Slavery is dehumanisation in everysituation. In Beloved, Toni Morrison uses different instances and cases ofracism to complicate her novel and to show how “multiple hegemonic forcesmaintain a racist society” (Humann 61).In the first quartile of Beloved,Sethe trusts Mister and Missus Garner. Mrs.
Garner gives Sethe earrings for herwedding. She did not wear the earrings, she just held them. The earrings “madeher believe that she could discriminate among them” (Morrison 188). It was notjust ill treatment that made slavery the monster it was. It was also the imbalanceof wealth and the worth money held in that time. Money was only the object ofwhite people; slaveowners. For Sethe to hold something valuable made her feelpowerful. It made her feel that she had the sort of power the slaveowners did.
This is proved in how Morrison uses the word “among” instead of “between”(Humann 61). Sethe means that she feels she can discriminate among theslaveowners themselves (Humann 61). Sethe is confused about her identity. Foran instance, she forgets that she herself is a slave and is not in the positionto be racist. Morrison writes this confusion into the novel with a purpose.
Sethe is already convinced that her space in the hegemonic society can bealtered, causing confusion with her identity. This confusion is not only visiblewithin her own identity. One can apprehend that it must be as difficult, if notmore to distinguish good slaveowners from the bad. They did not know who totrust. This decision on whether to trust a white person or not determined theiridentity and their future. Their lives “depended on it” (Humann 62). Setheidentity as a slave was not her identity.
It was the identity governed by whitepeople in her hegemonic society. Sethe could not make her own decisions.Sethe’s body was not even her own. Therefore, when it comes to the subject ofself-identity, Sethe can be identified as not having one to begin with duringher time in Sweet Home. Slavery removes the slaves’humanity in Beloved by treating them asbeings other than humans. Throughout her years in ‘Sweet Home’, Sethe and theother slaves are treated as animals. Whilst Paul D was working, he was forcedto wear a bit in his mouth (Morrison).
Not only were they treated as animals,but as working animals bred merely for human use and ownership. Due to the hegemonicsociety in which all characters live in, the slaves are treated as subhuman. TrudierHarris confirms this when he compares the freedom of Paul D and the rooster’Mister'”. He writes that as Mister struts around the barnyard, “strutting forthe hens present”, he is exercising a freedom and control over his life that isgreater than Paul D’s freedom and control over his life (Harris 181). Paul D has less self-identity thanMister because while Mister can make his own decisions over what he does withhis body, Paul D cannot.
Because of this treatment, characters begin to mimicanimals. Painful events are normalised and taken for granted since painfulevents happen regularly. It would have been easy for Africans in America at thetime get used to the treatment and to have experienced a low in the need to retaliateor question such treatment. It is not until the pain steps up on another leveldo they realise that the happenings during slavery are painful and should notbe occurring to them. It is only in the crossing to the next level of a slave’spain threshold does one feel the need to act. In Sethe’s case, this levellingup of pain occurs in the shed with schoolteacher and his nephews. What happens in the shed withschoolteacher and his nephews is another example of the spectrum that shows howwhite people treated slaves. Schoolteacher’s abuse was more verbal while hisnephews’ abuse was physical.
Though schoolteacher did not lay a finger onSethe, both pains were arguably equally as heavy. Schoolteacher says that shehas animal characteristics and reasons how Africans and white people aregenetically different. Schoolteacher sees Sethe has being genetically flawedand animal-like. His nephews however, milk Sethe as one would an animal.
It isevident that Sethe is far more traumatised and pained by the milking overschoolteachers’ words. In Beloved,when Sethe recalls the happenings of what happened in the shed to Paul D, sheput emphasis on “and they took my milk” (Morrison). Humann writes that themilking is more painful to Sethe because it hurts her in a way only human canbe hurt (Humann 67); and that is through humiliation. One could argue thatschoolteacher’s words were humiliating also. This can be resolved in consideringthat while Sethe could choose whether to take in schoolteacher’s words or not,she could not have control over what happened to her body.
Whilst schoolteachertried to convince her that she was an animal through words, his nephews treatedher like an animal; took control of her body and what it produced (Humann 67).Milking Sethe was a more intimate and personal violation (Humann 67), not justto her humanity but also to her womanhood. It was one thing they could havetaken from her that distinguished her from a male slave. This act connotes thatthey have control of her children as much as they do her milk; as both thingscan only be taken from a woman’s body.
The next level of Sethe’s pain, ispartially being raped or milked, but mostly about the danger of her children. Thisis the act that causes Sethe’s trauma and her need to escape. The desperationto keep her children away from slavery is what causes the ghost of slavery tolinger in her home. This treatment of Sethe being an animal mirrors the behaviourof Sethe as she kills her child. It is an act that some mother animals do totheir young when they have been touched. The mother animal kills their youngfor having been “owned” by somebody else. This act took Sethe’s self-identityas a human being as well as a woman.
This is what causes the trauma that bringsSethe onto another level of her pain threshold that encourages her that itwasn’t such a horrible thought to kill her children.