taking a handsaw to the child’s neck and watching the blood pump out of her tiny body. Sethe, Baby Suggs, and her remaining children continue living in the house, haunted by the spirit of the murdered baby. When a strange, beautiful woman arrives calling herself “Beloved,” which is the single word marking the dead baby’s headstone, Sethe claims the woman as her daughter returned from the other side.
*Beloved* earned Morrison the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, cementing the work’s status as a classic within the American literary canon. Morrison typically deals in the beauty and horror of contemporary black life, but in Beloved, she travels back in time to provide an origin story; the novel is a retelling of our very first black American traumas. It is a recounting of the first Africans to be dragged across the Atlantic and have “American” tacked onto their identity. Sethe, the daughter of a captured African woman, is a first-generation slave, and in the continuum of Morrison’s oeuvre, she functions as a literary Eve.
The official diagnosis was an incomplete spontaneous abortion, but what I claim as truth is stickier, more complex. It is the summer of 2008, the year that thirteen-year-old cicadas burrow out of the ground en masse, filling every room with their endless drone and those red eyes that are always, always watching me. I fail to graduate high school, so I attend my friends’ graduation festivities and work ridiculous hours at a phone-accessory store in order to buy name-brand clothes and enough weed to numb myself.
I am eighteen and in love with a boy who will never be able to love me back. Our relationship has always been delicate, precarious, but that summer, my unplanned pregnancy finally causes us to fall and break. I don’t love what I am carrying, but I do love the boy who planted it there, and every day I fight for him harder, close my fists around him tighter. Around my sixth week of pregnancy, it becomes obvious that he does not want me or what I am carrying; he wants the abortion we had initially agreed upon. He denies me, refuses my attempts to bind myself to him, and my maternal ambivalence matures into a sour contempt; I carry it in my womb, alongside the small seed that is the beginnings of a baby. I wake up one morning with a hot, aching pelvis and notice that the small beating inside of me, rapid and light as a cicada’s wings, has stopped. It’s as if the shock of being refused by the love of my young life and my resulting vitriol for the embryo was enough to kill it. I could almost hear the soft “crunch” as it was done.
My doctor waits for my body to rid itself of the embryonic materials. For two weeks, I carry death in my belly, and I even begrudge it that, turning my body into a graveyard. But the fetus remains entrenched, so on a morning too cold for summer, I walk to the hospital alone for a manual vacuum aspiration. The anesthesiologist has called in sick, and I am given the option of either waiting another week to have the procedure performed or going ahead without general anesthetic. Initially I do not choose to go forward.
I sit to think, and I can’t tell if I am imagining the smell of death and rot floating from between my legs. I inform the doctor of my decision and down a couple of ibuprofen, which we give fifteen minutes to kick in. I enter the surgical room and undress before positioning myself on the table, legs in forceps. A resident covers the lower half of my body in a disposable sheet. I tense at the invasion of cold steel, and almost vomit when I see the length of the needle that will be used to inject a numbing agent directly into my cervix. There are light cramps as it is injected, then blinding cramps, ripping through me like lightning, as a series of dilators are inserted to forcibly expand my cervical opening. After the dilators are in place, the doctor tells me there are just a few seconds left. I ask for constant narration during the procedure; not necessarily out of fear, more of a dissociated interest, the way one observes a classroom science experiment or carnival exhibit. A long tube attached to a suction device is inserted, and I hear the light pumping of the instrument as my midsection twists and cramps. I count Mississippis, and after a final sharp and bloody yank, the procedure is over.
I ask the nurses to see it. They show me the jar of wet and purple pulp and like Sethe, I do not look away. I rise from the bed and a flower of blood blossoms and spreads in the white center of the sheet before a pair of gloved hands throws it away. I enter the early-morning chill and a million red eyes follow me home, my ears filled with their song.
As a girl, I found *Beloved* in my cousin’s spare room, junked with other useless papers and documents. “You can have that,” she said. “It’s about a dead baby or something. I couldn’t get into it.” Neither could I. I attempted to dive in, but even the opening sentences stumped me: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” Years later, after my own tragedy, I reached for the novel again, and finally it reached back. For Sethe, and for the ugliest parts of myself I saw reflected in her, the spite I know it takes to still the beating heart of a baby, I return to the book time and time again.
The need to claim a person or thing as one’s own is often mighty enough to dull the sharp and foul stench of the truth. It is likely that Beloved is not actually Sethe’s baby girl, but what matters is the insistence with which Sethe believes that she is. In one of the novel’s most stunning passages, Morrison shifts to first person, allowing Sethe’s thoughts to flow onto the page in a stream of consciousness:
*”Beloved, she my daughter. She mine. See. She come back to me of her own free will and I don’t have to explain a thing. I didn’t have time to explain before because it had to be done quick … she had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now. I knew she would be.”*
Sethe needs Beloved to be hers so she wills it so, ignoring the rot that seeps into their initially sweet union. Beloved grows vampiric, emotionally and psychically “whipping” Sethe. Babies and embryos are parasitic, draining and demanding of the mother, but not in the conscious, dogged manner of Beloved; she rocks 124 with a woman’s spite and vitriol, not a baby’s venom. It is other women from Sethe’s community, who are themselves well-acquainted and familiar with death and deathly matters, who force Beloved from 124, saving Sethe physically if not emotionally.
Contemporary pro-choice rhetoric is often hinged upon negating “personhood,” arguing that a fetus or embryo is simply a clump of cells tethered to a woman’s uterine wall, no more sentient than a fingernail. This does not feel authentic to me; I wouldn’t call what I carried a person, but it was definitely a presence, a being. I was hyperaware of it before any pregnancy test was sensitive enough to detect the change in my hormonal level. I knew that it was a boy, and I knew the moment that it died. It wasn’t just a happenstance gathering of matter and atoms growing in my center; it was an invasion. I never wish to be pregnant again, but in the event that it happens I know that I will terminate the pregnancy. For me it is more honest to admit that while a pregnancy, a thing that I carry, is alive, I am allowed to want myself more, to desire my own life more than the life of it.
Bodily autonomy is a complicated matter for black women. What does reproductive justice look like for women whose ancestors birthed babies not legally their own and who are currently presumed corrupt and ill-suited for motherhood in a way that devalues black children? When a black woman kills her baby, is she performing a radical act of kindness, enacting her own free will, or undermining the capitalistic system that has historically assigned her body and the fruits of it a monetary value?
Margaret Garner was charged with destruction of property for the murder of her daughter and sent back to her master; she died of typhoid in 1858. In the eighteenth century, Sabina Park, an enslaved Jamaican woman, killed her child in order to avoid turning the three-year-old over to “The Buckra.” Mary Thomas, an enslaved woman in Barbados, was suspected of smothering her infant upon birth. Perhaps these were our first stalwart acts of self-determinacy, black women with the audacity to demand a semblance of control over their own lives and the lives they produced. These are our foremothers, feminists and women who demanded sovereignty over their reproductive futures. These are stories to pass on.
*Jasmine Sanders is a writer from the South Side of Chicago, where she is currently completing her first work of nonfiction.*