All Under Heaven

Essay on Slavery and Frederick Douglas’ Narrative of a Slave and Toni Morrison’s Beloved


Dr. J. Haslam

English 300

5 March 2004

All Under Heaven

This is slavery, as defined by Collier’s Dictionary: institution or practice of owning slaves; state or condition of being a slave; condition of being under the control of some influence or person; hard or exhausting work; drudgery. For African-American slaves, slavery was all this and much more. What that definition leaves out are the horrors specific to the institution of slavery in the Americas. This exclusion is perpetuating a circulatory pattern of ignorance within the mind’s of those distant from slavery’s harsh realities, which in turn diminishes the sensitivity of the subject. This information should be easily accessible rather than being altogether void from one of the most readily available information depots. Many would argue that the sensitivity of this topic warrants these conscious omissions. Yet the fact that many students learn of Adolph Hitler, Nazi Germany, and his ‘final solution’ well before they begin post-secondary education directly contradicts this argument. Unless of course it is a coincidence that Canadians and Americans learn of the errors of Europeans abroad long before they learn of the mistakes made by the founders of their very own countries. Regardless of the sensitivity of the subject, the truth should be told in its entirety. Doing otherwise slows down social progression in terms of integration. Ignorance of the African plight was precisely the cause of racism and racist ideals that “conflated color with intelligence” (Gates 10). As a result of being widely criticized as being “naturally inferior to whites”, in addition to being taken from their humble origins in Africa, ‘blacks’ began to find ways to speak for themselves in the hope that they could be viewed as equals alongside the ‘whites’ and thus be set free. This began a long and drawn out struggle for ‘black’ slaves who were simply fighting for their right to viewed as human beings and not cattle. During the peak of the slave trade – between the 18th and 19th centuries – a variety of fictional and non-fictional narratives began to surface. To counter this movement inauthentic portrayals of slavery were also written probably to calm the growing storm of the abolitionist movements; for slavery was the cornerstone upon which America was built and many did not want to see it go. In some cases, the African slaves were said to be content with their subservient roles in life. These nonsensical portrayals and many like them can be found in classic books such as Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, wherein is depicted the contented slave. What was omitted from these accounts was the inhumane treatment Africans suffered at the hands of their owners for half a millennia. As well as how religion was used to justify the enslavement of the ‘black people’. The African experience in this foreign world, including everything from slavery to the civil rights movement is for the most part an unpopular story. One may counter this argument by noting that several works exist today that are readily accessible in libraries, movie theatres, and on the internet. These works act as the only mainstream source of information on the experience of slavery and are greatly outweighed by ones presenting topics that appeal to the more dominant race in the country. Thus, the ‘black’ story is hardly heard. It is this deficiency that brought us such works as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl, and numerous others, including an impressive catalogue of Toni Morrison and her Nobel Prize winning Beloved. These works effectively portray the ways in which the institution of slavery was resisted and complied with and the struggle betwixt those who sat on the opposing sides. With reference to a few critical works, along with close examination of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Beloved, this essay will show that resistance to slavery was a necessity for survival, and that compliance was viewed as the greatest defeat and loss human being could suffer.

To understand the wide range of effects of slavery one has to consider its multi-pronged attack on civilized life in America. For one, the slave traders were kidnapping native Africans from their homes and shipping them off to the States to become slaves. Second, millions of Africans never even survived the trip along the middle passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Adding to this thirdly, is one of the most disgusting displays of inhumanity witnessed on American soil; namely, the enslavement of a large portion of the African ‘black’ race. Which in turn lead to the brutal treatment they received and the death of over sixty million of their people. With all these bad things happening for so long it is safe to say that beyond slavery’s physical manifestations lay the indelible forces of a mental and moral plague affecting the ‘white’ and ‘black’ face of America. Sworn opposites by the tags they were rendered, one saw the other as worthless enough as a creature to be shackled and sold (a conceited and narrow view), while the other was either destroyed by their hate for their oppressor or strengthened by it. In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass goes through most of the aforementioned struggles. All he doesn’t mention is the trip across the Atlantic, simply because he was born a slave in America. Resistance to slavery for him, manifested at a young age when he was not allowed to learn to read or write. He saw that young white boys were allowed to do this and could not understand why he was not given the same privilege. Upon being sold to Mr. and Mrs. Auld he was able to identify literacy as “the pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 364). In this situation, Mrs. Auld, a kind ‘white’ lady, took it as her charge to teach young Frederick to read – a gesture Frederick attributed to “the kindness of her heart” (Douglass 363). But she is reprimanded for her kind ways when Mr. Auld discovers she is instructing the slave boy. In this quotation taken the Douglass’ narrative, Mr. Auld simultaneously corrupts Mrs. Auld and inspires young Frederick.

“Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that is was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach a nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” (Douglass (364)

Looking at the part of the quote where we see “if you give a nigger an inch he will take an ell”, it is made clear to Mrs. Auld that if she continues in her unlawful exercise it would ultimately lead to the death of Frederick; L + inch = Lynch. Thus, in an instant, Mrs. Auld is turned from her resistance to slavery to utter compliance; as is seen later in her drastic change in attitude towards Frederick. Nonetheless, a positive came out of her fleeting kindness: Douglass was able to identify his path to freedom. From then on he would seek all that his master saw as “a great evil, to be carefully shunned” (Douglass 365). His noble resistance continued through the bits of literacy he acquired from innocent little ‘white’ boys while he traveled to and from work. He encountered a roadblock when he was sold to the vicious Mr. Covey.

“I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (Douglass 387)

This was an inner struggle all slaves had to endure – mentally with their selves, and physically with slave owners, drivers, and breakers. The breakers were the most efficient tools of slavery. Their jobs were to tame the proudest Africans and use them as examples to show what would happen if slaves were disobedient. This is what happened to Frederick Douglass. He often found himself in a “beast-like stupor” with nothing but thoughts of his “wretched condition” to keep him company (Douglass 388). The ills of slavery conquered his spirit for a time, but in a conversation he claims to have had with God himself, Douglass is able to show the reader, through his narrative, “how a slave was made a man” (Douglass 389). This making is seen in his defiant stance against Mr. Covey, Hughes and Bill. In a situation where Douglass was about to be whipped, he “resolved to fight” and proceeded to choke Mr. Covey (Douglass 393). Mr. Covey then called for Hughes to give him some assistance. Upon his arrival, Douglass quickly put him out of commission with a swift kick to the ribs. Covey then called for Bill, who came, and resolved not to fight at all. After two hours of battle, Douglass emerged with a renewed sense of manhood and thirst for freedom, for he himself had just done what was thought to be impossible by many slaves. He had risen above the ‘white’ master’s image of ultimate power and his own image of ultimate subjugation, and “repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery” (Douglass 395). After this incident, Mr. Covey never laid another finger on Frederick, and Douglass continued to fight back against all who dared give him a whipping ever again. In short, this narrative depicts the grave dangers of falling into compliance of evil forces, while praising the measures taken to resist those forces.

In Beloved, Toni Morrison’s protagonist Sethe kills her two-year-old daughter to save her from the painful experience of slavery at Sweet Home at the hands of the schoolteacher and his nephews. The entire novel revolves around her coming to grips with this rash decision and whether or not it was the right one to make because she did in fact manage to save the lives of her other four children. So basically, at the heart of the matter is the age-old question asking: do the ends justify the means? For Sethe, the act is easily justifiable, for all she was trying to do was “put [her] babies where they’d be safe” (Morrison 164). Her choice to stay at 124 Bluestone, where the memory of her act haunts the very house she lives in, is her stance of resistance against slavery. She does not run from the dark memory of killing her own child – something that slavery made her do – and when asked why she does not leave by Paul D, she replies, “No moving. No leaving. It’s all right the way it is…I will never run from another thing on this earth” (Morrison 15). Though in the beginning of the novel Sethe seems to have accepted her action and the ghost of her slain daughter in the house, through Paul D’s return into her life along with the arrival of Beloved – slavery’s haunting abilities made flesh – Sethe is forced to reevaluate her poised appearance. First, thanks to Stamp Paid’s intervention, Paul D learns of Sethe’s act all those years ago when she first escaped from Sweet Home. He is completely unable to comprehend how this woman he once knew as a friend at Sweet Home, the same woman he thought he had now fallen in love with, could have become this new woman capable of seeing “safety [in] a handsaw” (Morrison 164). His incomprehension causes him to criticize Sethe, saying that her “love is too thick”, that “what [she] did was wrong”, and finally that “[she] got two feet… not four” (Morrison 164-165). In a flash she looses the happiness Paul had brought into her life. After his departure, all Sethe has left is Denver and Beloved and she desperately tries to cope with her two daughters by holding meaningless celebrations of feasting and dress-up. But when there was no more money to buy distraction, her demons could no longer be ignored. In a fit after things at 124 started to fall apart, Beloved set out to hurt her mother. This quotation highlights the point in the novel where Sethe was broken:

“Beloved accused her of leaving her behind. Of not being nice to her, not smiling at her. She said they were the same, had the same face, how could she have left her? And Sethe cried, saying she never did, or meant to – that she had to get them out, away, that she had the milk all the time and had the money too for the stone but not enough. That her plan was always that they would all be together on the other side, forever. Beloved wasn’t interested. She said when she cried there was no one. That dead men lay on top of her. That she had nothing to eat. Ghosts without skin stuck their fingers in her and said beloved in the dark and bitch in the light. Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again her reasons” that Beloved was more important, meant more to her than her own life. That she would trade places any day. Give up her life, every minute and hour of it, to take back just one of Beloved’s tears.” (Morrison 241-242)

The words of her daughter tore at Sethe’s very soul and eventually she falls ill from the trauma and isolates herself to her room and bed. This retreat represents her compliance to slavery. Thankfully, Sethe was not alone. Denver, in an attempt to find work to help her mother, inadvertently rallies the community – one that had once ostracized Sethe for her vile act – led by Ella to go to the aid of the broken woman. With their help, Sethe is made to remember the point of her resistance in the first place. So far in the novel, Sethe has gone from being resistant to slavery’s mind numbing effects, to being ultimately compliant, to being brought back into her resistant self. Philip Page, a Morrison critic, comments extensively on the circularity in Beloved, and how the past comes back to haunt those that don’t deal with it properly.

“For the surviving characters to endure, they must bear the truth of that past, by remembering, recounting, and/or listening to it – in any case by accepting it…Since the crucial event is known from the beginning, the pots are less concerned with the necessity of a solution, less focused on the events themselves, and more preoccupied with the process of reevaluation…the thematic and formal power of Beloved is evident in the patterns of circularity in the novel and in the issues of revival…” (Page 134)

In the end of the novel, thanks to Paul D’s return – who also walks a circular path of dealing with Sethe – and his kind words of “You your best thing Sethe”, the woman is able to pick up the pieces of her past, accept them, make herself whole again, and reaffirm her resistance to slavery’s evil ways. In short, this novel presents resistance to slavery as a prerequisite to the salvation of mind, body and soul, while presenting compliance to slavery as a one-way ticket to the damnation of them all.

To conclude this discussion let us consider a passage from another critic of Morrison, Jan Furman, in which she quotes the author as saying:

“ ‘I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams’ Instead, her novels are instruments fro transmitting cultural knowledge, filling a void once occupied by storytelling.” (Furman 4)

Furman praises Morrison for her work in “enlightening the readers about themselves” because before ‘blacks’ started writing their own portrayals of their own history they were depicted in a very inaccurate manner. Her work, along with the earlier publications of slave narratives by Frederick Douglass, Hanna Crafts and many others, are the continuing efforts of a people to resist the effects of slavery. Education is the first step to this resistance and is encouraged among all subdivisions of the human race. Ignorance of these works and the knowledge they hold will only bring the evils of the times they depict back to haunt us all.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. From The Classic

Slave Narratives ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1987.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1987.

Furman, Jane. Toni Morrison’s Fiction. South Carolina: USC Press

Page, Philip. “Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels”. Dangerous

Freedom. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., “Writing ‘Race and the Difference it Makes”. Race, Writing,

And Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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