What is a “good mother”? One who would sacrifice all for her children. One who offers love that is endless, silent, undemanding, One who would deny her own maternal identity rather than see her offspring rent in two. A good mother is her children; she does not have a story of her own. She is the channel through which others learn to speak.
Sethe – the heroine of Toni Morrison’s Beloved – is not a “good mother”. She questions the very conventions of the maternal narrative. An escaped slave in the latter half of the 19th century, she inhabits a world in which “good mothering” is highly valued, but only for a certain type of woman: white, wealthy, outsourcing. Sethe’s role is to be passive: produce flesh, produce milk, but whatever you do, do not love. Tie up your child, work, and then watch as others take your compliance as evidence that you were never really human at all.
In his introduction to The Folio Society’s beautifully illustrated reissue of the novel, Russell Banks describes the work as “a story about family life and love, and how, in a social and economic universe designed explicitly to destroy them, they endure.” They endure, but in a haunted, distorted form, an echo of the 28 days during which Sethe can enjoy her children before they are hunted down. Twenty eight days marks the distance between an act of nurturance and one of murder; “the travel of one whole moon […] from the pure clear stream of spit that the little girl dribbled into her face to her oily blood.”
During this short space of time Sethe embraces the dominant values of idealised maternity (“it didn’t matter whether it was real or not”). She behaves in a way that would, for a white heroine, be conventional, but which is, as Andrea O’Reilly puts it, “a radical act of defiance against the prohibition on slave motherhood.”
The illusion is meant to end upon recapture, but it does not, because Sethe refuses to let her family be taken from her. Instead she attempts to kill all four of her children, succeeding with the girl she names Beloved. Sethe’s passion defies the slave owner’s – and the western plotline’s – attempts at appropriation, for better or for worse.
Morrison has famously said of her character’s act, “it was absolutely the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it”. It is an act situated in the space between self-assertion and self-sacrifice, where Sethe has taken what is humane and preserved it when faced with all that is inhumane.
Overriding the traditional white feminist opposition of maternity and self-affirmation, it is a an act of rebellion (“I stopped him […] I took and put my babies where they’d be safe”) but one which people within Sethe’s own community regard as untenable (“your love is too thick”, says fellow former slave Paul D). It is seen as prideful, presumptuous, a reversal of the agonised witnessing that is all her mothering is scripted to be.
What struck Morrison about Margaret Garner, the woman whose real-life story provided the initial (if brief) inspiration for Sethe’s, was that much as many of her supporters would have liked her to be insane, her act of infanticide appears to have been firmly rooted in maternal logic:
They kept remarking on the fact that she was not frothing at the mouth, she was not a madwoman, and she kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I have lived.’
This tenaciousness – the powerful affirmation of what is right about an act of maternal violence, within a culture that simultaneously sets ideal standards for mothering while deny black women the right to exemplify them – is echoed by Sethe: “It worked. […] It ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible. I did that.” Men such as Paul D and Stamp Paid, recasting this as “she was trying to out-hurt the hurter,” understand the position of injustice but not the passion that drives Sethe. And yet if, in a world in which some human beings are treated as the possessions of others, it remains true that we belong to ourselves, mothers cannot under any circumstances take the lives of their children. “She had no right to do it.” And yet.
The maternal crisis faced by women such as Sethe is not simply a fiction nor an anachronism. It remains with us to this day, in other stories, stories which are rarely told. Dominant groups control the reproductive lives – and make judgments over the right to love – of those they whom subjugate. Across the globe, poor women of colour bear the genetic offspring of wealthy white couples, while here in the UK mothers on benefits are told the only acceptable third child must be the product of rape. The options for rebellion are limited.
In Sethe’s act, I am reminded of what is perhaps not a new phenomenon, but something identified as a modern-day cultural trend: the family annihilator, the man who kills his own children and himself so that their mother – the perceived “owner” – cannot have them for herself. With his misplaced sense of grievance, rooted in the patriarchal belief that women’s physical and emotional labour amounts to little more than a calling of the reproductive shots, he appropriates the concepts and language of reproductive justice. As black scholars such as Dorothy Roberts and Patricia Hill Collins have shown, for women of colour the historical legacy of their desire to nurture goes beyond such a crass jealousy. As Hill Collins writes, “slavery was a situation where owners controlled numerous dimensions of [African-American women’s] children’s lives”:
Black children could be sold at will, whipped, or even killed, all without any recourse by their mothers. In such a situation, getting to keep one’s children and raise them accordingly fosters empowerment.
One can debate whether or not there is empowerment in death (Morrison: “I think if I had seen what she had seen, and knew what was in store, and I felt that there was an afterlife – or even if I felt that there wasn’t – I think I would have done the same thing”) but what is notable is that right now, in a situation of global reproductive deprivation, privileged men parody the injustice that underprivileged women experience, to the extent of feeling it so strongly they commit the acts that these women do not.
While there is a selfishness to all forms of parental self-sacrifice (what we do for “our” children may not be what we would do for the children of other communities), what Beloved articulates so carefully and magically is the double-bind of self-affirming love within the context of oppression: not the fetishised, existing-only-in-one-context love of the white angel of the home, but love as material reality, flowing in water, milk and blood.
There is a gendered and racial context in which asking “what makes a classic?” puts the white andor male critic on a level with Sweet Home’s schoolteacher, with his notebook and pencil and presumed right to classify that which is “human or animal” in others.
In 1994’s In Defence of Elitism William A Henry III was to huffily describe how, “Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved came after an explicitly race-based lobbying campaign on her behalf, with a modicum of feminist pressure thrown in as well.”
That is, we are supposed to think, evidence of bias (because objectivity – in aesthetics, in science, in the evaluation of human worth – is white and male). The blank piece of paper remains a white, male space, so when Morrison writes, it is still a writing-over, a trespass, an offence by default. For white readers like me, our highest praise risks being the pathetic “but I didn’t even notice”. Yet a more careful reading can make the page alien to us, as it should, since this is neither our offspring nor our offering.
In The Mother/Daughter Plot, Marianne Hirsch argues that with Beloved, “Toni Morrison has done more than shift the direction of her own work and of feminist theorizing: she has opened the space for maternal narrative in feminist fiction.”
Much as I am wary of any universalising impulse – we must be clear that there is no maternal narrative, only narratives – I think there is truth in this. Maternal love defies restrictions based on the intersection of race and gender, and exists beyond patriarchal rules of ownership. It exists in flesh and milk, in each maternal body, yet the conditions under which one is asked to love, or not love, vary enormously. Thus in Sethe’s case, there is a desperate need to capture the beauty existing beyond the handsaw and the accusations of pride:
She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.
Like a ghost child emerging from the water, it alights from the page and is visible. Just there.