By Veronica Williams
Sunday, March 17, 2013.
“Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”(1 John 4:7)
The novel, Beloved by Toni Morrison recounts the black slave woman narrative. It is a novel which describes vividly the profound effects of slavery in the 18th and 19th century, and a novel which clearly illuminates the limited choices available to the central protagonist Sethe. I say this because the heroine of the novel attempts to murder all four of her children and is jailed for the murder of her one year old daughter Beloved. This horrendous act of infanticide is explained as the only way to ensure that her children do not experience the subjugation, exploitation, oppression and rape that she has experienced as a result of being a slave. A recurring theme throughout the novel Beloved is love, the love a mother has for her children and the love a woman has for her husband.
Additionally we are told of the love which Baby Sugg preaches to all who will listen to her, the love of mankind which is essentially the central premise of the Holy Bible. In the holy book we are taught to love our neighbours as ourselves.1 How then can Sethe’s act affirm what the scriptures teach us? Whilst she can rationalize her behaviour it is arguably not her choice to make. Proponents of ethics might further argue that there is moral ambiguity within the novel as it delineates a mother’s decision which is against God’s law. One of the Ten Commandments is that we shall not kill,2 thus whilst we might understand this irrational act we could not possibly condone it.
What we do in the name of love is something which deserves careful consideration. In the novel, Beloved we are introduced to the main protagonist who is haunted by the memories of the horrendous act she committed eighteen years ago. Sethe had initially lived at Sweet Home with her husband and children. As the novel progresses we learn that circumstances have changed and that a character known as schoolteacher takes over the running of the plantation/farm after the death of Mr Garner. Unlike the previous owner, schoolteacher is quite cruel in his treatment of the slaves, and consequently she decides to run away. Sethe was fully aware of her sexual vulnerability and in perpetual fear that any male might single her out to assault and victimize. In the light of this knowledge Sethe sends her children to her mother-in-law in Cincinnati; and plans to follow them shortly. However she is caught in the act, and is brutally raped and ferociously whipped by two white men, despite the fact that she is six months pregnant. Not deterred, in fact even more aware of the need to flee she escapes and is aided by a white woman en route. She finally reaches the safety of her mother-in-laws house known as 124.
Only she is not safe, as she is followed by schoolteacher who arrives with a slave catcher and the sheriff. The black woman was considered by law to be the property of her master and her daughters were also considered to be his property. Sethe tries to hide in the woodshed, but knows she will soon be discovered, and in an act of sheer desperation she tries to murder her children. Sethe’s behaviour defines what can be perceived as an extreme act of insanity, and yet the sexual exploitation of black slaves gives some insight as to why she believes this is her only option. The author, Toni Morrison, suggest that Sethe’s behaviour is ostensibly an act of love, which is meant to save her children from the horrific and de-humanising conditions of slavery. Thus we are presented with an act of infanticide which demonstrates the devastating effects of slavery, and which also highlights that a mother was left with no choice than to express her love for her children by attempting to murder them.
The author purports that Sethe’s act is an aspect of sacrificial love, and that this mother’s motivation is primarily to alleviate the suffering of her children. Given that this is the case in what ways does the central protagonist achieve this? In taking the life of her child, and I take on board the mental anguish and torment that she suffers for years, I believe the heroine has played into the hands of her oppressors. It seems that she has no longer the ability to reason in a logical and rationale manner. We all know that things change with the passage of time; therefore arguably circumstances may have changed sufficiently so that her children may not have experienced the extremes of cruelty and de-humanising conditions as herself and fellow slaves. On the one hand the act can be seen as an unwillingness to comply and subjugate herself to her slave master, while on the other hand she becomes the stereotype of the savage and sub-human as characterized by her oppressor.
As the novel unfolds the eponymous heroine of the novel appears from the water. The image of water is very mush associated with this character that is presented as the spirit of the dead baby. It is as if Beloved has come back to seek vengeance on the mother who gave her up in such a horrific manner. Sethe and Beloved engage in a bizarre relationship in which the mother tries to appease the embodiment of her dead child. It is a relationship in which Sethe tries to atone and certainly seeks forgiveness from Beloved. I never quite get the impression that this is achieved and it is the community who join together to exorcise the malevolent spirit before it does untold harm. At the end of the novel Beloved is pregnant, and she leaves the house never to return. Peace is restored and the sense of displacement and alienation is no longer an aspect in the lives of those who live at 124.
The themes discussed in the novel, Beloved clearly illustrate the importance of sacrificial love. Love however should not mean abuse, and too many abusers in contemporary society say ‘I abuse you because I love you’. This should never be accepted, as no one who abuses another person can in anyway love them. A distinction should be made between chastising or disciplining a child and abusing them. You may use certain measures to ensure a student learns and obeys the rules of a school; this should however never involve or include corporal punishment. Smacking, caning, hitting is wrong and will in no ensure that a student is compliant. Advocates against physical abuse might further argue that you are essentially teaching students to respond to the physical mistreatment in a like manner. Instead perhaps negotiation skills and conflict resolution should be used to encourage students to participate constructively in the rules of the school. This should be approached in a positive and caring manner as it often elicits the correct response.
A central recurring theme in the Holy Bible is that we should love one another; and this belief should be one of the main aims in teaching students. Love implies care and the wish to ensure the safety and well being of those in your care. If as educators we express care, compassion and an interest in our student’s welfare, then arguably half of the battle is won.
Caretaking is not an outmoded thought, and it is important as teachers that we pay attention to all aspects of the students needs. We need to care for the whole person in the classroom and this includes their physical and emotional health as well as their intellectual understanding. It is well documented that a student’s physical well-being is important to learning; for instance if we have a minor illness such as a cold we are unlikely to perform as well in lessons. Additionally we should be aware if a student is subjected to abuse either within the school environment or within the home they might exhibit anti-social behaviour. This should be dealt with promptly by inviting their parents into school and identifying the perpetrator of the abuse. If necessary it may involve reporting the matter to social services and ensuring that counselling is available to the student. It is not simply an external problem and arguably may have repercussions within the learning environment.
Nurturing young people both emotionally and physically is vital if we are to ensure the next generation of leaders are given the skills and knowledge necessary to ensure that they are effective and competent leaders. Academic excellence and forward thinking should also be an aspect in the development of students, as well as consideration of their emotional well being.
Furthermore, it is vital that students acquire the skills required to communicate their needs efficiently and are able to engage positively with both students and educators. It is also important to ensure that their basic needs are met on a daily basis. I mention this as I am aware of a programme which was successfully run a few years ago which related to ensuring that students started the day with a healthy breakfast. Good nutrition is vital to being receptive to learning, so ensuring an adequate diet is provided should go some way to ensuring the student is engaged in the learning process. Like myself I’m sure you are aware that if the body is malnourished that you may not function particularly well. Whereas if your basic needs are met, the physical environment is conducive to learning, interaction between you and your peers is healthy and you have a good rapport with your teachers, all of these factors work together to enable active participants in the learning process.
Is the legacy of slavery still relevant in contemporary society and if so in what lessons can we learn from the past? We should never underestimate the horror and cruel subjugation of black people during the era of slavery. It is a history which tells of the loss of millions of Africans during the middle passage either because they experienced such atrocities that they loss the will to live or that they were simply thrown overboard to lighten the ships load. While slavery has always existed the inhumane treatment of Africans during this part of our history cannot really be compared with indentured servitude. As educators we need to ensure that we never return to treating our brothers in this way, and as Christians we need to ensure that we adhere to scripture and love our brothers as ourselves. After all we are all part of one race, the human race and should not occupy positions of inferior and superior human beings in the social hierarchy. It is important to learn lessons of sacrificial love so that no longer will a mother feel she is left with no choice but to murder her children. Moreover in applying these lessons in a school setting which works with young people from diverse backgrounds, we need to ensure that all children in the classroom are valued, treated with equity and parity and know the meaning of love.
St Kitts & Nevis-based Veronica Williams is a graduate in English Literature and has a Masters Degree in Cultural Studies. She was an educator for 25 years and is now retired from the teaching profession. Veronica has a wealth of experience to share and draws on her Christian background when discussing some of her views. In addition to writing educational resources she also writes articles for magazines and newspapers. Additionally she has written her autobiography, which is entitled The Mind of the Individual. She moved to the Caribbean in 2010. She can be reached at email@example.com
Links to other published articles by Veronica Williams
Wisdom Magazine’s Web Edition
http://www.wisdom-magazine.com Article for July 2012
It Isn’t Always Appropriate to Laugh
Wisdom Magazine’s Web Edition
http://www.wisdom-magazine.com Article for March 2012
Why It’s Okay to Cry
How to Remain In Paradise