Spitting out the seed: ownership of mother, child, breasts, milk and voice in Toni Morrison's 'Beloved.'([De]Colonizing Reading/[Dis]Covering the Other)
My experience as a nursing mother has predisposed me to view the maternal bond presented by Toni Morrison as not a singular thread in the interwoven tapestry of Beloved, but as a domininant theme which focuses upon what I perceive to be a spiritual and sacred union within the mother and child cosmos.(1) Morrison's portrayal of the natural and complete circle of mother and child, disrupted and broken in two by the unnatural force of slavery, is so horrifying in its atrocity that this thematic thread becomes a riveting focus for me within the tapestry in its entirety. Sethe, whose "best thing she was, was her children," (308) possesses a fierce maternal instinct; she views her children as an intregal part of herself in an implication of ownership. Her children rightfully belong to her. Yet this essential maternal instinct is corrupted when viewed in the context of slavery. For a slave cannot "own." Not her individuality. Not her children. Not her milk. Nothing is sacred for those enslaved. Slavery has many horrors. Yet, as a mother, I find the avulsion of the mother and child circle the most appalling horror of all.
Within the theme of the maternal sphere, Morrison stresses breast-feeding as essential to the natural unity of the mother-child bond; she exemplifies more fully the mutilation of this sphere by depicting the enslavement of mother and child within as they are separately and individually buffeted by the forces of slavery, belonging not to each other, but to their captors - their "owners."
I know to nurse a child is to join in a sacred state of communion with that child. The mother is producer and provider of the milk from her body; the child is communicant, eagerly taking nourishment her body provides. The primeval forces of biological nature interact with emotional and psychological bonding. Breast-feeding is the ultimate expression of maternal love; it is a concrete and viable product of that love. It is the abstract made material. As an expression of love, milk is symbolized as mother's love. Thus, absence of mother's milk (as in the case of Ella) can be viewed as symbolic of maternal abandonment. Milk literally is preservation of life. It represents the ability to provide. Nursing is the arch of the circle which harbors the mother and child bond. The child greedily and hungrily feasts upon the nursing mother, much as Beloved threatens to devour Sethe, in a vincular relation that is not only physical but emotional. As a result, the mother produces and expels milk in order to satisfy and sustain her child, as well as to reaffirm her maternal position as care-taker. It is a completion of the sphere, one of mutuality - a sanctioned relation of give-and-take. For Sethe, this circle is broken as a child and again as a mother, despite her persistant attempts to fulfill it and keep what rightfully belongs to her. Her enslaved condition prevents participation within this sacred circle. A slave cannot own - not her mother and not her child.
Sethe's mother was granted two or three weeks to nurse the infant Sethe, long enough to guarantee the survival of the child, considered a future profit for slave holders. It is a mercilessly brief time. Sethe's mother is then forced to return to the rice fields in order to continue reaping profit for the slaveholders. The bond is broken. Sethe is insufficiently nursed by the white children's nursemaid; they get the breast first, leaving little or no milk for Sethe. The chance to bond, physically and emotionally, is lost. The circle is rent, the ownership brief. Later unable to recognize her own mother, Sethe is able to do so only after her nursemaid identifies her as the woman slaving in the fields. Sethe's mother, in an attempt to form a tenuous bond, exposes her breast to Sethe, a breast long dry - only to expose the owner's brand underneath it. A circle and cross lie below the breast where a baby should have been.
Sometimes he sucks. Not to fulfill a hunger - but a need just the same. A need to be drawn close. A need to take just a taste of my body, a bit of milk. A reassurance that I am here. I'll always be here. He sucks and starts the milk that spews out in a stream when he pulls his mouth away. Sometimes he sucks long after there is no milk left. The doctor says he is fulfilling his sucking reflex, developing and strengthening muscles. I say he is fulfilling an emotional need. I let him stay at my breast, although it is painful and his belly, I know, is full. My nipples are tender and sore, becoming chapped. I let him stay, though. He is my child. This hunger is important too.
Because Sethe is nursed by the white children's nursemaid, she is never able to drink her fill, to satisfy the hunger in her belly or in her heart. She is unable to suck for the sheer pleasure an infant derives from sucking, to bond with the nursing mother, to fulfill physical hunger and emotional connection. For the infant Sethe there would never be enough milk left. Sometimes the nipples would be dry and cracked. Sometimes the breasts, withered and empty, would be unable to replenish themselves in time for Sethe. Sometimes she would get nothing at all, not even the time to suck nor to bond with the stranger who is not her own.
Deprived of a mother's milk and bond, knowing the ravenous void in her belly and in her heart, Sethe wants better for her children. She vows her children will never know that hunger. She claims ownership of her children, despite their enslavement and her own. They will have milk of their own. They will never have to share; they will have their own time to suckle and she will be their provider. Years later, Sethe remembers her deprivation and the significance milk had for her. It is not only about nourishment, it is about your "own":
There was no nursing milk to call my own. I know what it is to be without the milk that belongs to you; to have to fight and holier for it, and to have so little left. I'll tell Beloved about that; she'll understand. She my daughter. (247) [emphasis added]
Beloved is her own. Of course she will understand.
If milk can be viewed symbolically as a mother's present and enduring love, then lack of milk can suggest maternal abandonment. Sethe remembers her mother's forced exile, to "turn her over to another woman's tit that never had enough for all" (250). I know as a mother, to produce milk is to therefore own it - it is yours to give as sustenance. Sethe feels this too. She feels the theft of her milk by the two "mossy-teethed" (86) boys. They "took" (20) it from her. Their theft denotes her prior ownership. Ownership suggests responsibility, and responsibility leads to power - power to choose. Nourishment or starvation? To give or to withhold? Ella deliberately chooses starvation, denying her milk to the product of the "lowest yet" (318). There is a power in keeping or denying what you own. Ella chose to take her milk away from the hated "hairy white thing" (318). Although she delivered the child, it does not belong to her. Therefore, she withheld what did - her milk. It was hers to make that choice. The power was in her hands, her breasts. Power comes with ownership. To own is dangerous when you are enslaved. Sethe knows this.
He has been gone from me for a little while. Days pass like months. My breasts weep, staining my shirt in milky rivulets, pointing down, down to his orgin of birth. The smell of milk unused follows me, reminding me of my purpose and my need. I need to hold him...to nurse him. These breasts are so full and swollen they ache. They give him my expelled milk in a bottle with a rubber tip. A poor substitute. Will he forget me? Does he cry for me? Does the rubber leave a taste in his mouth that isn't me? I must be with him soon. I drown within milky solitude.
Nursing, while symbolized by ownership, also denotes a static symbol of unity and communion. Sethe, in remembrance of her childhood, attempts to fulfill the maternal circle that has been wrested from her. Yet the mother-child bond is tenuous now - her baby has been sent ahead without her. Sethe's streaming breasts remind her of the void; squandered milk mocks her lack of purpose and confronts her fear of losing what she owns, the best part of her. She strains to be one again with her child:
Anybody could smell me long before he saw me. And when he saw me he'd see the drops of it on the front of my dress. Nothing I could do about that. All I knew I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me.... I told them to put sugar water in cloth to suck from so when I got there in a few days she wouldn't have forgot me. The milk would be there and I would be there with it. (19-20)
He has nursed and is full. I look at my breasts, empty flasks sunken without the pulsating force of milk to engorge and round them. I imagine a man would find them grotesque. But I see beauty in their function. They are not mere playthings for a man's sexual pleasure. They have a purpose. At times, it is a burden to know and to hold. Life-force, ownership, equates responsibility. I cannot escape that. Any mouth I feel at my breast in love is a mouth I must ultimately nurture.
Conflated with nursing and nurturance, breasts adopt an operative and functional perspective, one no longer entirely sexual in connotation. As Paul D seduces Sethe, he views her breasts' value as sexual in the heat of passion. Unlike a child, he holds them gingerly, carefully cupping them as a hungry and grasping child would not. Yet after love-making, he perceives Sethe's empty, tired breasts as unattractive and unappealing. They have served their purpose and no longer are seductively enticing to him. They look, as Sethe feels, "worn out":
Paul D saw the float of her breasts and disliked it, the spread-away, flat roundness of them that he could definitely live without, never mind that downstairs he had held them as though they were the most expensive part of himself. (26)
Sethe, however, feels the hands that pass over her breasts are many - be they her man's or her children's. They have served their purpose. The significance of her breasts is at times too great a responsibility. Their value as preservers and sustainers of life is too much to bear; her breasts signify a power that can be too easily snatched away. However, the difference is vast between relegating power and having that power taken from you. Sethe allows her breasts to play the sexual role Paul D needs in order to pass the burden of them for a little while - into a man's hands and mouth that she can trust. For "[w]hat she knew was the the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else's hands" (21-22).
Yet the sexual meaning of Sethe's breasts reverts to symbolic nurturing as well. Paul D suckles at Sethe's breast like her children before him, and she finds herself providing sustenance for him, as she does for her grown children. She makes the transition from sexual love to nurturing love. As primal nourishment, milk becomes symbolic for the nurturing of all loved ones; it the higher realm of interdependence - taking responsibility for what you own. It is the maternal instinct of providing, having something of value as nourishment and choosing to give it as thus. Sethe contemplates the fine dinner she will provide for Paul D after their love-making, after he, like her daughter, has become one of her own: "There was no question but that she could do it. Just like the day she arrived at 124 - sure enough, she had milk enough for all" (122).
These breasts are mine. The milk is my own. I feed him with it, nourish his body and soul. It is my choice to do so. There is a power in that. My mother did not nurse me - the doctors told her it wasn't healthy. They took that away from her. They took it away from me. I refuse to allow them to do that again. Not to me and my child. Greedy bastards. What little power we possess, they smugly, surely, attempt to steal or deny it, using whatever manipulative strategems they possess. Is manipulation a possession? Is it a power?
The struggle for power through the established hierarchy can be horrific. Economics has taught me this much. When value is placed upon an object and the marginalized deemed powerless within the hierarchy own such an object - they become newly empowered and no longer marginal, thereby upsetting the established status quo. The dominant power attempts to gain control and reestablish its power-base by either diminishment of the valued object (a denial of the object's value and ultimate power) or removal, stealing the object from the newly empowered. Take away the valued object, take away the power. Baby Suggs, holy, instructs her followers upon their valued parts: "They ain't in love with your mouth, they will see it broken and break it again" (108). She urges her followers to empower themselves by loving all parts of themselves, parts of power that slaveholders as the dominant power will attempt to diminish or destroy in order to remain in tyranical control.
Power. Slaves and servants alike must love their "parts." Breasts are a part of women that provide life-sustaining nourishment; they are of extreme value. The milk they produce is valued. Those in a position of power can either destroy the breasts, thus destroying the woman attached to them which ultimately results in the destruction of a slaveholding commodity; or they can maim the breast, branding it in an attempt to claim the value it holds as their own, as in the case of Sethe's mother. Another imperialistic maneuver is to remove the breasts geographically through the relocation of the woman attached to them, tragically removing a mother from her child. This horrific avulsion is also exemplified through Sethe's mother. If the nursing breast is not removed, the power-base can remove its product - the milk. This is evident in Sethe's case. It is to deny the mother and child the right to own: "What you put into it [mouth] to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead" (108), Baby Suggs, holy, tells her followers, elucidating Sethe's youthful experience, a child torn from her mother with "no nursing milk to call my own" (247). Sethe knows the destruction of the rent sphere. As a child she lived it. As a mother, it encompasses her still. Within her breasts, she holds the power of nourishment, life-giving sustenance - a part of value. This part of her cannot be taken away without a loss to the slaveholders, but her milk can.
He is hungry. I hurry us home so that I may nurse him in quiet and privacy. There is no place here out on the street. My breasts throb in dull, steady pain. It has been a long afternoon. Lost in the ache of my engorged breasts, feeling their wobbling weight straining against my damp shirt as I walk, I do not see the boys gathered at the corner, ogling my approach. Bored, they saunter in my direction, pelvises thrust forward, hands thrust in bulging pockets. They sing-song, "Hey mama, wontcha gimme some-a-tha-milk?" They may be young, but they are men and threatening to me. Their chants strike fear in my breasts. Perhaps sensing something, my baby mews, and my milk surges forward, staining my shirt. I am afraid and ashamed. Head down, I rush past the laughing corner-boys to the safety of my home. I am lucky to have that - the security of a place to call my own.
In an appalling act of the ultimate violation, Sethe's milk is taken from her by two "mossy teethed" boys, nephews of the schoolteacher (86). She is forcibly held down by one "boy" while the other suckles from her. This act, like no other experienced during her enslavement, haunts Sethe. It is far worse than the beatings she endures at their hands later. Recalling the incident to Paul D, Sethe stresses four times the acts of horror committed upon her physically and psychologically. While Paul D can focus only upon the physical beating Sethe received as a result of reporting the two men, Sethe insists on drawing him back to the ultimate horror she experienced as a woman and a mother in a violation worse than genital rape. Her anxiety rises as she attempts to make Paul D understand her pain; her final statement is a commanding exclamation:
After I left you those boys came in there and took my milk. That's what they came in there for. Held me down and took it.... Them boys found out I told on em. Schoolteacher made one open up my back, and when it closed it made a tree. It grows there still.
They used cowhide on you? And they took my milk. They beat you and you was pregnant? And they took my milk! (20) [emphasis added]
The theft of Sethe's milk is a greater crime than the horrific violation committed upon her body, worse than the crack of leather against her exposed back, pregnant and swollen belly bowing to the pressure of cruel leather slitting muscle and blood. The coarsened, raised scars upon her back form a life-giving tree and are a visible reminder of the open and oozing scars left still upon her psyche which she suffers in silence.
The theft of her milk, psychologically abhorrent to Sethe, leaves her feeling hatred and revulsion for the men who stole her milk and power. She must also feel shame and guilt for her forced physical compliance, a biological response. Sethe mentally recalls "mossy teeth" (86). As a maternal reader, I am forced to re-enact the horror of scum-covered teeth scraping against her nipple, acutely sensitive as a result of repeated nursing and engorgement. Sethe's horror and shame multiply as sensation to the nipple sends a signal to the swollen milk ducts which spurt milk to the nipple's surface in a flooding physical release, triggered by a brief tug to the nipple. An emotional turrent also rises within Sethe. Repugnance for the violation committed upon her body intermingles with shame for her involuntary, enforced physical cooperation. The men's violation coerced the participation of her long engorged breasts. They took her milk! The unspoken acknowledgement, what Sethe cannot bear to contemplate, is that her body betrayed her and enabled them to do so.
In her anger, Sethe realizes the objectification she was forced into as property. Property owned. "They handled me like I was a cow, no, the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses" (247). Equating Sethe with a milk-bearing beast of burden, the white men conflate both woman and nature, justifying their imperialization of both entities; their violation objectifies Sethe as commodifiable property even further. She has nothing to call her own and no means of fighting back. It is the powerlessness of the enslaved position, one Sethe shares with her husband who is forced to witness the atrocity, powerless to stop it. Butter smeared upon the face becomes his catatonic badge of shame. Mrs. Garner, imprisoned within the silent existence of her body's gender and illness, is powerless as well. Her badge of shame is one of silence and tears. For Sethe, it is significantly a choke-cherry tree upon her back, a symbolic brand revealing the seed of revelation buried deep within herself which chokes her voice and enforces her silence. She cannot give voice to the pinnacle of horror locked in her throat; she witholds the atrocity from Paul D and herself. Yet she struggles to survive and nurture, to nurse again.
I bring him to a solitary place to nurse. I want some privacy within this public space. I unbutton my shirt, and I watch him as he immediately clamps at my breast. The tug and the flow begin. Watching him, I notice how long his eyelashes have grown, resting against the fullness of his cheek as his mouth moves on my breast. I hear something, a sound of friction. Looking up, I see a man across the way, staring intently at us. A nondescript kind of man. Rubbing his knee. Back and forth. Up and down. I shift, turning my back to this man, wanting him to leave and hearing the rustle of callouses upon fabric. My movement clamps my son more firmly on my breast. Back and forth. Up and down. Looking over my shoulder, I see the man's hands gliding in a calloused caress from his knee to his crotch. Back and forth, up and down, taking away my dignity with each rustling, slow stroke. I never nurse my son outside of my home again. And hear it still.
Sethe will again provide sustenance and life to another daughter, yet she will not nurse until she has reached safety. With Denver strapped to her sore and swollen breasts, nipples caked with the residue of leaking milk from engorged breasts that refuse to nurse, Sethe waits until she reaches the shelter and safety of Baby Suggs's home - a haven where gentleness and interdependence counter force and theft. Here the individual and ownership are permitted: "The crust from her nipples Baby softened with lard and washed away. By dawn the silent baby woke and took her mother's milk" (114).
He is my blood. He is my heart. He greedily sucks, and I am overcome with such an intense feeling of love and unity that I cradle his head closer to my breast, bringing him physically closer to me and to my heart. I must be careful. I make an indentation against my breast with my free thumb, so that he can breathe. With his mouth clamped upon my nipple, his nose pressed against the swell of my breast, I could suffocate him with love. Thick, like the milky love that flows from my breasts. Not the watery, bluish-thin colostrum that trickles for the first few days. Thick. Suffocatingly thick.
Paul D accuses Sethe's love, like her milk, of being "too thick" (202). Sethe defends herself, knowing that "[t]hin love ain't love at all" (202). Colostrum, thin, bluish love can sustain for a few days, but no longer. It is milk, thick love which feeds, nourishes, sustains, and survives. Sethe knows this. She knows too the power inherent in the symbolic mixture of blood and milk. She transfers this legacy to her daughter, nourishing Denver with the blood of her own, symbolic of autonomy and freedom, merged with her milk, symbolic of love and nourishment; the mixture nourishes strength, growth, and survival: "Sethe was aiming the bloody nipple into the baby's mouth.... So Denver took her mother's milk right along with the blood of her sister" (187).
Sethe struggles for autonomy, though her mind is tortured with the thoughts of the theft, the "taking" of her milk. Her mind, like her nursing breasts, becomes full with the horror of it. At times, her memory is similar to the hungry suckling: "Like a greedy child it snatched up everything" (86). She remembers not only the atrocity of her theft, but worse, the nonchalant recording of it: "I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking my breast the other holding me down, their book reading teacher watching and writing it up" (86). Sethe is full to choking over her rape, yet she still cannot give voice to her enforced complicity in the act which threatens to enslave her forever.
The full horror of her violation and its complete demoralization is actualized by the schoolteacher's cruel indifference. Man, inhumane, reaches his most debased form. Like the symbolic choke-cherry tree, a tree of knowledge branded upon Sethe's back, the teacher's words too, will remain. On paper they survive to become conflated with "knowledge" and "truth." His history becomes the history, to be read and re-lived over and over again. Because he possesses the power of the pen, the schoolteacher becomes the representative purveyor of "truth." Sethe cannot partake of the fruit of that tree - its seeds threaten to choke her voice to silence. Her voice will not reach his history books nor the books of their children. Her truth is silenced, her legacy to her children rent. This act is the ultimate objectification of Sethe as a commodity and guarantees her continual enslavement. It becomes the slave-holding justification for the theft of her milk and her humanity. The teacher believes he owns both the breast and the woman. Sethe's milk, then, becomes more than a representation of nourishment and sustenance, more than a symbol of maternal love. It becomes the representation of individual freedom. Her milk is her own to give to her children, who in turn take in a reciprocal, volitional act of love. The "mossy teethed" boys took her milk. The teacher took her history and her freedom. Yet she struggles to find voice and add her history of self and people to blind, extant justifications.
Worse than the physical betrayal of her body, the sighful release of long-pent milk - that complicity of her breasts Sethe could forgive - was her enforced compliance as slave. Her mind is exhausted with the burden and the struggle to forget. Gathering her strength, Sethe spits out the seed which threatened to choke her, finding the voice within to free her. "I made the ink," she slowly tells Paul D (333). The teacher's ink flows like Sethe's milk, although not to bear freedom and nurture life, but to perpetuate an epistimological legacy of tyranny, inhumanity, and death. For that acquiescence, Sethe holds the atrocities committed against her as her burden, yet she adds her voice to counter his own. Sethe's voice is liberatory; her history and self are written, as Cixous notes, in "white ink" (1094). The effort wearies her; exhausts her mind and her empty, tired breasts. Sethe questions Paul D's offer to rub her feet. She feels: "There's nothing left to rub now and no reason to.... First her face, then her hands, her thighs, her feet, her back: Ending with her exhausted breasts?" (334).
Sethe is a mother. The children she has nursed have exhausted her breasts, leaving them empty and unreplenished. Sethe is no longer enslaved. She will no longer continue to nurse her memories, for like a "greedy child" they have drunk their fill, leaving her mind waiting for the replenishment peace, freedom, and autonomy will bring (86). Her breasts are empty, her mind awaits; yet so very strong, she and her voice survive as legacy.
So many degrees of imprisonment. Enslavement. Body and mind. There is a knowing, an understanding, but a difference. A small difference, really. The minute difference of color, of texture. Bluish thin inky colostrum over thick milk. It becomes all the difference in the world.... Our voices must stop this history of silence. It is time to spit out that which threatens to choke us. There need be no difference in that.
1 Of her writing, Toni Morrison once said, "I have to provide places and spaces so that the reader can participate.... I [have] allowed the reader to come in and experience, to work with me in the telling of the story. Black literature is open-ended, participatory. It [i]s a measure of my ability to make this kind of contact with the reader" (Russell 44). I view Morrison's words as an open invitation to dance and sing within the gaps she leaves for us all. Traditional critics may dismiss my celebrational participation as insular and resistant. While I acknowledge there is a vast and fine body of existing criticism which examines Morrison and Beloved, I choose not to include these studies in my examination of the text. I simply wish to add my voice and respond personally to a work which has touched me deeply.
In An Alchemy of Genres, Diane P. Freedman examines cross-genre writing as a metadiscursive power. Freedman quotes Susan Griffin, who notes that "[w]hy we write, as feminists, is not separable from our lives" (4). In The Intimate Critique, Freedman notes that "many contemporary women writers want an intimacy with their readers and subjects as well as with themselves" (13). My experience as a woman writer encourages me to reach out across the text in a symbolic hold of hands; my experience as a nursing mother prevents me from compartmentalizing my writing and my life. My matrix then is one which deliberately blends boundaries - and finds similarity with Morrison's admitted nexus. Morrison believes, "I tend to think that I don't have to make a choice between motherhood and a career - I just regard them all as pretty much the most important thing" (Lester 47). My voice, then, is my choice of non-choice and I thank Toni Morrison for allowing me the opportunity to rejoice with her, to clasp hands, to laugh, sing, shout, and dance with her across the spaces of the page.
Cixous, Helen. "The Laugh of the Medusa." The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 1090-102.
Freedman, Diane P. An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.
-----. "Border Crossing as Method and Motif in Contemporary American Writing, or, How Freud Helped Me Case the Joint." The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Ed. Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 14-22.
Lester, Rosemarie K. "An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany." Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: Hall, 1988. 47-54.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Signet, 1987.
Russell, Sandi. "It's OK to Say OK." Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: Hall, 1988. 43-47.
Mock is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburg, Johnstown and a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania currently working on a dissertation on Rebecca Harding Davis.
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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