Slavery was a common practice throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The slaves were deported to America, where they worked on the southern plantations in the production of tobacco crops and later, cotton. By 1641 slavery was legalized and black African slaves became personal property and commodities that can be owned for life, unpaid labour produced wealth to the slave-owners, black slaves were workers without rights. Slavery inhibited family formation; salves could not marry in any American colony. Although some of the slaves entered into relationships that they treated like marriage taking the risk to get their families torn apart; for instance a father might have one owner, his wife and children another and in some other cases the Master sold the children each on its own to other slaveholders. Enslaved families lived under constant fear of separation through the sale of one or more family members.
Slave-owners were paternalistic, cruel and sadistic towards the black slaves; the enslaved population was controlled by legally authorized violence; black slaves were hurt like animals. Slaves were punished by whipping, public floggings. Harriet Jacobs asserts in her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)
There was a planter in the country, not far from us, who had six hundred slaves, many of whom he did not know by sight. His extensive plantation was managed by well-paid overseers. There was a jail and a whipping post on his grounds; and whatever cruelties were perpetrated there, they passed without comment. He was so effectively screened by his great wealth that he was called to no account for his crimes, not even for murder. Various were the punishments resorted to. A favorite one was to tie a rope round a man’s body, and suspend him from the ground. A fire was kindled over him, from which was suspended a piece of fat pork. As this cooked, the scalding drops of fat continually fell on the bare flesh. (p.41)
Slavery was a tough phase, Linda Brent states: “Only by experience can anyone realize how deep, and dark and foul is that pit of abominations.” (P.2 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl); however, it was far worse on women than it ever was for men. Indeed, black women endured far worse punishment and cruelty than men ever did. Black woman has been exposed to the worst kind of exploitation and oppression and endured all the horrors of both sexism and racism.
The slave women duties were divided into two parts. The first part was that of housekeeping, they did the cleaning; cooking cared for the white children of their Mistress and Master, and all the other household servant duties. Moreover, they were also working in the fields side by side with the slave men in the plantations picking cotton, cleaning outside, feeding animals, and hoeing the grounds for planting crops. “Black female slaves had shown that they were capable of performing so-called “manly” labour, that they were able to endure hardship, pain, and privation but could also perform those so called “womanly” tasks of housekeeping, cooking, and child rearing.” (Bell Hooks, Ain’t I A Woman Black Women and Feminism, P.71).
Working as household servants made it easy for the slaveholders to sexually abuse female slaves. Slave women were not protected from the physical and sexual abuse. And due to this nearby interaction, they were easily harmed. The intercourse between the white masters and black slaves was a common practice. Black women were raped by white masters and their family members. In this regard Sara Evans asserts :” At the same time, young slave women, especially household servants and mulattos, were always vulnerable to sexual abuse by whites, something from which no family could protect them.” (p109, Born for Liberty).
Black women had not been only raped by white men but by black men as well. Men of their own race made good use of them for indifferent sex. In Ain’t I a Woman Black Women and Feminism, Bell Hooks claims that: “The emphasis on the white male as sexual exploiter in black communities often reflects attention away from black male sexual exploitation of black women.” (P.68).Thus, Slavery was a brutal experience for women due to the racist and sexist discrimination. The slave women experience left them with broken bodies, broken souls the thing that will never be forgotten in a slave’s psyche.
The portrayal of slave women in the history produces a complex picture of the black women. Hence, black women were depicted as evil, alluring, seductive, sexual objects. According to Hooks (1981), black women were portrayed as “evil, treacherous, bitchy, stubborn, and hateful.”(p85) The author continues saying that:
The Sapphire image had as its base one of the oldest negative stereotypes of Woman—the image of the female as inherently evil. Christian mythology depicted women as the source of sin and evil; racist-sexist mythology simply designated black women the epitome of female evil and sinfulness.
In fact, when it comes to African American history and the history of black female slaves, white authors tend to retell the slaves’ story with their own perspectives, which is not considered as a reliable source because of the fact that white writers did not suffer from slavery. They tend to show less of the real suffrage of black women, in order to avoid more accusations about the horrific actions of rape, racism, and sexism. In this concern, Hooks says: “when I began the research for Ain’t I a Woman, my primary intent was to document the impact of sexism on the social status of black women. I wanted to provide concrete evidence to refute the arguments of antifeminists who so loudly proclaimed that black women were not victims of sexist oppression” (p.13).
A growing number of black female writers, novelists, and playwrights emerged to write about themes and subjects that concern them directly based on real experiences of the African American women’s tragedy. Among those writers is Toni Morrison.Biography of the author:
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio), is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist; she is an editor, literary Critic, playwright, and professor. Morrison is the second of four children of sharecroppers and the granddaughter of an Alabama slave; she grew up in a family that celebrates their African identity. Storytelling, songs, and folktales had a great impact on her childhood. She attended Howard University to study English and received a Bachelor of Arts in 1953, then got a Master of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1955. Morrison became an English instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston from 1955-1957 then returned to Howard to teach English.
Morrison got married in 1958 and had two children and divorced in 1964.After her divorce, she began writing fiction while working in New York as a book editor. Her novels are famous for their epic themes, intense language and richly detailed African-American characters who are central to their narratives.
“Toni Morrison is not just an important contemporary novelist but a major figure in our national literature.” (The New York Review of Books). In fact, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and she is the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Among her best-known novels is Beloved (1987) which appears to be one of her great masterpieces and took the Pulitzer for fiction in 1988.
Ten years later, Beloved was adapted into the 1998 film of the same name starring Oprah Winefry, Thandie Newton, Yada beener and Danny Glover. The movie was directed by Jonathan Demme who won several Academy Awards including the Award for the Best Director. The script is a work of three scriptwriters, Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks.
Summary of the film:
The movie deals with the affects of slavery and the sacrifices of a woman toward her children. It tells the story of Sethe whose identity got lost by the horrors of slavery. It describes both the physical and emotional trauma caused by slavery and its everlasting effects on the characters.
Seth (Oprah Winfrey) an ex slave on a Kentucky plantation in 1865, with flashbacks to the days before the civil war. Sethe is a mother of three who is haunted by her dreadful slavery past. She lives on a few acres on the outskirts of Cincinnati ”124 Bluestone Road”, which is haunted by a furious ghost. Eventually the ghost drives away her two sons. Sethe and her daughter (Kimberly Elise) bear living with the spirit until Paul D Garner (Danny Glover), an old friend from Sweet Home, the plantation Sethe escaped from in the past, arrives and seems to quiet the ghost. Paul D eventually moves in with Sethe and set up a relationship between them. Shortly after Paul’s settlement, the ghost appears again as a strange young woman in a black dress and new shoes. The ghost’s name is BELOVED (Thandie Newton), she walks unsteadily and talks like a child. In fact, the ghost within Beloved belongs to the young daughter who Sethe killed rather than give her as a slave working on the plantations. The apparition of Beloved causes turmoil and agitation in the story.
Sethe ends up by taking care of Beloved and bringing her in her house. Yet Paul D feels suspicious and wonders how someone who walked a long way could be all dressed up and so clean. Denver likes Beloved and spends lot of her time playing with her and ends up knowing Beloved’s origins. When Beloved knows that Paul D dislikes her, she put a spell on him and sexually assaults him.
The movie has flashbacks to when Sethe was a slave in Sweet home from where she runs away during her pregnancy after being beating, raped and whipped savagely leaving a massive tree scar on her back. Shortly after she reunites with her children, the slave catchers came to take her and her children back to the plantations. Out of desperation, Sethe decides to kill her children rather than have her be a slave. Thus, Sethe kills her older daughter, nocks her sons and was almost about to kill Denver too.
Beloved received two wins and twenty-four nominations including Colleen Atwood’s nomination for the Academy Awards of best Costume Design. In addition to the nominations; Kimberly Elise won the Chicago Film Critics Award for the Most Promising Actress and Danny Glover received The American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Award for the Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture.
Review of literature:
In 1998, director Jonathan Demme release Beloved. His film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel of the same title has been the center of interest of many critics who analyzed the movie from different perspectives.
For some critics, the movie was too showy. Charles Taylor sums it up saying that the scenes “aren’t tragic climaxes included to intensify our emotions; they exist to shock us. They don’t add anything to our understanding of the characters because they have taken the place of characterization.” He continues, “Everywhere you look in “Beloved” are signs of Demme’s decay… the grindingly slow pacing, the sloppy, at times incoherent, story line and the straining grandiloquence of the tone. Nearly all directorial choices are showy” and “distracting”. Another critic, Vladimir V. Zelevinsky, asserts that “Beloved the movie only works on the level of disconnected moments. A good deal of scenes make quite an impact, but they absolutely refuse to work together to form any kind of a cohesive whole”. Likewise, Vladimir V. Zelevinsky argues “Beloved the movie only works on the level of disconnected moments. A good deal of scenes make quite an impact, but they absolutely refuse to work together to form any kind of a cohesive whole”.
On the other hand, other critics praised Beloved and gave positive feedback. To mention a few of them, Janet Maslin from the New York Times states “Mr. Demme succeeds uncannily well in bringing the novel’s pulse to the screen”. She continues “Though this ”Beloved” begins slowly and sometimes reveals its earthbound side, it accelerates into a gripping, wildly imaginative film that’s not quite like any other”. James Berardinelli in his review argues that Beloved is a “powerful and disturbing motion picture that is likely to leave many movie-goers unsettled as they file out of the theater”. Similarly, Michael Dequina declares that “the filmmakers so successfully create the intended air of melancholy that it is daunting”.
Issue and working hypothesis:
From the above review of literature, one may notice that many critics analyzed Beloved from different points of view. Yet, their analysis of the movie was too general. Our dissertation lays on the analysis of the black mother through the life of Sethe during and after slavery. To be more explicit, we will try to answer some questions to better perceive Sethe’s character. 1) How slavery affected the psychological and mental state of Sethe? 2) Did slavery affect on the body integrity of the black women? 3) How was Sethe’s relationship with her children?
Feminism is a cultural, social, economic, and political movement that stands for the equality of the sexes; as defined in The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary:” the belief and aim that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men”. Feminism is represented by many institutions devoted to work on behalf of women’s right and interests; these worldwide activists call for the right of abortion, voting, equal wage, protection of girls and women from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, and against many other forms of gender discrimination.
Middle class white women predominated the feminist movement in America. Thus, during the nineteenth century feminism focused more on white women’s problems and in some way ignored the existence of black women; as Bell Hooks notices: “When the women’s movement began in the late 60s, it was evident that the white women who dominated the movement felt it was “their” movement”. There has been indifference toward the struggle of black women, while white women were claiming their rights and enjoying their freedom, black women were fighting for their lives on the plantation fields. When black women wanted to take apart in the movement and asked for support to gain their rights, white women refused their demands and neglected the black women problems.
Placed in the bottom of the society, oppressed, discriminated, and living under the shades of slavery and its continuing symptoms, black women accused the feminist movement lead by white women for being “ethnocentric”. White feminists denied the black female experience and chose to embrace their self-interest over the lives of black women; the nineteenth century feminist movement in America claimed gender equality though detached itself completely from the lives and issues of the black women. In this regard Bell Hooks states that “the first rights women” propagates were at no time pursuing “social equality for all women” they were pursuing “social equality” for white females. The abolishment movement and the success of the ninetieth amendment gave black women the chance to develop a feminist consciousness. This was the beginning of what is now known as Black Feminism.
Throughout the American history, African American women have struggled with white women and black men as well. Due to the patriarchal society and racism, black women were more affected by sexism compared to white women. Black women’s experiences were brutal, dreadful and horrifying due to racist and sexist American society.
In her book Feminism is for Everybody: passionate politics, Bell Hooks defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”. She continues saying that “To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism”. (p.1) Black feminism emphasizes the idea that sexism, class oppression and racism are tied up together; it is a devotion to eliminating the idea of supremacy that pervades “Western culture on various level__sex, race, and class”. ; Sexism and racism placed black women to be at the lowest status and having the worst condition in the American society.
Our work is divided into three chapters. The first chapter deals with the effect of slavery on the psychological and mental state of Sethe. The second chapter deals with the impact of slavery on the integrity of black women. The third chapter is dedicated to the analysis of the relationship between Sethe and her children, especially the mother daughter relationship. The general conclusion will sum up the important points dealt with throughout our dissertation.