Books but Toni Morrison and Harriet Jacobs face

Books
are for Sale, not Humans: Two Slave Narratives for Remembering the Past

            Many
authors frequently avoid the sensitive topic of slavery, but Toni Morrison and
Harriet Jacobs face slavery head-on with stories of oppression. The Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl,
published in 1861, recounts Harriet Jacob’s life as a North Carolina slave to
further the abolitionist cause. Appealing specifically to women, Jacobs’ story vividly
illustrates the brutality and trials of slavery while staying true to her own
slave experience. Also retelling the unthinkable horrors of servitude,
Morrison’s triumphal novel, Beloved,
however, was published in the early 1980s, appealing to a more contemporary
audience. Although Morrison herself was not a slave, she establishes
credibility by basing her historical novel on the true-life story of the slave Margaret
Garner. Beloved, set after the end of
the Civil War, is a unique literary piece, for it explores more than just the
brutalities of slavery. Her novel focuses on the enduring legacy of slavery to
force its readers to not overlook the cruelties of the past. Morrison’s Beloved and Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl both pass on the painful
stories and horrors of the past, with varying rhetorical methods, to suggest
that America should not and cannot forget about the history of slavery.

By illustrating how slaves were treated
as animals and as property, Morrison and Jacobs convey how slave owners
dehumanized and degraded slaves to less than human. Slaves were commodities for
sale, “valuable pieces of property” who had no rights (Jacobs 7). Their slave masters had the right “to
rule them, body and soul” and even “moved them around like checkers” (Jacobs
7; Morrison 27). Morrison paints a disheartening image of African Americans,
demeaned to pieces in a game, for her readers. Manipulated and given no care or
dignity, slaves possessed no personal agency. Baby Suggs claims that if a slave
“hadn’t run off or been hanged, it got rented out, loaned out, bought up,
brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized” (28). Portraying
their submissive role in society, Morrison utilizes the passive voice when
stating the possible outcomes of servitude. Unable to control their own lives,
slaves were left to the disposal of their slave masters who monetized them. Slaves,
assigned a fixed value, had their identities stolen and consolidated into interchangeable
numbers. Paul D’s price— “nine hundred dollars”—proves that he was no more than
a mere piece of property to schoolteacher and could have been sold at any
moment (269). Powerless and completely lacking freedom, Paul D succumbs to juxtaposing
his lack of liberty to the liberty of an animal. One day, with “an iron bit in
his mouth,” (83) he watches a rooster named Mister who “was allowed to be and
stay what he was…and if you cooked him you’d be cooking a rooster named
Mister (86). Paul D, however, “wasn’t allowed to be and stay what he was…and
if you cooked him no way he’d ever be Paul D again, living or dead. He
was…less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (86). While other parts of
the novel stress the dehumanizing effects of slavery by rendering slaves as
sale items, here, slaves are likened to animals. Firstly, Paul D has a bit in
his mouth, allowing his owner to restrain and control him just as an equestrian
steers a horse with a bit. However, it is not just the bit that humiliates Paul
D; it is the Rooster named “Mister,” who Morrison portrays with a human
identity to illustrate how a slave could feel less free than an animal. Declaring
them to be only partially human and the rest animalistic, slave owners demeaned
Africans Americans by reducing them to a bullet-pointed list with “human
characteristics on the left and animal ones on the right” (228). A person’s
qualities should be much too complex to fit in rigid columns and less black and
white. Both Morrison and Jacobs show that white slave owners, by degrading,
insulting, and demoralizing slaves, inflicted great pain and stripped their
victims of any sense of humanity.

Demonstrating how slaves responded to
the misfortunes of being enslaved/in servitude, these authors depict unification
among African Americans and also reflect on the consequences of failed
communities. Remembering his time spent on a chain gang in Georgia, Paul D
specifically reminisces how the men “chain-danced over the field” and “sang it
out and beat it up, garbling the words so they could not be understood” (128). Connecting
through music, these men sang together which allowed them limited mobility and
agency within their lives. Even though they could not change their working
conditions, the chain gain members scrambled, or “garbled,” their words as a
form of self-expression. In a way, the slaves established their own language to
fit their own personal whims and purposes. Besides being connected by song,
they were also physically chained together, meaning cooperation was their only means
of escape. One day, “plunging down through the mud” all at once, the chain
gain members relied on each other to attain freedom (130). Held together in
bondage, slaves created stronger communities over shared sufferings. Turning a
shackle into a positive symbol of liberty, Morrison illustrates the importance
of community when dealing with slavery and its horrors. To cope with the
dehumanization they endured from white people, ex-slaves formed close
relationships with those beyond their immediate family. Leading sermons in the
clearing, Baby Suggs encouraged free slaves to celebrate their bodies; “Love
your hands!…The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the…beating heart,
love that too,” preached Baby Suggs (103-4). Focusing on physical body parts,
Morrison emphasizes how slavery was a destruction of black bodies, stating that
emancipation comes with loving the same body that was once abused. Whether a
spiritual community or a community of fellow chain gain members, unity is a
necessity for victims of slavery. A lack of community, consequently, results in
misfortune. Jacobs, hiding in her grandmother’s attic, heavily relies on her
family members to bring her “food…herb teas, and cooling medicines” for her survival,
yet a neighbor betrays her (108). Aiding Dr. Flint in capturing Jacobs, “a
colored woman, who had been born and raised in their neighborhood” was
“offered…a reward if she could find out anything about Jacobs” (108). Jacobs,
portraying the brokenness within an African American community, illustrates how
a failure to unite endangers a slave’s security and jeopardizes one’s life. Baby
Suggs’ neighbors similarly turn on her, too. She loses the trust of her
neighbors in Cincinnati by “putting Christmas to shame” with her excessive
celebration of her own family (173). As a consequence of placing herself before
the greater good of the community, her neighbors fail to warn her of the four
horsemen’s arrival, causing Beloved’s murder. This shattered community
represents the need for slaves and ex-slaves to unite and to rely on each other
for strength to endure times of adversity.

While Morrison and Jacobs portray
that slavery was repressive to all its victims, they direct their readers’
attention to the far greater harm women endured, as they were stripped of their
instinctive maternal nature, split up from family units, and separated from their
children. Essentially, slavery did not allow for motherhood. In Incidents, Harriet was “six years old
when her mother died” and, in Beloved,
Sethe holds only the slightest recollection of her mother (7). Remembering that
her mother only “nursed her for two or three weeks,” Sethe recounts that they
“didn’t even sleep in the same cabin most nights” and that “she didn’t see her
but a few times because by the time she woke up in the morning, she was in
line” (72). Not allowing for close maternal relationships, slavery physically
removed children from their mothers and created a loss of contact. Without frequent
interactions, the only way for Sethe to identify her mother was by the “circle
and cross burnt” into her skin (72). The fact that Sethe could not recognize
her mother without this branding mark demonstrates a broken mother-daughter
bond, and that cruel white men made motherhood even more treacherous for slaves.

According to Linda, “on the fourth day after the birth of her babe,” Dr.

Flint “took the baby from her arms” (73). Jacobs, appealing to the emotions
of her readers, pulls at heart strings by stating just how young the baby was
when she was unwillingly taken from her mother. Morrison similarly uses pathos
to convey that white men physically violated female slaves in addition to taking
away their physical capability of being a nurturing mother.

            They used cowhide on you?

And
they took my milk.

They
beat you and you was pregnant?

And
they took my milk. (20)

 

Sethe,
robbed of her own breastmilk, cannot feed her baby vital nourishment. By
responding to both of Paul D’s questions regarding torture with “And they took
my milk,” Sethe indicates that her stolen milk mattered more to her than the
pain she endured (20). While Morrison utilizes symbols—such as the milk and the
mark—to portray the atrocities female slaves experienced, Jacobs implements a
blunter method by stating exactly how it was: “slavery was terrible for men;
but it was far more terrible for women” (73). The simplicity of Jacobs’
narrative explicitly reveals the stripping of motherhood, whereas Morrison
accomplishes the same goal through the subtle use of literary elements such as
symbols and metaphors. Sethe’s milk, symbolizing the love and devotion she
holds for her children, is just one of Morrison’s example of the conflict
between slavery and motherhood. Morrison’s finest example of this struggle to
maintain the status of a mother during the institution of slavery is when Sethe
kills her own baby. Standing with a “blood-soaked child to her chest,” Sethe
has both murdered and saved her baby (175). Given Sethe does both of these with
just one action, Morrison effectively depicts the true wickedness of slavery. Since
slavery does not allow for her to be a true mother, Sethe would rather not to
be a mother all. Making a strong statement against slavery, Morrison claims
that death is superior to an enslaved life.

Morrison and Jacobs depict their
characters as being haunted by the past to convey that slavery creates a
horrific situation with devastating consequences and long-lasting effects even
after achieving freedom. Former slaves fail to bury their memories, for the
past simply never goes away. Opening her novel with “124 was spiteful. Full of
baby’s venom,” Morrison begins with an element of the gothic: a ghost (3).

Sethe’s home is literally haunted by the ghost of her dead child, showing how
Sethe’s past continues to haunt her. Morrison’s main rhetorical vehicle, the
supernatural, incites terror in her reader and makes her novel “a hair-raiser”
(Atwood). While the gothic can be used to excite readers, Morrison uses Beloved
to mirror the haunting nature of the institution of slavery itself. Forcing the
reader to be open-minded from the beginning, she immediately disorients by
commencing with a number instead of a word to parallel the confusing, unpredictable slave life. Jacobs,
too, echoes the burden of her tragic past and the uncertainty of servitude,
lamenting that “no thoughts to
occupy my mind, except the dreary past and the uncertain future” (109). While
Morrison uses the supernatural to convey the haunting nature of slavery to her
audience, Jacobs, on the other hand, directly states the persistence of the
past. Claiming that “it has been painful to me, to recall the dreary years I
passed in bondage I would gladly forget them if I could,” Jacobs expresses that
as much as she wishes to forget her painful past, she simply cannot (183). Written
in the first person, Incidents in The
Life of a Slave Girl, gives only one girl’s perspective of the lasting
trauma of slavery. Alternatively, Beloved
incorporates elements of the supernatural to embody the universal suffering
of slavery. While Jacobs’ message is easier to grasp, she falls short of
Morrison in terms of the scope of the trauma. In Chapter 22 of Morrison’s
novel, Beloved recounts “crouching” below deck on a slave boat from Africa
where “the bread was sea-colored” (248). However, this is chronologically
incorrect, for Sethe’s mother experienced the Middle Passage, not Beloved.

These fragmented memories, which Morrison rhetorically unveils to the audience
with fragmented sentences lacking periods, suggest that Beloved voices the
miseries of all slaves, including those beyond her immediate family. Slavery’s
painful and enduring legacy lingers with those who have attained freedom due to
its oppressive and cruel nature, preventing these women from moving on with
their lives.

While former slaves needed to
forget about their tragic lives in slavery, just as Sethe had to forget about
Beloved to keep on living, there is still value in learning about the past.

America cannot erase the institution of slavery from its textbooks and should
not downplay its horrors. Our nation, instead, needs to embrace the cruelties
man once committed to avoid repeating the past. Attempts to revisit history with
monuments, such as the names of schools, buildings, or highways, however, can
be controversial. With the current push against Confederate monuments and the
recent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, America struggles with how to
properly acknowledge the past without glorifying its darkest chapters. However,
the issue at hand is much larger than the physical statues. The controversy
serves as a microcosm for the larger social issue of racism, which still exists
today, even though slavery was abolished 152 years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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