In awe of her subtle imagery and slight nods to the Black female psyche, my 14-year-old self clung to Toni Morrison’s depictions of a misunderstood femininity, from blue eyes to bare bellies. This time, at 15, as I indulged in her telling of Sethe from her novel “Beloved,” I became hyper-conscious of my womb — its innate implications and expectancy, my autonomy.
“Beloved” whispers life into the stories and voices of the Reconstruction Era. My favorite character was always Sethe, a former slave who, out of desperation, kills her daughter in fear of bestowing upon her the burdens of slavery. On her grave, Sethe weakly engraves the word “Beloved.” Despite now being free, Sethe is confined to her solitude, shunned by her community. Years later, a woman reincarnated as the spirit of Beloved is found at Sethe’s doorstep. Their relationship engulfs Sethe as she yearns to fill the void left by the death of her child. After nearly losing herself to Beloved’s grasp, her family manages to exorcize Beloved’s reincarnation from her home. Sethe is reminded of herself and her worth.
To me, Sethe was the literary embodiment of womanhood — the queenly woman with blood on her hands and a tree scarred into her back. She was the personification of repression and “rememory,” the manifestation of a traumatic past into the present.
I’m not sure if that’s how Morrison intended for me to interpret Sethe. But I grew attached to the idea — ostracized and othered, it would only make sense that her healing stood on the cusp of the spiritual and magical. It’s how I imagine my mother.
Mami is the epitome of magical realism. I remember once when I was 13, she told my sister, “Don’t ride that bike today.” My mother never really cared about my sister riding their bike, just that they made it back, but that day she did. And when my sister came home, they had broken their arm from an accident on their bike. And this wasn’t the first time it had happened.
My mother was no witch, but after reading the works of so many Black female authors, I was allured by the thought that she’d assumed a psychological legacy of slavery — an unspoken sixth sense of knowing. My grandma had it. My mom has it. And now so do I.
Caressing its thin, red cover, I slowly flip open the pages of Morrison’s “Beloved,” scared of cracking the spine. By now, my growing library houses the entirety of her collection: “The Bluest Eye,” “Tar Baby,” “God Help the Child,” “Paradise,” “Sula.” Her metaphors actualizing my lived experience created a pseudo-soul tie between myself and every female character introduced.
My mother was the one who always replenished my dwindling pile of books to read. She isn’t a big reader herself. But almost instinctively, she would always pick up books that were a reflection of us, our lives — what we assumed had to be a generational curse tailor-made to our bloodline. I loathed the responsibility of my womb.
Only two weeks ago, I called Mami and wept as I told her that I didn’t think I was built for Harvard, for the careers it was preparing me for that didn’t wholly align with my morality, for this world.
Softly, she apologized, “I’m sorry I gave this to you.”
Like Sethe, I have a chokecherry tree on my back, a reminder of my reckless willingness to bear the mark of my mother’s pain.
As a child, Sethe’s mother told her to “know” her by the scars on her rib, a circle and a cross burnt right into the skin. Naively, in hopes of also being known to her mother, Sethe asked her to replicate those marks on her own body. Yet it wasn’t until Sethe became a mother herself — as her slave master stole her child’s milk — that she understood her mother, as her own back was opened up and healed into a tree that still grows.
I don’t wish to replicate my mother’s marks but to absolve her from her own. To kill my tree before it, too, grows.
I’ve never faulted Sethe for killing Beloved. I believe her when she said she was trying to “put [her] babies where they’d be safe.” So it was with rage that I perused the page as Paul D, a friendly face from her past and the only man in her life, tells her that her love is “too thick.” That she’s “got two feet, not four.” His judgment echoed the voices of my male relatives telling me and my mother that we were too aggressive to ever earn a man’s love. We were rash and unforgiving.
But who was he to judge her? To assume superior morality when he’d never had to cope with knowing the fruit his own body bore would never fully be his own? That was a burden of the womb.
See, I believe Sethe when she said “thin love ain’t love at all.” How could I not? I am the same little girl who asked my mom to tell me the story of my birth annually. Alone and resentful of the circumstances I was born into, my mother pushed me out without saying a word. Tears silently crept down her face as she suppressed her pain. After I was born, every few hours the nurses would ask her if she wanted to hold me, and without fail she would say no. Until she said yes. As she held my round little body, she swears she fell in love. From that day forward, she vowed to love me enough for everyone who wouldn’t.
Mami only knows thick love.
Its demonization from those who don’t truly understand the source of thick love sows seeds of doubt. Reducing these actions to impulsivity, as opposed to what both women thought to be right, only allows for their past to loom over their present.
Now, at 21, I understand Morrison’s dehumanization and criminalization of Sethe as her perspective on the carceral state of rememory.
“Some things you forget. Other things you never do,” Sethe says. “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place — the picture of it — stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world… Right in the place where it happened.”
I wish we could keep the past there. Stagnant and bound to a physical realm or trapped in a particular point in time. But like a shadow, it follows you.
As I grow older, the veil of Mami’s undying strength has lifted, and I have come to understand the delicacy that lives within her. In her laughter, I see the childlike essence that lies below her surface. In her embrace, I see a version of her that didn’t get to share in this warmth. She is me. My desire to capture her smile like a firefly in a jar is the same reason I fear what womanhood is expecting of me. My love is thick, and as magical as her blood has made me, I cannot “unplant” the seeds that burrowed into her soil before I was born.
So, I look to Sethe, though her reclamation of self is violent and engulfed in mourning. Beloved and everything she stood for is hard to untether from.
“She was my best thing,” Sethe laments. This time, however, Paul D reminds her, “You your best thing, Sethe.”
And you are.
As the book comes to a close, we are left with nothing but weather. “By and by all trace is gone... The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss. Beloved.”
The illusioned comfort of the past is not deserving of our clamor. Morrison affirms our relationship to this past with the offering of a name: “Beloved.”
I’ve come to know womanhood as a sacrifice. My adoration of Sethe was the manifestation of an obsession with being self-sufficient. For me, to be the queenly woman with blood on her hands meant that I didn’t need to burden anyone with the same feminine expectations I abhorred. I would take matters into my own hands.
Like Beloved, I envisioned a world where my mother and I were enmeshed, releasing her from the role placed upon her by her womb. I could assume the maternal instinct to act as a pesticide to her chokecherry tree, and thus my own. But I now realize that my desire to “fix” her and her woes was an extension of the all-consuming nature of womanhood — the expectation to be magical without realism, to sever ourselves from our past and still expect to be the way we are today in all of our fullness.
Who was I to play God and mold my mother in my image? To try to undo, rather than heal, the very rememories that allowed for our gentleness with one another, for our depth of connectedness.
To fear the perceived responsibility of my womb would mean surrendering to its physicality rather than embracing its spiritual undertones, the idea of belonging to something larger than ourselves. It would mean succumbing to a postmemory that my mother works endlessly to untether from. It would mean rejecting the possibilities of tomorrow. So, goodbye Beloved.
— Associate Magazine Editor Ciana J. King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.