Tony Morrison’s novel Beloved, explores how slavery effects of the lives of former slaves. Morrison focuses more specifically on how the women in these situations are affected. One of the main areas affected in the lives of these women is motherhood. By describing the experiences of the mothers in her story (primarily Baby Suggs and Sethe) Morrison shows how slavery warped and shaped motherhood, and the relationships between mothers and children of the enslaved. In Beloved the slavery culture separates mothers and children both physically and emotionally.
Sethe has a strong maternal instinct and sees her children as a part of herself. They rightfully belong to her. However her maternal ownership of her children is not recognized by the culture of slavery. As a slave she cannot own anything (Mock 118). Therefore while they are enslaved neither Baby Suggs nor Sethe really own their children. In the slavery culture both the mothers and the children are considered as property of their white owners. As property, their rights as mothers are made void and they have no say about the lives of their children. To the owners a slave woman’s primary value is in her reproductive ability. The female slave is seen as giving birth to property, and therefore capital in the form of new slaves. (Liscio 34). The owner has the ability to use and dispose of this new property as they wish. Therefore children could be sold without any regards for their feelings of the feelings of their mother. In the novel Baby Suggs states she has given birth to eight children, however she only gets to keep one that she sees grow into adulthood. By the end of her life slavery has stolen all of her children from her:
You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don’t you? I had eight. Everyone of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody’s house into evil . . . My firstborn all I can remember is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember (Morrison 6).
It is evident from this quote that Baby Suggs believes that all eight of her children are dead and that she believes they likely died as they lived in unhappy circumstances, and are now likely spirits who haunt the places they died. However, Baby Suggs does not know for sure what happened to each of her children. She tells Sethe to be thankful because at least Sethe knows where all of her children are (at this point in the novel), even if one of them is dead. Unlike Baby Suggs, Sethe at least still has memories of her sons long after they leave. For Baby Suggs most of the memories of her children are as dead and gone as she believes they are. As time goes on Baby Suggs repeated physical separations from her children eventually lead to her emotional separation from them as well:
What could it be? This dark and coming thing. What was left to hurt her...