Various voices have contributed to the issue of American freedom and the accompanying hardships. One of such voices is Patrick Henry who uttered this famous phrase over two hundred years ago, “give me liberty or give me death” (Heerak 45). Since then, this phrase has been used in various forms of struggles including the struggle of African Americans against the American slave trade.
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America is synonymous with leading the way in the fight for various forms of freedom. This is probably the reason why America is referred to as “the land of the free”. Freedom in America is held in high esteem. The journey to this freedom has also been preserved through various forms of art in the course of the country’s history. This art includes various forms of literature such as poems, short stories, and novels.
For many groups of Americans, the road to freedom has been characterized by treacherous tribulations. This is true for the African Americans who fought hard to earn their freedom from slavery. Various authors have highlighted elements of slavery and freedom through various books. Toni Morrison adds her voice to the issue of enslavement and freedom using her book “Beloved”.
Her book chronicles the events surrounding a group of slaves living in Cincinnati, Ohio after they attain freedom from enslavement in Kentucky. Morrison has often said that this book is a dedication to the over sixty million Africans who died during the slave trade even without having to experience enslavement (Taylor 143). It is clear that the author seeks to make this book a tribute to the slavery experience.
This is evident from the novel’s ending where the author gives a disclaimer against the story disappearing like the experiences of the slaves who perished during slavery. “Beloved” is a postmodern novel that is able to uncover aspects of freedom and slavery that seem to have been lost in the course of history. This paper will analyze freedom and enslavement as presented by Morrison in “Beloved”.
“Beloved” was written in 1987 many years after slavery had been abolished. This enables the author to cover the journey from enslavement to freedom authoritatively. The main protagonist in the story is a former slave Sethe, who is living with her daughter Denver in her mother-in-law’s haunted house in Cincinnati. In this story, various characters describe what freedom means to them.
In the beginning of the story, Baby Suggs talks about her choice not to love her children. She attributes this choice to the fact that men and women are “moved around like checkers” (Morrison 27). She explains this lack of freedom by detailing her separation from her first and second children. However, her persistence paid off when her third child, Halle was not taken away and was able to buy her freedom.
She also says that by the time Halle bought her freedom, she had already given up and this freedom “did not mean a thing” (Morrison 28). Baby Suggs shows how the value of freedom diminished with each year of enslavement. By the time she acquires the freedom she has longed for her whole life, it has already lost its meaning.
Morrison is of the view that many people are quick to acknowledge freedom from slavery but they are also quick to forget the actual victims of slavery. In Baby Suggs case, freedom has come a bit late for her because the damage is already done. She has lost all contact with two of her children and not even her freedom can help her find them.
The main protagonist, on the other hand, talks about her freedom and the liberties it accorded her. Sethe tells Paul D that the love for her children was only triggered by the freedom from slavery. She says that once she was able to get to Cincinnati from Kentucky she was able to love her children more. When Sethe talks about this love, she says, “I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they weren’t mine to love” (Morrison 190).
When explaining this love further she says that once she arrived in Cincinnati she was at liberty to love anyone she wanted to love. This exchange explains what lack of freedom meant for the enslaved African American women. The fact that Sethe has the ability to love surprises Paul D to the extent that he does not understand how she could kill her child and blame it on love.
According to Sethe, the fact that the freedom she had just acquired was about to be taken away, was what drove her to commit infanticide. The fact that Sethe had come to a place where she could love anything and anyone that she wanted, represented true freedom.
Morrison illustrates the overwhelming nature of this freedom through Sethe’s actions. For Sethe, it is either she gets freedom or death. Her experiences as a slave were enough motivation for her to commit infanticide and probably suicide. While many Americans causally talk about freedom, very few would make the choice Sethe made.
All of Morrison’s characters in “Beloved” have no secrets. The author explores even the innermost thoughts of the book’s characters. This enables the readers to understand the characters in “Beloved” fully. This total comprehension of characters translates into total comprehension of the issues of freedom and enslavement.
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The readers are able to learn the unspoken truths about slavery. Historians define these truths as the questions or things the fugitives and slaves did not ask or say. For instance, the author reveals Sethe’s inner struggle with the past in her bid to have a “livable life” (Morrison 73). By presenting her characters in an open manner, the author is able to dig deeper into the issues of enslavement and freedom.
The book portrays slaves as if they are prey to be caught by their masters, the law, and the enforcers. The third person narrator reveals that the white slave owners view Sethe and her lot as prey to be hunted. This inhumane treatment of slaves was the hallmark of slavery. Armed with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Sheriff, the slave-catcher, Schoolteacher, and his nephew arrive to reclaim ownership of Sethe and her two children.
The author compares their actions to those of hunters. Their thoughts and their inhumane considerations are revealed while they sneak up on Sethe. According to the narrator while a dead snake or bear had value, “a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit and was not worth his own dead weight in coin” (Morrison 148). M
oreover, the inhumane treatment that Sethe received at Sweet Home was so overwhelming that the likelihood of going back there almost renders her insane. She is convinced that by killing her children, she is setting them free from such inhumane conditions. This high price of freedom is only made possible by the existing conditions. Morrison devotes this book to more than sixty million people who died as a result of slavery (Taylor 144).
Sethe’s daughter, Beloved can be included in this category because she never experienced slavery but died because of it. Historians have recorded stories of slaves who jumped overboard on the way to their enslavement destinations. According to Morrison, these people are easily forgotten although they were part of the pursuit of freedom.
Morrison also explores the issue of partial or nominal freedom from slavery. The author details Sethe’s life beginning from 1873 ten years after slavery had been abolished. This is around the time she reunites with Paul D at her residence in 124 Bluestone Road. Although Sethe is legally free, she is still bound by other factors such as the baby ghost that resides in her house. She is also the subject of isolation from the rest of her community.
The author is trying to illustrate African Americans’ lack of freedom from the ‘ghosts’ that were borne from slavery. As a member of Sethe’s past, Paul D expects to find only freedom at Sethe’s household. His first activity is to admonish the baby ghost in the hope of setting Sethe free but the ghost still returns in a new form.
This is the nature of freedom; even when one expects to attain freedom from something, ghosts from one’s past can still compromise this freedom. This was a real concern for most African Americans in their quest for various forms of freedom after slavery.
The author of “Beloved” is able to highlight the issues of freedom and enslavement in this prolific novel. The book explores various aspects of freedom and its price during and after the slavery era. The book is a dedication to “the beloved” or the over sixty million people who lost their lives to slavery even without having to experience enslavement. The author is also able to weave together the issues of slavery and freedom.
Heerak, Christian. Toni Morrison’s Beloved as African-American Scripture & Other Articles on History and Canon. New Jersey, NJ: Hermit Kingdom Press, 2006.Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved, New York, NY: Everyman’s Library, 2006. Print.
Taylor, Danille. Conversations with Toni Morrison, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. Print.