Black Motherhood In the Wake: Reading Christina Sharpe and Saidiya Hartman in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
Camille Crichlow is a fourth year student at McGill University completing a Joint Honours in Cultural Studies and Political Science. Her undergraduate study and writing have focused broadly on ways in which visuality functions in media as perception, thought, ideology and critique. Her recent interests have narrowed to a more specific concentration on questions of the nation-state, distributions of power, and how these shape the cultural and political context of global world-making, literature and art. Here, questions of identity and representation, as well as constructions of race animate directions of her research pursuits into visual and literary culture.
In critical feminist black scholarship, the emblem of motherhood constitutes a formative intertextual link between history, memory, and the embodied navigation of gender/race identity in the contemporary world. Situating black motherhood in the historical memory of American slavery, Hortense Spillers, in her critical work, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” underlines the resounding legacies of the institution of slavery that continue to shape intergenerational inheritances of black familial formations. As Spillers notes, slavery denied the black mother’s ability to claim her child as her own. Within uncertain contexts of the black and enslaved family unit, the normative frameworks of kinship and by extension, motherhood became “the mythically revered privilege of a free and freed community” from which black people were altogether excluded (74). In the aftermath of slavery’s devastation, the position of the black mother remains definitive as simultaneously “mother and mother-dispossessed” (Spillers 80). In the enduring memory of the violent disavowal of normative familial ties, black motherhood is incessantly critiqued, negated, or denied. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a foundational text which black literary scholarship has productively mined, significantly opens up the framework of black kinship Spillers expands in her profound narrative of motherhood in the wake of slavery and the middle passage.
In what follows I will focus on the respective ways in which Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Transatlantic Slave Route, Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved employ narrative and historical archive to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade, the terror of enslavement and the ongoing forms of racism which shape and continue to affect black motherhood. Reading Hartman, Sharpe, and Morrison’s texts together provides a generative methodology for exploring the ways in which black motherhood works as a prominent literary trope connecting the middle passage and the experience of slavery to the contemporary moment. It is evident that Beloved both anticipates and provides a literary model for the arguments Hartman and Sharpe articulate in their respective critical reading of the historical conditions that shape contemporary images and critical theorizing of black motherhood. More specifically, I want to argue that Hartman and Sharpe’s respective methods of analysis work to update, contemporize, and extend Morrison’s acknowledged work of fiction. Rather than strict historical fiction or biography, Beloved is rooted in Morrison’s imaginative recuperation and re-interpretation of the story of Margaret Garner, a black woman who escaped slavery in 1856. As Darling quotes Morrison in a 1988 interview,
“I did not do much research on Margaret Garner other than the obvious stuff, because I wanted to invent her life, which is a way of saying I wanted to be accessible to anything the characters had to say about it. Recording her life as lived would not interest me, and would not make me available to anything that might be pertinent”. (Darling 1988: 4)
Beloved, therefore, is not only about Garner but black women whose stories of slavery, disenfranchisement, survival and struggles for selfhood have not been told (Darling, 1988). I will address how Hartman’s and Sharpe’s respective black feminist literary approaches and theoretical methods work through the continued significance of Beloved as an allegory of our time and directly address the status of black motherhood in the contemporary diaspora.
I will begin by briefly summarizing Morrison, Hartman’s and Sharpe’s respective arguments, illustrating how the concerns, problems and images of black motherhood that populate Beloved also operate in Hartman and Sharpe’s texts. I will then return to my analysis of Beloved, where I will draw out and contemplate narrative imaginings of black motherhood, un/mothering, haunting, and loss. To supplement my argument, I will draw a comparison of the historical account of mother loss in Beloved with the contemporary narratives of black maternal mourning evinced in images of “former mothers” and “un/children” in mainstream media, such as Areile Jackson and Michael Brown, that Sharpe references in her text (77). In the wake of the mourning of black un/motherhood and dispossession in Beloved, I illustrate how contemporary understandings of black motherhood, particularly situated within the context of state-sponsored violence, are brought into sharper historical focus. Finally, I will also consider the concluding remarks of each of the authors, linking the imaginations of black futurity to the ubiquitous absences of motherhood and the conceptual framework of “weather” that Sharpe brings forth.
Beloved recounts the story of Sethe, an escaped slave woman from the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky who is haunted by the ineffable pain of having murdered her child rather than see her returned to slavery. Shunned by the townspeople of Cincinnati, Ohio for her unspeakable act, Sethe lives at the isolated, ramshackle house “124” with her daughter, Denver and the omnipresent ghost of her dead infant child. Interrupting their solitary life of eighteen years, Paul D—also a former slave who escaped Sweet Home plantation—comes back into Sethe’s life. He makes a home with Sethe and successfully banishes the ghost from the house.
Not long after Paul D exorcizes the specter haunting “124,” however, a mysterious woman-child named Beloved enters the narrative, insinuating the arrival of the physical manifestation of Sethe’s slain baby girl—the return of the child longing for its mother’s love. Tearing open the harrowing past, Beloved takes over Sethe’s life and engenders a painful “rememory.” Each one of the characters confronts, and must eventually make peace with the recollection of their devastating histories, and more implicitly, their fractured relations as mother, daughters and sons (Krumholz).
In Beloved, motherhood is situated in the overall shape of loss, grief and suffering that mediates the experience of black motherhood in the wake of slavery. Morrison decisively accentuates the determined bounds of love that linger in each of the character’s unrelenting longing to be or have a mother, to nurture and to love. In spite of the ruptured motherline engendered by brutalities of slavery, motherhood in Beloved remains an emblematic gesture towards the unconditional desire to know one’s past, and synonymously, one’s mother. Throughout the narrative, reconnection with lost motherhood is relentlessly sought after, without ever achieving the firm grasp so desperately desired. Sethe’s “thick love”, for example, is emblematically resistant to the conditions of black motherhood that were definitive of the time in which she lived (164). As Paul D perceptively notes, “for a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love” (45). In the brutal system of slavery, where children could be ripped away from their mother’s arms at a moment’s notice, Sethe’s attempt to love was inescapably situated in contingency of the excruciating pain of child loss.
Like Beloved, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother offers a contemporized account of black motherhood and mother-loss linking the one hundred and fifty-year distance between emancipation and the contemporary “now.” Hartman recounts a personal narrative of her travels to Ghana, where she traces the routes of the slave trade and its attendant imprints of loss that reverberate into the present. Hartman’s account explicitly references the mother-loss that mediates her own history as the great granddaughter of a former slave, as well as the mother-loss of Africa itself, where she finds herself labelled as stranger, obruni. Throughout Lose Your Mother, Hartman negotiates the homelessness and placelessness that is engendered by her memory of slavery, the foreboding reality that she may never retrieve the mother that was lost in the wake of the middle passage.
Ten years after Hartman, Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being provides a further generative perspective on black motherhood and its attendant link to the memory of the institution of slavery. Sharpe’s text bridges the temporal gap between the slave trade and the present to comment upon Hartman’s initial imagination of the “afterlife” of slavery –that is, how slavery continually haunts and conditions the present of black life. In the grim context of twenty-first century state-sponsored violence against black bodies, Sharpe explores what it means to be a “former mother,” a mother whose child has been taken away from her, both in the historical context of the middle passage and in the afterlife of slavery. Sharpe’s incisive critical poetics bridge, at the level of affect, the temporal gap in understandings of black motherhood, connecting the loss, violence and estrangement of the legacy of slavery to contemporary images of black death, with attendant “Black un/mothers grieving Black un/children”. Quoting Toni Morrison, Sharpe emphasizes that “everything is now. It is all now” (41); Beloved’s historical account of black motherhood is connected to attendant images of contemporary black motherhood in the powerful throes of loss and injustice, as well as the incessant longing for “mother” and black “mothering” to matter—an ever-deferred desire to which Hartman gives voice. It is this trans-historical embodiment of grief and loss that is definitive of the historical account of motherhood that Sharpe’s “wake work” so methodically and politically extends.
At the beginning of Hartman’s narrative, she recounts the story of her great-great grandmother, a slave named Ellen, born in Tennessee around 1820 (11). During a trip to Alabama with her master’s family, Ellen suffered a stroke of bad luck when her master found himself in a financial “situation”, and she was sold, along with a parcel of horses. As Hartman notes, “if [Ellen] had children or a mother or a man back in Tennessee, then she was separated from them without a good-bye”, and in all likelihood, she would never see them again (11). Such was the reality of life as a slave. This legacy, paralleling stories of the twelve million who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship, is altogether reflected in Hartman’s inability to trace her family lineage no further than this basic narrative remnant of Ellen’s life. “My family trail,” Hartman notes, “disappeared in the second decade of the nineteenth century (7). In the resounding gaps and silences that mediate her family’s history, Hartman speaks of the past as a mystery, “unknown and unspeakable” (14).
Hartman’s incessant longing for some form of rooted history, people, mother is thus engendered by slavery’s intervention. She is driven to Ghana by the unrelenting desire to know, to render the memories and imagination of her long-gone relatives real and tangible. Hartman quickly comes to realize, however, that “the breach of the Atlantic could not be remedied” – her sense of dispossession and statelessness only grows stronger as she travels deeper into the historic routes of Ghana’s slave trade (9). Hartman’s hunger for a connection or a look of recognition from her imagined Africa, so reminiscent of Beloved’s “thirst” for the gaze of her mother, Sethe, is thus never fully satisfied. She closes her narrative with a concession that “those who stayed behind told different stories than the children of the captives dragged across the sea” – the Atlantic formed a rift between the histories of free Africans and the enslaved, a diverged narrative past that can never be reconciled (232). Here, Hartman comments upon the infinite nature of the past that is continuously propelled into the present – “I longed for a future that could be wrested from an irredeemable past… I tried hard to envision a future in which this past had ended, and most often I failed” (233).
This project of identifying the past in the present is further elaborated in Sharpe’s In the Wake. As Sharpe remarks, “the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (9). In a detailed interweave of historical archive and personal narrative, Sharpe draws the past into the present in her critical study of the continued affects of the aftermath of slavery. The “wake”, Sharpe defines, is “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming or moved in water; it is the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow” (3). To be in slavery’s wake then, is to be subject to the enduring ripples that the slave ship leaves behind. In what she regards to be the “unfinished project of emancipation,” Sharpe recognizes the latent “tracks” of the ship in the onslaught of state-sponsored violence against black bodies, resounding poverty, black trauma, black mourning, black death, as well as the resilient communities born out of these conditions of terror (5).
For Sharpe, the wake is a form of consciousness – being “in the wake is to occupy and be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (14). In this sense “living in the wake is ‘living the afterlife of property’” mediated by the inheritance of blackness, what Sharpe defines as the inheritance of “non/status”, or synonymously, the “non/being of the mother” (15). This invocation of the “non/being of the mother”, suggestive of Hartman’s text, highlights the disavowal of motherhood in the separation of mother and child during the slave trade, as well as in the attendant wake of the mass incarceration of black mothers and the lethal violence perpetrated against criminalized black children, reproducing the emblem of the “former mother” that was once engendered by the slave system.
A more literal conception of the “wake,” as Sharpe remarks, also elucidates the bounds of black grief and suffering: “wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are trials through which to enact grief and memory” (21). For Sharpe, black death, black suffering and black grief are each inseparable from black being in the wake. Sharpe draws on a painful personal history of black death in her own family; for example, the killing of her cousin, Richard, who was fatally shot by the Philadelphia police during a schizophrenic episode. While Hartman does not employ the language of black death, she describes the perhaps parallel state of personal grief and anger that emerges with “not knowing [one’s] people” (12). One could argue that Hartman’s own journey to Ghana can be read as a “wake” for all the vanished grand-mothers, all the lost ties of history and kinship that can only haunt the narrative arc of the book. For Sharpe and for Hartman, then, to be in the wake is to be in a perennial state of mourning, both in the absence of history and the quotidian threat of violence against black bodies. Where Hartman locates this loss in the metaphors of triangular black Atlantic crossings, Sharpe dwells decisively on the everyday onslaught of state-sponsored violence that mediates the record of black death in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
As Caroline Rody notes in “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: History ‘Rememory and a ‘Clamor for a Kiss’”, this notion of the “wake” deeply reverberates in the historical memorial that exemplifies Beloved: “like all memorials, Beloved is not a ‘place’ of the dead but a place where survivors can go to ‘summon’ and recollect,’ to look upon the sculpted shape of their own sorrow… it portrays that ‘interior place in the African American psyche where a slave’s face still haunts” (98). Focalized in the wake of black death, grief and mourning lie at the center of the narrative’s emotional pull. The novel commences with a ghost and a gesture towards the departed: “the grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Bulgar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old” (Morrison 1). The story thus begins by a simultaneous absence and haunting – the loss of Sethe’s two sons and mother-in-law, and the lingering specter of Sethe’s dead child. As Kubtesck remarks, this ghost embodies not only the spirit of a dead daughter, but the general pain, rage and grief of Sethe’s past that manifests itself as incessant haunting: “the past is constantly with her, memories of Sweet Home troubling any attempt at rest” (167).
We learn, however, that the ghost who haunts Sethe’s residence at 124 Bluestone road is not exceptional. As Baby Suggs remarks in a narrative flashback, “not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafter’s with a negro’s grief” (5). She recounts the loss of all eight of her own children, “four taken, four chased, and all, I expect worrying somebody’s house into evil” (5). In the first few pages of the novel, we witness how black motherhood is positioned as a wake of loss, love and longing. The reader is thus indoctrinated into the attendant images of grief and mourning produced in direct relation to the horrors of the slave trade. This loss, as Sharpe perceptively keeps in mind, must continuously be seen to ripple into the present in the wake of the slave ship.
In the non-linear temporality of the narrative, we must first begin with Sethe’s own memory of her mother, and the violent disavowal of this short lasting relation. When Beloved asks Sethe whether her mother ever did her hair, Sethe can only answer, “I don’t remember” (60). Sethe recounts that she was nursed by her mother for only a few weeks, after which she was forced to return to the rice fields to work. Suckled and cared for by a nurse maid, and fed only after the white children had had their fill, this disconnection between mother and child exemplifies an early, yet crucial phase of mother-loss, and the course of becoming what Sharpe describes as a “former mother.” As Michele Mock makes evident in “Spitting Out the Seed: Ownership of Mother, Child, Breasts, Milk and Voice in Toni Morrison’s Beloved”, “breast-feeding is the ultimate expression of material love; it is a concrete and viable product of that love… thus, absence of mother’s milk can be viewed as symbolic of maternal abandonment” (118). For Mock, breastfeeding denotes an essential symbol of ownership, both of the child and the status of motherhood in general – the ability to provide for and nourish the child. In breaking Sethe away from her mother at so young and so crucial an age, “the circle is rent, the ownership brief” – Sethe’s mother is denied the right to claim her child as her own (119). This early disavowal of her mother’s love is seemingly the reason why Sethe is so determined to provide her own milk to her children when she becomes a mother, and so distraught when her milk is “stolen” by the men who rape her, a greater violation than any other crime committed upon her body. “Their violation,” as Mock remarks, “objectifies Sethe as commodifiable property,” disavowing her of any ownership over the substance that once empowered her to nourish and claim her children as “mine” (123).
The one recollection of her mother that Sethe briefly discloses details a haunting moment when her mother pulls her behind a smokehouse, lifts her dress and points to a mark under her breast: “she said, ‘this is your ma’am. This’, and she pointed. ‘I am the only one who got this mark now. The rest dead. If something happens to me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark” (61). A short time later, Sethe searches for her mother’s mark in a pile of lynched bodies, recollecting that “by the time they cut her down, nobody could tell whether she had a circle and a cross or not, least of all me” (61).
In observing this critical moment in Beloved, Hartman remarks that “the mark of property provides the emblem of kinship in the wake of defacement… the daughter, Sethe, will carry the burden of her mother’s dispossession and inherit her dishonored condition, and she will have her own mark soon enough, as will her daughter, Beloved” (80). Invoking historical archive, Hartman references the legacy of partus sequitur ventrem – “the child follows the condition of the mother” (80). During the slave trade in the United States, it was encoded that all children born to slave mothers were to be enslaved; both mother and children were property of the slave master. This system, as Hartman infers, necessitated an erasure of the father, whereby, “the mother’s mark, not the father’s name, determined your fate” (80). Hartman references this legacy in the absence of the father in her own family, where “four generations were born with a blank space where a father’s name should be” (81). The “mark” of the slave then, is simultaneously endowed by the inheritance of the mother’s plight and the disavowal of the father’s name.
Beyond the dispossession of the body via the branding of the slave as property, the “mark” is also emblematic of the “wake” the black body inherits. There is no doubt, as Sharpe emphatically argues, that this mark of dispossession will still resound with Sethe’s great, great, great grandchildren long after slavery’s physical captivity has ceased. “The mark in Beloved,” Sharpe contends, “is connected to the ship on which Sethe’s mother is forced to cross into slavery and to what was before and what comes in the wake” (49). Sethe will eventually come to discover that she too, is already marked, and begin to “understand the meaning of life as a process shared with the dead below the river or sea’” (Sharpe 49). In Lose Your Mother, this mark is reflected in Hartman’s own narrative relationship with her mother. Hartman recounts that her mother “taught us the lesson her mother taught her: ‘Be careful. All the white world sees is black skin’” (132). As follows for Sethe in Beloved, Hartman claims that “my mother’s stories had become mine. Soon enough I would have my own stories with my own names” (132). This is the residual mark of slavery in the wake of partus sequitur ventrem. In Sharpe’s purview, and so powerfully exemplified in Hartman’s archive, the “mark” of the slave never fades – it is propelled into the present by the endless inheritance of the mother’s condition – trauma, grief and loss.
Sethe’s own experience of motherhood then, follows in the wake of this violent inheritance. So determined to undo the mark that has disavowed her of a mother and of motherhood, Sethe will do anything to keep her children by her side. Eighteen years before the start of the narrative, a pregnant Sethe runs away from her former plantation, giving birth along the way, and joins her freed mother-in-law at her home in Ohio. Sethe’s children had already been smuggled from the plantation and had arrived there before her. Her husband, Halle who also planned to join them, never arrived. Nevertheless, Sethe spends 28 blissful days being a real mother to her children, remarking, “I couldn’t love em’ proper when I was in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped off that wagon, there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to” (162). Sethe recalls taking part in what she defines as the “selfish pleasures” of motherhood, stitching a shift for her baby girl, simply out of the desire to do so (162). In freedom, she is finally able to claim her children as her own. So, when Sethe sees the hat of her former overseer coming towards her in the distance, coming to take her and the children back to Sweet Home, there is no question as to what she had to do: “I couldn’t let all that go back to where it was, and I couldn’t let her nor any of em live under school teacher” (163). Sethe grabs her children, runs into the shed and slits the throat of her baby girl, severely wounding her two little boys as well, and readying to kill Denver, and herself, when she is interrupted by the posse of white men who had come to claim her.
As Missy Dehn Kubitschek remarks in “Beloved Mothers, Beloved Daughters”, “any practice of mother-love relies on contact, on having children remain with their mothers” (166). In the system of slavery, as noted above, maternal proximity, and the ability to mother, was rarely, if ever, a possibility. In the attempt to slaughter her children, then, Sethe acts on “a slave definition of mother: presence is all” (Kubitschek 167). Sethe would rather be united in death with her children than live a life in endless separation from them. She embraces death as an alterative to the disavowal of her own claim over her children as well as the claim of her mother before her, reuniting with her babies, as well as the spirits of her own lost mother and mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, in the afterlife. Yet, even her desire to be reunited with her children in death is negated by the interruption of the men who once enslaved her. She is sent to jail for a few months with baby Denver in her arms, and upon her return, becomes locked in the prison of her own trauma, haunted by the ghost of her slain child for eighteen years.
As Linda Krumholz, in “The Ghosts of Slavery: Historical Recovery in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” suggests, “Beloved is the incarnation of Sethe’s baby girl and of her most painful memory – the murder of her daughter to protect her children from slavery” (400). Beloved first enters the narrative when Sethe, Denver and Paul D come across her slumped body on the road back from the circus. Beloved, sick and bewildered, is brought in to 124 and nursed back to health by Sethe. Only ever disclosing that she came from “the bridge” and walked “a long, long, long, long way”, Beloved’s origins remain a mystery (65). It grows more and more apparent, however, that Beloved is no stranger to 124. Andrea O’Reilly in “Motherhood and Beloved” theorizes that from the moment Beloved enters the narrative, she is “described as a newborn baby: we are told she is unable to hold her head and that ‘[e]verything hurt but her lungs most of all” (86). In one uncanny scene, she even begins to hum the song Sethe sung to her children when they were small. As the narrative progresses, O’Reilly also notes how Sethe and Beloved become increasingly “trapped in the pre-Oedipal mother-daughter symbiosis where differentiation between self and other is not possible” (85). The “hunger” and “thirst” which describes Beloved’s look for Sethe can only reflect the resolute desire that the infant has for the gaze of its mother. Beloved, as Sethe’s reincarnated daughter, is thus manifested in the narrative as a psychological haunting of the past brought into present (85).
While the text readily imagines Beloved to be Sethe’s reincarnated baby girl, Morrison also suggests an alternative storyline, one in which Beloved is actually an “orphaned African daughter from ‘the other side’” who misidentifies Sethe as her own mother, a mother who long ago threw herself over the railings of a ship. In a poetic yet harrowing chapter, Beloved describes her disjunctive memory of what seems to be a journey across the middle passage: “I am always crouching / the man on my face is dead / his face is not mine” (211). In a visualization of her mother’s death, “she goes in / they do not push her / she goes in”, Beloved recovers “the face that left me” in Sethe: “her smiling face is the place for me / it is the face I lost” (213). Based on these two differing interpretations of Beloved’s narrative origins, O’Reilly suggests that Beloved is simultaneously symbolic of both “Sethe’s daughter from beyond the grave” and a young girl who is captured with her mother and brought to America on a slave ship (86). As Barbara Horvitz suggests, “Beloved stands for every African woman whose story will never be told. She is the haunting symbol of the many Beloveds – generations of mothers and daughters – haunted down and stolen from Africa” (157). In this sense, Beloved represents the haunting of not only Sethe’s lost baby girl, but of all the lost mothers and daughters that the slave trade left in its wake – Beloved is the physical embodiment of the absence of the African American motherline.
Beloved, as Rody notes, “is an exercise in the poetics of absence” (100). Horvitz’s interpretation of Beloved as an innumerable haunting of all displaced mothers and children, can be reflected in Hartman’s incessant longing for her own “mother” and the inherent feeling of absence that has consciously resonated throughout her entire life. As Hartman remarks, “the slave is always the stranger who resides in one place and belongs to another” (87). A perennial stranger, obruni, in Africa, and the object of hate and brutality in the United States, Hartman feels suspended in a condition of stateless transience. Beyond the longing for a physical claim to home, mother-loss is more engendered in the very absence of history: “to lose your mother was to forget your past” (85). Hartman is “blinded by mother loss” when she happens upon a testimony of her great-great grandmother in a slave record, only to discover that who she thought was her grandmother was never there: “was my hunger so great that I was encountering ghosts? (16). Black motherhood then, is framed in Hartman’s narrative as an incessant absence, a continuous search for mother, history, Beloved, in the silences of the past.
Invoking Sharpe’s framework of the “wake”, the historic absence of mother never ceases, but merely ripples in the wake of the ship. Sharpe for instance, draws upon the emblem of the black “former mother” or “un/mother” to denote how the literal absence of black motherhood continuously surfaces as a contemporary remnant of the slave trade. In her opening chapter, Sharpe references the image of Aereile Jackson, a black woman who is briefly interviewed in Sekula and Burche’s documentary, The Forgotten Space. Clutching an armful of dolls and children’s toys, Jackson recounts her pain in the absence of her children who were taken away by the state:
This is the only thing that I have to hold on to for me to remember my children. I lost a lot and I’m homeless and I haven’t seen my children since I was able to attend court because I had no transportation… I haven’t seen my children since and this is since 2003 and here it is 2009 so I’ve lost a lot. I’m trying… I’m hurt. I’m trying to figure out am I ever going to get the chance to be a mother again with the children I already have (28).
In her critique of the documentary, Sharpe perceptively denounces that the film does not situate Jackson’s loss of her children, and her children’s subsequent loss of their mother, within the recollection of “partus sequitur ventrem and its afterlives” (recall Hartman: “the child follows the condition of the mother”) (28). Sharpe further critiques the absence of any mention of the violence that structures Jackson’s suffering; this violence rooted in the historic conditions elucidated in fictionalized representations of the loss, trauma and violence of black motherhood in Beloved. For Sharpe, “the filmmakers’ language of analysis begins from the violence of [Jackson’s] absence, and it is clear the film operates within a logic that cannot comprehend her suffering” (29). Identified as a “former mother” in the credits of the documentary, Jackson is not only emblematic of the resounding absences and loss engendered into the experience of black motherhood that we see in Morrison and Hartman’s texts, but the erasure of both her suffering and the legacy in which this pain is rooted is also indicative of the systematic violence so engendered into the wake of the slave ship.
For Sharpe, “Areile Jackson appears only to be made to disappear” – her very appearance spells the erasure of every black mother’s history and abjection (27). Here, we must consider how the loss of Jackson’s children by the state can be connected to the mother-loss in Beloved, each engendered by the conditions and violence of the wake. Like Baby Suggs, robbed of all eight of her children, Aereile carries the same pain of her children’s absence, questioning whether she will ever get the chance to be a mother again. In the wake of slavery’s violence, reflected in institutionalized racism, black poverty, and state-sponsored oppression of black bodies in contemporary America which make up the context of Aereile’s dispossession, the link between the the ripple of the slave ship and the contemporary “former mother” becomes visible. Unlike Beloved, however, Sharpe’s critique pinpoints the ways in which The Forgotten Space fails to connect Jackson’s suffering to the legacy of slavery and the middle passage; Jackson is the “specter” of the “forgotten space” of blackness that haunts the screen (Sharpe 29).
As Sharpe notes, it is the “weather” of antiblackness that shapes and limits the extent to which a black mother can be a mother. Referencing the power of Sethe’s memory to re-invoke the past of slavery in Beloved, Sharpe contends that “what Sethe remembers, rememories and encounters in the now is the weather of being in the wake” (105). Her suffering, in other words, is both the past and present; it is the attendant climate of black motherhood. As Sharpe remarks, even in the attempt to forget or deny memory or history, weather can change its form, but it will always remain in the attendant atmosphere of antiblackness: “slave law transformed into lynch law, into Jim and Jane Crow, and other administrative logics that remember the brutal conditions of enslavement after the event of slavery has supposedly come to an end” (106). Such is the weather that black motherhood occupies in the historical space of Beloved, as it does today.
To extend this analysis, Sharpe recollects a series of screen shots sent to her by a friend of a text conversation she had with her 11-year old son:
He wants a bulletproof shirt. She asks him if he is okay. He says no. She says she is sad that he thinks he needs one; she wonders if something immediate has happened to him. He replies that he is sorry he needs one. She promises him that they will protect him, that they will keep him safe. She does this knowing, before, as as, and after, she writes this, that there is a limit to what she can do to protect him; that there is no safe space… and still, like Denver in Beloved, he has to ‘know it, and go on out the yard. Go on’ (78 ).
Like Sethe, Baby Suggs, and all black mothers during and in the wake of slavery, Sharpe’s purview of black motherhood is situated in the question of “what kind of mother/ing is it if one must always be prepared with knowledge of the possibility of the violent quotidian death of one’s child”, or, in the context of Beloved, the brutal ripping away of the baby still suckling at the slave mother’s breast (78). And further, “what is a Black child” in the wake of this suffering” (80)? For Michael Brown, the 18-year old unarmed black boy shot twelve times (six times in the back) by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, or Aiyana Stanley Jones, the 7-year-old black girl who was set on fire by a flash grenade and struck in the head by a bullet after the Detroit police burst into her home in 2007, Sharpe denotes how in the anagrammatics of blackness, black people are never afforded the status of “child” or “mother”. In the metaphorical vocabulary of, in and outside the United States, black “girl doesn’t mean “girl but for example, “prostitute” or “felon”, black “boy doesn’t mean “boy,” but “Hulk Hogan” or “gunman,” “thug” or “urban youth”, and black “mother doesn’t mean “mother,” but “felon” and “defender” and/or “birther of terror” (Sharpe 77). Sharpe describes this phenomenon as “Black lives annotated”, where, in the wake of slavery, the birth canal becomes “another kind of domestic middle passage” (74).
Sharpe asks how the deaths of children like Michael Brown and Aiyana Stanley Jones can be approached if not within the “il/logics of colonization”, the “il/logics of black life in the wake”, and the “il/logic of being armed with blackness” (81). And to extend this question, how can the loss and grief that their mothers suffer be considered if not situated in the afterlife of partus sequitur ventrem. Sharpe includes a statement by Aiyana Stanley Jones’ grandmother, who was in the house when Aiyana was killed: “I get no sleep. I am sick. I am sick as hell. The flashbacks. I wouldn’t wish this on nobody in the world” (81). In what way, we must ask, are Aiyana’s grandmother’s flashbacks reminiscent of the violent memories and attendant suffering that haunt Sethe in Morrison’s Beloved? To what extent can this violent disavowal of motherhood by the brutal killing of this grandmother’s grandchild, or the ripping away of each one of Areile Jackson’s children by the state, be connected to the loss of all eight of Baby Suggs children in the wake of the slave trade? And, recalling Sethe’s killing of her own baby girl, was she justified in believing that her children were really safer in death than in a climate of anti-blackness that would just as easily destroy their spirits, if not their bodies? This, as Sharpe would argue, is black motherhood in the wake.
In bridging these questions between Sharpe and Morrison’s texts we are better able to glean how the 19th century narrative world that Morrison brings forth reverberates into Sharpe’s “now”, and the present of black motherhood. Morrison’s novel can just as easily be considered a narrative text for the framework of the “wake” that Sharpe invokes, as can Sharpe’s imagining of black motherhood be seen as a more contemporized realist visualization of the pain, grief and loss that is envisioned in attendant images of black motherhood in Beloved. Bringing in Hartman’s perspective alongside Morrison and Sharpe, it is revealed that the incessant longing for “mother” is just as insistent now as it was in the decades following emancipation. In the erasure and disparagement of the African motherline, black people are denied a history and a knowledge of their past. Alongside a literal disjunction of motherhood that reverberates in the wake of the slave ship, a denial of history, and thus an erasure of identity emerges in this disconnect between mother and child. We see this in Hartman’s longing for a motherland, for a history that she has been denied, just as we see it in Beloved’s thirst for the gaze of her mother; her desire to be recognized by Sethe as one of her own. In this wake of partus sequitur ventrem, what then, does the future of black motherhood look like?
For Hartman, Sharpe, and Morrison, each author’s conclusion is, albeit differently, united in a gaze towards the future that is concurrently rooted in remnants past. At the end of Beloved, for example, a group of townswomen gather together to exorcise the spirit of Beloved from 124 forever. Ella, who leads the group, had herself starved her own baby of her breastmilk because it was born of rape, and “the idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working” (259). The expulsion of Beloved by a community of black women can ultimately be read as a communal purging of the pain of the past and suffering of black motherhood. Like the rest of the townswomen, Ella “didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present” (256). The women’s colluded effort to banish Beloved, a physical manifestation of the haunting of the past from the house, is emblematic of their own cathartic rejection of the traumas of black motherhood. While each compelled by different harrowing memories of slavery, in exorcising Beloved, the women exorcise the haunting of their own trauma, which tethers them to the pain of the past; “Beloved is in some sense their ghost, too” (Krumholz 402).
After Beloved disappears, Sethe takes to her bed, bemoaning the loss of her baby girl for the second time: “she left me… she was my best thing” (272). Paul D, sitting by her bedside, tells Sethe that “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (273). Taking her hand, Paul D says, “you are the best thing Sethe. You are” (273). This bitter sweet final scene between Sethe and Paul D then, is suggestive of the future that awaits them, even in the wake of past suffering. For Caroline Rody, this moment in Beloved “ultimately leaves the mother of history to possess herself”; there is an acceptance of the past, and a look towards the future (112).
However, in the final pages of Beloved, Rody also reads the continued place of absence to which Morrison gives voice: “Beloved is not a story of presence and continuity but one that delineates the places of absence” (113). The concluding impassioned words of the book inform the reader that Beloved was eventually forgotten “like a bad dream”; the tale of Beloved “was not a story to pass on” (275):
By and by all trace was gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. 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 clamour for a kiss. Beloved. (Morrison 275)
Sharpe too, invokes this trope of “weather” in the final lines of her text: “so we are here in the weather, here in singularity. And while ‘we are constituted through and by continued vulnerability to this overwhelming force, we are not only known to ourselves and to each other by that force’” (134). In this sense, both authors recognize the absence of black motherhood as an inevitable component of the weather as it is of the wake. Like Beloved, and the millions of mothers and daughters of the slave trade, the footprints of this absence “come and go, come and go” (Morrison 275).
Hartman, too, envisions her present and future with one foot in the past: “to what end does one conjure the ghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present” (170)? In the conclusion to Lose Your Mother, she recounts the memory of recognizing herself in the “song of the lost tribe” sung by little girls in the small town of Gwulu, Ghana, a song which can only be said to reminisce the absence of the lost motherline and the Africans long ago lost at sea. Hartman ends the narrative with the concession that her legacy could only be articulated by the “ongoing struggle to escape, stand down and defeat slavery in all its myriad forms” (234). In this way, Hartman acknowledges the weather of anti-blackness to which Morrison and Sharpe give voice and embraces the consciousness of living “in the wake”. Hartman looks towards the future while continuously bearing in mind the weight of a mother’s absence, which reverberates in the past as in the present. “The song of the lost tribe” is thus the song of the lost mothers and daughters who reveal their latent absence in Beloved, In the Wake and Lose Your Mother – it is just as much Hartman’s song, as it is Sethe’s, as it is Beloved’s.
In conclusion, Morrison, Sharpe and Hartman’s texts envision what black motherhood can mean and look like in the wake of the slave ship. For Morrison, black motherhood is envisioned in the fictionalized world of “124”, where the ruptured ghost of the motherline comes back to haunt the present. For Hartman, black motherhood is felt in the incessant absence of home and history, where mother-loss lingers in the wake of the slave ship. And for Sharpe, like Hartman and Morrison, the legacy of partus sequitur ventrem makes its past known in the present in attendant images of former mothers and “un/children”. “Reading together the middle passage, the coffle, and, I add to the argument, the birth canal”, Sharpe contends, “we can see how each has functioned separately and collectively over time to dis/figure black maternity.” In the wake of this process, black children are ushered into the mother’s position of “non/status” and “non/being-ness” (74). Given Sharpe’s vision of the 21st century, one can only look to social media – Facebook, twitter, Instagram – each “organized to spectate the mothers bereft from the murders of their children, each mother forced to display her pain in public,” as an expression of the continued denigration of black motherhood by the wake of the slave ship (74). In situating these publicly disseminated images of mourning, to include Lezley McSpadden, or Mamie Till, in the legacy of partus sequitur ventrem, it is clear that the mourning of black motherhood evinced in Beloved is not yet over. And yet, in the final pages of Morrison’s narrative, we also see how a collective confrontation with this mourning can be productively and cathartically mined. As the group of black women gather around “124” to expel the spirit of a Beloved, Morrison hints at a sense of futurity for black motherhood – an honouring of a black mother’s sacrifice, and a purging of the pain of the past in the hopes of securing a possible future. In the afterlife of slavery, black mothers can only acknowledge the weather of the wake, and, like Baby Suggs forthrightly says to Denver in Beloved, “go on out the yard. Go on” despite it all (244).
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