Effects of Slavery on the Individual in Beloved
In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison conveys her strong feelings about slavery by depicting the emotional impact slavery has had on individuals. Using characters such as Mr. Garner and Schoolteacher as enablers, Morrison is able to illustrate not only how detrimental slavery can be to an individual, but also how it affects everyone differently. Morrison furthers her claims by constantly engaging the reader with the emotional inner-workings of several other characters, most specifically Paul D., in order to fully show the effect that slavery can have on an individual.
Although Mr. Garner is portrayed as a relatively more respectable and humane slave-owner, the fact that he owns slaves at all makes him no better than Schoolteacher. Morrison uses Mr. Garner to show that even if you allow slaves certain freedoms, the act of owning another human being is always detestable. One situation that shows Mr. Garner’s objectionable character is Halle’s purchase of his mother, Baby Suggs. As Halle points out to Sethe, “If he hadn’t of, she would of dropped in his cooking stove… I pay him for her last years and in return he got you, me, and three more coming up.” Mr. Garner only allowed the outwardly kind-hearted release of Baby Suggs because he received younger, stronger slaves in exchange.
On the other hand, Schoolteacher clearly treats his slaves with a complete lack of respect and an utter lack of moral conscience. Although Schoolteacher’s actions were clearly degrading and dehumanizing to his slaves, he justified his actions by classifying the slaves as animals, unworthy of deference. In order to show Schoolteacher’s inhumane attitude towards slaves, the narrator discusses Schoolteacher’s views on how Garner ran the plantation: “the spoiling these particular slaves had at Garner’s hands…letting niggers hire out their own time to buy themselves. He even let them have guns!…He [Schoolteacher] had come to put the place right.” Schoolteacher believed it was his job to enforce order among these “spoiled” slaves and treat them how he felt slaves should be treated. The only way he concluded that this could be done was through violence and blatant disrespect.
Paul D. worked as a slave under both Mr. Garner and Schoolteacher, and although they treated him differently, the final outcome was the same. Both Mr. Garner and Schoolteacher destroyed Paul D.’s self-esteem and confidence, but did so in different ways. Mr. Garner was the first to attack Paul D.’s manhood: although Paul D. acknowledged that Mr. Garner referred to his slaves as men, it was “only on Sweet Home, and by his leave.” Obviously this angered Paul D., as he did not need a white master determining arbitrarily who was manly and who was not. Furthermore, Mr. Garner’s actions forced Paul D. to question his own judgment of himself and his manhood. As soon as Schoolteacher came, however, any shred of confidence Paul D. had was destroyed. Schoolteacher’s disrespect towards slaves left Paul D. feeling worthless, and Morrison clearly demonstrates the effects of Schoolteacher’s rituals in a scene regarding a rooster named Mister. Paul D. replayed the scene for Sethe, saying:
Mister, he looked so…free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher…Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was…no way I’d ever be Paul D. again…Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else, less than a chicken.
Schoolteacher’s antics reduced the slaves to something lower than animals, and as Paul D. says himself, he would never be the same again.
The long term effects of slavery on Paul D. can be seen throughout the course of the novel. Living as a slave under both Garner and Schoolteacher for the majority of his life, Paul D.’s only method of coping with the horrible memories of slavery is by repressing everything into the “tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be, its lid rusted shut.” With the emotional pain inflicted by his previous slave owners, Paul D. believes that this is his only way to carry on.
Slavery had quite a different effect on the character Sixo. Unlike Paul D., Sixo had experienced freedom under both Garner and Schoolteacher. Sixo and Halle were the only slaves on Sweet Home to ever leave the farm under Garner’s reign, so they were the only ones to experience the emotional benefits that come with freedom. For this reason, Sixo never really experiences true slavery. He insists on choosing his own mate and receives other luxuries that were usually not granted to slaves. Freedom was so rewarding to Sixo that he would travel “seventeen hours, [sit] down for one, [then] turn around and walk seventeen more,” just to have a taste of its rewards.
Sixo’s love of freedom inevitably resulted in his death. During a planned escape from Schoolteacher’s farm, Sixo was captured. Instead of returning to slavery, Sixo started to sing into the very rifle aimed at him. At sight of this act, Schoolteacher deemed Sixo insane and declared, “this one will never be suitable.” Instantly Sixo leaped into a fire a began to yell, “Seven-O! Seven-O!” only furthering Schoolteacher’s claims. Ultimately, Schoolteacher had Sixo shot. Morrison uses this scene to show that Sixo did not care who his master was or how that man treated him; all that mattered to him was his freedom.
The ultimate demonstration of the emotional effect of slavery can be seen in Baby Suggs, who was directly affected by Garner’s actions and inadvertently by Schoolteacher’s. Baby Suggs possesses an irreversible hostility not just towards slave owners, but to all whites, with a specific hatred for Mr. Garner, her former master. As Baby Suggs says, “Even when they thought they were behaving, it was a far cry from what real humans did.” Even though her daughter, Sethe, presents a solid argument for the credibility of Caucasians, Baby Suggs always responds with an example of a bad deed that seemingly counteracts any good. The slavery she experienced at Garner’s hands forced her to despise all whites, regardless of their quality of character.
Although Baby Suggs was not one of Schoolteacher’s slaves, she too felt the repercussions of his evil actions. Because Sethe hated slavery to such an extreme, she was willing to murder her children in order to protect them from its inevitable physical and emotional torture. Baby Suggs lost one grandchild at the hands of Sethe, and almost lost three others. Sethe justified herself by deeming actions as protection from the four horsemen (Schoolteacher, his nephew, the slave-catcher, and the sheriff). Although not directly responsible for the death of Baby Suggs’s grandson, Schoolteacher’s maltreatment of slaves had murdered a member of her family.
Morrison uses every character in Beloved to show how wide spread the effects of slavery can be. Slavery affects everyone in a different way, but as the book shows, people do drastic things to prevent a return to slavery for themselves and their families. Even though Garner treated his slaves with a degree of trust and respect, he was still a slave owner and definitely inflicted emotional and physical pain. Although Schoolteacher’s lack of compassion had a more devastating effect on his slaves, ultimately he and Garner were not very different. As Halle says, “What they say is the same. Loud or soft.” Halle sums it up perfectly: it did not matter how they treated their slaves, because in the end, they both owned other human beings and – even with good intentions like Garner’s – permanently harmed them.
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