Morrison’s Three Sisters

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Morrison’s Three Sisters by Lisa Korthals

Anton Chekov’s famous drama Three Sisters tells the story of Olga, Masha, and Irina who find themselves alone in the wilderness of Russia. Their lives make up the drama that contains: their loss of innocence, unfulfilled dreams, betrayals from the men in their lives, and above all a life lived for family survival; not the joy of living. Comparatively, Toni Morrison’s Beloved forces the reader to look deep into the eyes of a harsh and painful time in American history – as told through the eyes of her three sisters Denver, Baby Suggs, and Sethe. Similarly, Morrison’s three sisters’ experience: a complete loss of their innocence; abject perfidy from white and black males in authority; their deepest hopes and dreams sawed to shreds; and above all transformation from living death to abundant joy.

Morrison has given each of her three sisters a “Hagar in the wilderness” story all her own. This “inclusive wilderness experience” is foundational to womanist theology.[1] In her book, Sisters in the Wilderness Delores Williams writes, “womanist theologians claim the biblical wilderness experience as the foundation of their enterprise.”[2] The foundational wilderness experiences of Denver, Baby Suggs, and Sethe are intertwined around their collective need to: survive their circumstances; find a new quality of life outside of the slavocracy; and build a new sense of identity within their community groups.[3] Beginning with Denver’s wilderness experience and moving through to Sethe’s final wilderness journey Toni Morrison’s reveals her unique perspective on modern womanist, feminist, and mujerista theologies.

Denver’s wilderness journey begins at birth and symbolically foreshadows the role she will play in her mother’s salvation and liberation from the past. To explain, Denver is born in blood and water – which act as powerful symbols of bondage and freedom. The blood of slavery is literally choking Denver during her birth, but she is saved from death by the strong hands of a young, white, girl named Amy.[4] Amy acts as one the novels Christa figures who freely gives Sethe, “salvation not as a once-for-all absolute, but a movement toward redemption in the midst of the trials of existence.”[5] Sethe’s Christa appears (prior to Denver’s birth) when she is in the midst of the great trial of her escape from slavery. Moreover, due to her pronounced pregnancy and severe injuries (sustained during a brutal beating) Sethe decides to lie down and wait to die; when this ordinary Christa does the extraordinary in bringing what is dead back to life.

As Christa, Amy cares for Sethe; and moves her one step closer to freedom/redemption. She begins by getting Sethe to a “lean-to” or safe place, where “she did the magic: lifted Sethe’s feet and legs and massaged them until she cried salt tears.”[6] Moreover, this Christa imparts biblical truth to Sethe foretelling the return of Beloved, “It’s gonna hurt, now,” said Amy. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.”[7]  During Denver’s birth Christa/Amy uses her “strong hands” (an obvious reference to the strong hands of God/Christ) to save the baby that “was stuck, face up and drowning in its mother’s blood.”[8] The Christa washes away the blood of the past with clean river water (and in doing so) she baptizes infant Denver redeeming/restoring her to her mother and a future of hopeful freedom. Denver receives her name from Christa/Amy, signaling to the reader that she will be gifted by God for a unique purpose/calling in Her story of redemption. Subsequently, Denver’s identity is wrapped up in others hearing about her miraculous birth, for the simple reason that it makes her visible.

Denver survives her first wilderness journey and experiences a time (albeit short lived) of freedom and community. This peaceful life is shattered in the wake of her mother’s horrifying actions to keep her children away from the bondage of Sweet Home[9]-a fate she considers worse than death. As a result, when the community shuns both Sethe and what remains of her family/children, Denver enters into a new wilderness: that of being the “other” in people’s lives. This new wilderness has rendered her invisible and isolated from all other human contact. As an “other” in her surrounding community, Denver exhibits what Cheryl Kirk-Duggan calls a “quiet grace”.[10] Simply put, she finds her power and liberation in truth. It is this knowledge of truth that gives Denver the courage to break out of the lonely, desolate wilderness she has been traveling in with her mother these past 20 years. Her quiet grace envelops and surrounds her giving Denver the courage to find a space to call her own:

In these woods, between the field and stream, hidden by post oaks, five boxwood bushes, planted in a ring, had started stretching toward each other four feet off the ground to form a round, empty room seven feet high, its walls fifty inches of murmuring leaves. In that bower, closed off from the hurt of the hurt world, Denver’s imagination produced its own hunger and its own food, which she badly needed because loneliness wore her out. Wore her out. Veiled and protected by the live green walls, she felt ripe and clear, and salvation was as easy as a wish.[11]

Additionally, it is this space that moves Denver to fulfill her role as prophetess and later a full-fledged Christa figure. Thus, it is Denver who (after spending time in her wilderness sanctuary) sees the ghost of a full grown Beloved, wearing a white dress and holding onto her mother. What is more, it is Denver who prophesize, “I think the baby got plans,” just before the baby ghost takes on its fleshy, grown, form.[12] Above all, the truth about what Beloved intends to do i.e. claim her mother’s earthly and eternal life, is revealed to Denver; who is moved to act as a Christa figure offering her mother true salvation and freedom.

Denver enters into her third and final wilderness journey as Christa; this final quest ultimately moves her from being an “other with nobody-ness, to important with somebody-ness”.[13] As Christa, Denver takes on what Nakashima Brock has named “Christa/Community”.[14] Denver acts as Christa in community as she seeks, “to form relationships and rebuild community,” where she will find healing and a sense of wholeness/fulfillment.[15] This is clearly illustrated in the following two ways: one, it is Denver who seeks the help of other African-American women to deal with the problem and person of Beloved; two, it is Denver who moves the women she encounters to “remember, retell, and rehearse” their stories as former slave women[16].

Together the women remember that, “God cares, God helps, God rescues, God empowers; God is slow to anger, is just, is merciful.”[17] Their remembrance is best highlighted in the change of heart one of Morrison’s minor characters (Ella) goes through after hearing the truth about Sethe’s situation and witnessing Denver’s actions as Christa/Community. Ella observes Denver’s desire for a new, “reality that requires a moral vision . . . to make a difference through individual commitment and social witness.”[18]

Denver has committed herself to making a difference in the life of her mother and it is her social witness that moves the women to finally act on Sethe’s behalf. And it is Ella who leads the others in both body and voice to rescue Sethe from a past that threatens to claim her life:

It was Ella more than anyone who convinced the others that a rescue was in order. Her puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called “the lowest yet”. It was “the lowest yet” who gave her a disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities. She understood Sethe’s rage in the shed twenty years ago, but not her reaction to it, which Ella thought was prideful, misdirected, and Sethe herself too complicated. When she got out of jail and made no gesture toward anybody, and lived as though she were alone, Ella junked her and wouldn’t give her the time of day.[19]

Yet, when Ella heard 124 was occupied by something-or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against “the lowest yet”. There was also something very personal in her fury. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present.[20]

Ella had been beaten every way but down. She remembered the bottom teeth she had lost to the brake and the scars from the bell were thick as rope around her waist. She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by “the lowest yet.” It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working, and then Ella hollered.[21]

Ella’s remembering of her own past echoes the teachings of Clarice Martin, a womanist biblical scholar, because in retelling her past she: “removed the lie of isolation” that has kept her from offering Sethe the kind of hope that can only be found in relationship with other African-American women. Ella remembers that she “got over” and she needed to impart to Sethe that she could too. Finally, it is important to note that Ella’s championing of a rescue for Sethe occurs due in part to Denver’s witness as Christa/Community. Ella is drawn back to a place of remembrance “that resurrects an ancient cloud of witnesses,” who together restore order to Sethe’s mind, Baby Suggs’ home, and the entire community’s hospitality.[22] Denver is saved by her newfound cloud of witnesses and chooses to make a space for herself away from the past and all that haunts her at 124 Bluestone Road. This choice brings her to a place of humble empowerment that guides her out of her wilderness of fear and isolation to a clearing where she can laugh, cry, and lay down her sword and shield.

Baby Suggs’ wilderness experience comes at the end of her life when “the Misery (which is what Stamp Paid called Sethe’s rough response to the Fugitive Bill) that was to carry Baby Suggs, holy” to her grave.[23] Baby Suggs had survived the wilderness of slavery with her identity intact, yet her life ended with her taking to her bed and thinking about the colors of things.[24] Morrison uses Baby’s transition from womanist theologian/preacher/Christa for her community’s salvation to social outcast to illustrate the fact that without a way, “to make a space for life in all its messiness” African-American women cannot thrive or find fulfillment in their faith-and by extension- their daily lives.[25]

Baby Suggs is a multi-layered character and symbol in Beloved, encompassing negative and positive stereotypes about African-American women in both the ante and post-antebellum periods. To begin, Baby is depicted as “a long suffering, religious, maternal figure, whose most endearing characteristic is her self-sacrificing self-denial for those she loves.”[26] Although this gives her a favorable view among the whites of her community, she moves beyond this box of what a black woman should look and act like to become a full-fledged Christa offering truth, healing, and salvation to all who came to her call/preach. Her Christlike attributes are clearly portrayed throughout the books early chapters:

1) Baby Suggs tries to move Sethe from a place of defensive fear to a place of healing: “Lay em  down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Down. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that    mess down. Sword and shield.”[27]

2) Baby Suggs (holy) acted as an unofficial preacher of God’s Word: “Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence. When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing-a wide open place cut deep in the woods.”[28]

3) Morrison also portrays Baby as a womanist theologian/Christa who worked to offer black women and their families: “Jesus ministerial vision; providing knowledge that God, has through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively, and abundantly in relationship. Jesus gave humankind a vision of righting relationships between body, mind, and spirit.”[29]

4) This is best seen through the words of Baby Suggs (holy): ‘Let the children come!’ And they ran from the trees toward her. ‘Let your mothers hear you laugh’, she told them and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling. Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees. ‘Let your wives and children see you dance,’ she told them, and the groundlife shuddered under their feet. Finally, she called the women to her, ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.[30] ‘Here,’ she said. ‘in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do love your hands. Those they only use, tie, hind, chop off, and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, path them together, stroke them on your face because they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! This is flesh I’m talking about here, Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put your hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up . . . love it, love it.’ Saying no more, she stood up then and danced with her twisted hip the rest of what her heart had to say while the others opened their mouths and gave her the music. Long notes held until the four-part harmony was perfect enough for their deeply loved flesh. And with Baby Suggs heart in charge the people let go.[31]

Baby Suggs knew that as “a Black woman she could not avoid oppression,”[32] yet, through her preaching of the Spirituals she found a space for herself where her identity could thrive. And in doing so, “she honored herself and her ancestors through remembrance and retellings as she celebrated God’s redemptive nature and belief that God would deliver them out of bondage.”[33] She epitomizes womanist thought and ideals in her sermons and symbolizes all former “slave women who resisted their incarnation and developed their own sense of Christianity and communal life which contrasted sharply with the hypocritical use of Christianity by their former slave owners.”[34] In spite of the space Baby Suggs created at 124 – “a cheerful buzzing [space] where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed,”[35] she died believing it was all a lie.

Sethe’s actions in the shed behind 124 Bluestone Road took this empowered black woman and reduced her to blood and sawdust; a place from where her identity as holy/Christa could not resurrect itself. To explain, “Baby Suggs, holy, believed she had lied. There was no grace—imaginary or real—and no sunlit dance in a Clearing could change that. Her faith, her love, her imagination and her great big old heart began to collapse twenty-eight days after her daughter-in-law arrived.”[36] Baby became lost in the wilderness of shock, betrayal, and guilt; where the only thing logical to do was contemplate the harmless colors of this world.[37] Her painful descent into “nobodyness” is summed up by Stamp Paid (a black man who helped rescue slaves; who was there the day Sethe cut her baby’s throat):

“The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice. One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed. The white folks had tired her out at last.” [38] Through Baby Suggs’ brokenness, Morrison reveals the emotional and psychological damage done to the identities of African-American women by a white patriarchal society.

Baby Suggs (vanquished) [39] is the victim of “race hatred and a calculated method of social control,”[40] in that, when Schoolteacher and his boys ‘come into her yard’ to capture and return Sethe and her children to slavery she can do nothing to stop it. Socially and legally, they are in control of her body and any actions it wanted to commit. It is this simple truth that when the whites went too far, she, for all her holiness, was powerless to obstruct them. This knowledge leads to severe emotional and psychological damage to Baby Suggs’ confident spirit and her aura of strength filled self-respect. In her wilderness wandering Baby Suggs (vanquished) delivers one final exhortation before dying, “The lesson I have learned from living sixty years as a slave and ten years free: there is no bad luck in the world but white people. They don’t know when to stop.”[41]

Morrison develops a mujerista theology in regard to the last years of Baby Suggs life; clearly showing that it was “the global economic systems working against women, their bodies, and their deepest desires for fulfillment,” that prevented Baby from unearthing her holy identity once more.[42] Regrettably, white power and social structures still do not know when to stop and continue to keep African-American women and minorities trapped in their bodies. According to Maria Cristina Ventura (Tirsa) in her discussion of globalization and women’s bodies:

In dominant Western intellectual tradition the body has been viewed with suspicion: identified as the source of uncontrollable passion and appetites capable of interrupt the progress of truth and knowledge. The Judeo-Christian tradition saw the body as an obstacle to the attainment of purity, so that women remain locked into their bodies, subject to their natural biological processes. Their bodies are deprived of the right to express the delight of life, the right to eat when they are hungry, to sleep when they are sleepy, and the right to feel pleasure.[43]

Baby Suggs thought she had everything: her son, her freedom, her role as Christa/community – yet, due to oppressive powers beyond her control she never achieved, “the Right to Be.”[44] The sympathy with which Morrison paints Baby Suggs’ complete overthrow of all she held dear, and her desire to give up the struggle to free her body from the control of others, is a call to action for womanist, feminist, and mujerista theologians alike. Morrison calls her female readers not to “give over” to color (as Baby Suggs, vanquished did) but instead to fight for their fundamental right to exist. This ‘Right to Be’ is “centered on the freeing, in a holistic sense, of our body, and the capacity to make decisions regarding it, being able to decide about our own lives.”[45] Unlike her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, Sethe knows full well that she is not in control of her body and subsequently she and her children are not safe. Thus, Sethe’s wilderness story is one of extreme resistance against those who meant to rule over her body and the bodies of her children.

In the character of Sethe (the novel’s protagonist) Toni Morrison makes her most direct comparison to a Hagar in the wilderness analogy. Sethe’s first wilderness journey from slavery to freedom is synonymous with Hagar’s own movement from foreign slave to mother of a nation. Like Hagar, Sethe’s life is that of “the slave woman’s and has been unavoidably shaped by the problems and desires of her owners.”[46] For instance, Sethe is used by her owners Mr. and Mrs. Garner, and even though their version of slavery was kinder than most, she was still at their mercy. “Nobody counted on Garner dying. Nobody thought he could. Everything rested on Garner being alive. Without his life theirs fell to pieces.”[47]

While her master lived, Sethe was treated better than most American slaves: she was allowed to “marry”; her family was allowed the unique privilege of living together; and she was not subjected to sexual exploitation of any kind. However, upon Mr. Garner’s death, Mrs. Garner gives in to societal pressures and brings in a male overseer (known as Schoolteacher) to “help” her with the slaves.  Mrs. Garner’s disastrous action to bring in “Schoolteacher and his boys” leads Sethe into a new wilderness: that of abused and sexually exploited slave.

Like Hagar under Sarai’s authority, Sethe finds only pain and suffering under Schoolteacher’s cruel forms of supervision and discipline. It should also be noted that Morrison uses Mrs. Garner’s decision to put her slaves under the hand of Schoolteacher to unmask the antebellum and post-antebellum, “myth of the male black rapist.”[48] A conversation between three of Mrs. Garner’s male slaves (Paul D., Halle, and Sixo) illustrates just how fearful white women were, “that all black males were eager to rape.”[49]

“Why she call on him?” Paul  D asked. “Why she need the schoolteacher?” “

She need somebody who can figure,” said Halle.

“You can figure.”

“Not like that.”

“No, man,” said Sixo.

“She need another white on the place.”

“What for?” “What you think? What you think?”[50]

This issue of the black male rapist that began during the slavocracy has become embedded in the societal and cultural constructs of the modern Western world. This myth has become deeply rooted in the minds of white patriarchal power structures that move to uplift and protect the picture of “true womanhood”: the white woman; while at the same time devaluing the black man. Morrison’s inclusion of this myth is a reminder to her readers that this falsehood is far from dead, but it is one womanist theologians are facing head on. Delores Williams addresses this issue in “The Color of Feminism” arguing that the womanist’s response to this and other devaluing conventions will need to be, “the liberation of black women and black families involving the survival, salvation of black people’s spirits, and equality between males and females.”[51]

With Mrs. Garner’s decision to protect her true womanhood instead of the humanity of her slaves, she ends up allocating her role as mistress to Schoolteacher and his boys. This leaves Sethe, much like Hagar, wandering in the wilderness of sadistic abuse, devaluing sexual exploitation, and dehumanizing cruelty known as slavery. Morrison exposes this all too common culture of abuse and misuse of African-American female slaves by allowing Sethe’s body to act as a bio-text that reveals, “the abuse upon her body, where her mental, physical, and emotional self were ravaged and destroyed.”[52] The most compelling bio-textual example from Sethe’s past is referred to as a “tree” she has growing on her back.[53] Sethe’s “tree” is revealed to the reader through the eyes of Amy Denver (a young white runaway):

It’s a tree Lu. A chokecherry tree. See, here’s the trunk-its red and split wide open, full of sap, and this here’s the parting for the branches. You got a mighty lot of branches. Leaves, too, look like, and dern if these ain’t blossoms. Tiny little cherry blossoms, just as white. Your back got a whole tree on it. In blood. What God have in mind, I wonder. I had me some whippings, but I don’t remember nothing like this.[54]

The bio-text of Sethe’s “chokecherry tree” works as a two-fold, multi-faceted symbol. First, it symbolizes the loss of Sethe’s identity as a woman that led to her fanatical and ferocious actions to protect her children from the wilderness of slavery. Second, the “tree” and its bio-textual narrative symbolize the shared history of many African-American women; giving voice to the teachings of womanist theologians such as: Bell Hooks and Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. In the same way Hagar is sexually exploited by her master Abram, Sethe is also sexually assaulted and exploited by two males in authority over her – the boys of her overseer Schoolteacher. To explain, these boys hold her down, force breast milk from her nipples, and nurse on the milk meant for her daughter referred to only as “crawling already”. In Sethe’s own words, “the boys came in there and took my milk. That’s what they came in there for. Held me down and took it.”[55] In giving Sethe this bio-text Morrison is personifying the words of Bell Hooks, “sufferings peculiar to black women were directly related to their sexuality and involved rape and other forms of sexual assault.”[56] The form of sexual assault Sethe endures took from her something she held dear: her identity as a woman.

As a slave Sethe has given up almost every other piece of herself to the dominance of white oppression: her homeland, her name, and even her heritage. Yet, she held onto the one thing that gave her a sense of her true self: her femaleness as expressed in motherhood. When this too is taken from her, Sethe demands that it be given back. Thus, Sethe seeks justice from the only “Christa” she knows – her kind hearted, sickly mistress Mrs. Garner. Tragically, for this demoralizing/dehumanizing physical, emotional, and mental rape of her identity she is not only denied justice; she is brutally punished for desiring it in the first place. “I told Ms. Garner on em. Them boys found out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and when it closed it make a tree. It grows there still.”[57]

Sadly, Sethe’s tree serves as a symbol of the historical bio-text of thousands of African-American women who live with the knowledge that their history includes the horrifying ill-treatment of women at the hands of white men. Bell Hooks speaks to this, “Female slaves were beaten as harshly as male slaves . . .  it was common to see a black female stripped naked, tied to a stake, and whipped.”[58] Sethe is also a victim of the societal and cultural norm held during the antebellum period that, “black women who resisted sexual exploitation directly challenged the system; and their refusal to submit . . . was a denouncement of the slave owner’s right to their persons. They were brutally punished.”[59]

Bio-texts acted as a way for African-American men and women to share their histories and sufferings with one another without ever saying a word. This is also why Paul D is skeptical of Beloved and her motivations for coming to Sethe’s house. For instance, Paul D is unnerved by the fact that Beloved arrived not wearing any shoes and yet her feet do not show the signs of her claim that she walked a long way to this place (Sethe’s house). In Paul D’s own words, “This girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, thought he couldn’t say exactly why considering the colored people he had run into during the last twenty years. From all those Negroes, Beloved was different. Her shining, her shoes. It bothered him.”[60] Paul D has learned through the bitter experience of the slavocracy that there are two kinds of people in this world: the oppressed and the oppressors. In his mind, Beloved is some kind of an oppressor because she does not bear the scars of the past. In other words, she has no bio-text; she is blank and this makes her highly suspect.

It is the bio-text of Sethe’s “chokecherry tree” that communicates to others the story of her body being used as a, “site for aggressive, violent acts of individuals, communities, and governments.”[61] It is also clear that under the white patriarchal power structure, Sethe’s slave body was viewed as less than human and therefore the “sexual abuse [of her body is] desirable, normal, and natural.”[62] Morrison reveals these beliefs by allowing the reader to ease drop on a conversation between Schoolteacher and his boys/pupils, “Which one are you doing? And one of the boys said, ‘Sethe’. No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics  on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.”[63] Womanist theologians, like Bell Hooks, explain this animalistic view of African-American women as follows: “Mass exploitation of enslaved black women was a direct consequence of the anti-woman sexual politics of colonial patriarchal America. Since the black woman was not protected either by law or public opinion, she was an easy target.”[64] In our modern American society, little has changed and women of all races are still the target of sexual exploitation, none more so than women of color. Morrison’s choice to state that Sethe’s tree “grows there still,” symbolizes this reality.

The sexual exploitation of the African-American female did not end with the dismantling of the slavocracy. Sethe’s bio-text is an all too familiar reality for modern women of color. Sadly, the roots of racism and the overall dehumanization of African-American women have taken hold of the Western world. Violence against women has become a universal issue, in short, “violence has become normative, pervasive, and impersonal making women invisible.”[65] Womanist theologians are calling for the exposure of governmental and societal institutions that continue to promote anti-woman rhetoric and action.

Sethe’s second wilderness experience occurs while she is on the run from Sweet Home to 124 Bluestone Road – where her mother-in-law Baby Suggs is waiting to receive her. On her flight from slavery she delivers Denver with the help of an unlikely Christa figure and against all odds she makes it to Baby Suggs. While this wilderness experience was physically difficult for Sethe, it is her next journey into the wilderness of freedom that finally breaks her mentally and emotionally. Sethe has been brutalized verbally, emotionally, sexually, and physically. Due to this complete and total annihilation of, not only her femaleness, but her humanness as well, Sethe becomes fixated on keeping her children safe. This fixation leads her to make the severe choice to pick up a hand saw and slice the throat of her toddler; bludgeon her two older boys with a shovel; and smash her infant’s (Denver) head against the shed wall.

It is Sethe’s horrifying choice that resonates with many womanist theologians as a form of “black women’s resistance”. Tragically, this fictional scenario is based on true slave narratives and accounts. According to Maude White Katz’s book She Would Be Free – Resistance, “A mother on a Georgia plantation killed thirteen of her babies to save them from slavery.”[66] It is clear that this type of resistance is not applauded by womanist theologians, but it is certainly understood. An example, Delores Williams writes:

From the day when they first arrived as slaves in America in 1619, African-American women have rebelled against their plight. They used a variety of resistance strategies, some subtle and silent, others more dramatic. They petitioned courts for the freedom of themselves and their children; they were accused of burning, buildings and of attempting to poison their owners. Like Hagar, they ran away from slavery. They participated with slave men in conspiracies and insurrections. They killed their children to keep them from a life of enslavement. They passed on doctrines of resistance to their children.[67]

Toni Morrison taps into this history and doctrine of resistance with Sethe’s murderous and destructive actions. Sethe is Hagar, “alone in the wilderness, pregnant and alone. She suffered indignities and abuse from those who had more power than she did, but she defied them by resisting their authority. She had Hagar’s wilderness experiences of courage, fear, aloneness, and meeting/obeying God’s will[68]. Morrison uses Sethe’s justifications to display the heart and history of African-American and womanist resistance. A telling moment of resistance justification occurs between Sethe and Beloved told through eyes of Denver:

“Sethe cried, saying she never meant to—that she had to get them out, away, that her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side forever. Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reason: that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life, that she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved’s tears.”[69]

It is clear that Sethe feels that she was not only trying to meet God with her actions, but that she was also obeying God’s direction when she chose to take the life of Beloved and attempted to take the lives of baby Denver and her two young boys to keep them from a life of slavery. Yet, Morrison is also critiquing and exposing Sethe’s actions that have been heralded by womanist theologians as a historical example of resistance by any means necessary.

Morrison allows another minor character, Paul D. (who learns the truth about what has happened to Sethe’s children) to offer a counter to womanist theologians who promote resistance by any means necessary:

“This here Sethe talked about love like any other woman; talked about baby clothes like any other woman, but what she meant could cleave the bone. This here Sethe talked about safety with a handsaw. This here new Sethe didn’t know where the world stopped and she began. Your love to thick . . . Your boys gone you don’t know where. One girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard . . . What you did was wrong Sethe. You got two feet, Sethe, not four.”[70]

Although Paul D.’s choice to leave Sethe, Beloved, Denver, and the spirit of danger that has descended on 124 Bluestone Road behind is presented to the reader as an understandable and necessary action on his part – contrastingly, the choice of the women in Sethe’s community to shun her in the aftermath of “the day in the shed” is not shown sympathetically by Morrison. Comparatively, Morrison employs mujerista theology to point out Sethe’s need for a more community driven means of salvation. By extension, Morrison takes the ending of Beloved and makes a strong point that in order for womanist theology to survive (and continue to impact generations of women of color) it is going to need to focus more on empowering whole community groups.

To explain, the kingdom is finally unfolded when the women of Sethe’s community come together to march as one body and one voice to vanquish Beloved (referred to for the first time as devil-child) once and for all. With the urging of the prophetess/Christa Denver, the women have decided that, “they will study war no more,” against the kin of Baby Suggs. Morrison utilizes their communal actions to expose her readers to mujerista theology; which is focused on the kingdom of God being furthered through familial relationships and communal unity. “This means that the coming of the kin-dom of God has to do with a coming together of peoples, with no one excluded and at the expense of no one.[71]

It is through the group’s religious understandings and desire to help those struggling for liberation that order is finally restored to the lives of Morrison’s three sisters. Denver finds her true identity in community outside the walls of 124 Bluestone Road; Beloved (devil-child) is sent back to the darkness from which she came; and Sethe comes to understand that she is more than a runaway slave woman who killed to keep her “best things” with her for all time. In the end, it is Paul D. who tells her “you your best thing,” reminding Sethe that she will come to “love her flesh” and in doing so find true liberation.

Morrison’s Beloved will continue to be read as one of the most intriguing and thought provoking fictional books on womanist, feminist, and mujerista theology of our time.  Each reading of this award winning novel leaves the reader haunted by new aspects of the female narrative that depict a horrifying time in our nation’s history. Yet, through a careful reading one is able to grasp the breadth and depth of Toni Morrison’s commitment to the liberation of women of color from past, present, and future oppressions.

Bibliography

Bedford, Nancy. 2012. “The World Palpitates’: Globalization and the Religious Faith and Practices of Latin American Women.” Chap. 7, In The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology, edited by Shelia Briggs and Mary M. Fulkerson, 180-194. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hooks, Bell and Gloria Watkins. 1981. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press.

Isasi-Diaz, Ada.  2012. “Mujerista Theology: A Challenge to Traditional Theology.” Chap. 30, In An Eerdmans Readers in Contemporary Political Theology, edited by Jeffrey W. Bailey, William T. Cavanaugh, and Craig Hovey, 418-435. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl A. 2012. “Globalization and Narrative.” Chap. 23, In The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology, edited by Mary M. Fulkerson and Shelia Briggs, 474-493. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1997. “Womanist Thought.” Chap. 7, In Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals [The Bishop Henry McNeal Turner/Sojourner Truth Series in Black Religion], edited by The Bishop Henry McNeal Turner/Sojourner Truth Series in Black Religion. Vol. 14, 137-157. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Morrison, Toni. 1990. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Slee, Nicola. 2012. “Visualizing, Conceptualizing, Imagining and Praying the Christa: In Search of Her Risen Forms1.” Feminist Theology 21 (1): 71-90. doi: 10.1177/0966735012451831. http://fth.sagepub.com/content/21/1/71.

Ventura (Tirsa), Maria C. 2012. “Globalization and Women’s Bodies in Latin America.” Chap. 22, In The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology , edited by Mary M. Fulkerson and Shelia Briggs, 456-473. New York: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Delores S. 2012. “The Color of Feminism: Or Speaking the Black Woman’s Tongue.” Chap. 29, In An Eerdmans Readers in Contemporary Political Theology, edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey and Craig Hovey, 398-417. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

———. 1993. Sisters in the Wilderness. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.


[1] Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993), 158.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 86.

[5] Nicola Slee, “Visualizing, Conceptualizing, Imagining and Praying the Christa: In Search of Her Risen Forms1, Feminist Theology 21, no. 1 (2012): 74.

[6] Morrison, Beloved, 35.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 84.

[9] Sweet Home is the name of the small plantation where Sethe, Paul D., and Baby Suggs were all slaves.

[10] Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, “Womanist Thought”, in Exorcizing Evil: A Womanist Perspective on the Spirituals (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 151.

[11] Beloved, 28.

[12] Ibid., 37.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nicola Slee, “Visualizing, Conceptualizing, Imagining and Praying the Christa”, 80.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Kirk-Duggan, “Womanist Thought”, 154.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 151.

[19] Beloved, 256.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 258-259.

[22] Kirk-Duggan, “Womanist Thought”, 155.

[23] Beloved, 171.

[24] Ibid., 177.

[25] Nancy Bedford, “The World Palpitates’: Globalization and the Religious Faith and Practices of Latin American Women”, in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology eds. Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Shelia Brigss (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2012), 181.

[26] Beloved, 177.

[27] Ibid., 86.

[28] Ibid., 87.

[29] Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 167.

[30] Beloved, 87-88.

[31] Ibid., 89; 94.

[32] Kirk-Duggan, Exorcising Evil, 139.

[33] Ibid., 141.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Beloved, 86-87.

[36] Beloved, 89.

[37] Baby Suggs may have also been contemplating which colors were in fact harmless and which ones were not.

[38] Ibid., 180.

[39] Her identity lost she is no longer Baby Suggs (holy), but Baby Suggs vanquished.

[40] Hooks, Ain’t I A Woman, 60.

[41] Beloved, 104.

[42] Maria Cristina Ventura (Tirsa), “Globalization and Women’s Bodies”, in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology eds. Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Shelia Briggs (New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2012), 463.

[43] Ibid., 459.

[44] Ibid., 469.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 15.

[47] Beloved, 220.

[48] Bell hooks, Ain’t I A Woman: black women and feminism (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 60.

[49] Ibid., 61.

[50] Beloved, 220.

[51] Delores S. Williams, “The Color of Feminism: Or Speaking the Black Woman’s Tongue”, in An Eerdmans Readers in Contemporary Political Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 413.

[52] Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, “Globalization and Narrative,” in The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology, eds. Mary M. Fulkerson and Shelia Briggs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 488.

[53] Beloved, 15.

[54] Ibid., 79.

[55] Beloved, 16.

[56] Hooks, Ain’t I A Woman, 24.

[57] Beloved, 16-17.

[58] Ain’t I A Woman, 23.

[59] Ibid., 27.

[60] Beloved, 66.

[61] Kirk-Duggan, “Globalization and Narrative”, 489.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Morrison, Beloved, 193.

[64] Ain’t I A Woman, 42-43.

[65] Kirk-Duggan, “Globalization and Narrative”, 489.

[66] Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness, 136.

[67] Ibid., 136-137.

[68] Ibid., 139.

[69] Beloved, 241-242.

[70] Ibid., 164-165.

[71] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, “Mujerista Theology: A Challenge to Traditional Theology,” in An Eerdmans Readers in Contemporary Political Theology, eds. William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 423.

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