By Soraya Marashi
In Toni Morrison’s widely-acclaimed novel Beloved, she features a black grandmother who transcends the barriers of time and mortality. Though mainly revealed through flashbacks and a supernatural presence that haunts the household, Baby Suggs is the fierce, all-loving mother, therapist, and pastor to the protagonist Sethe’s community. As Morrison describes her in the novel, Baby Suggs is “…the unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it…uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heartbeat in their presence” (Morrison 2016, 102). Not only was Baby Suggs a fiery force of unconditional love and strength within Sethe’s household, but she was seen as a figure of spiritual and healing power in the greater community as well.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a former slave going through the process of reclaiming herself and her self-worth after the brutalities she endured during and as a result of slavery. Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law, greatly aids Sethe in coping with vicious memories from her troubled past that continue to haunt her, even years after her freedom. Even after Baby Suggs dies, “words whispered in the keeping room had kept [Sethe] going”, implying that Baby Suggs’s extremely powerful presence could still be felt in the household. However, Sethe still mourns for the strength and stability that Baby Suggs once brought to her and her family. For example, as Sethe struggles with a memory of her missing husband, “she wished for Baby Suggs’ fingers molding her nape, reshaping it, saying, ‘Lay em’ down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield.’ And under the pressing fingers and the quiet instructive voice, she would. Her heavy knives of defense against misery, regret, gall and hurt, she placed one by one on a bank where clear water rushed on below” (Morrison 2016, 86). Denver, Sethe’s daughter, also experienced the wisdom and comfort that Baby Suggs brought to the household, stating how she missed “Baby Suggs telling her things in the keeping room” (Morrison 2016, 23), and how “she was ten and still mad at Baby Suggs for dying.” Denver also claims, when Sethe and her attempt to confront the malevolent spirit of Sethe’s dead baby that haunts their household, that it is “Grandma Baby [who] must be stopping it” (Morrison 2016, 4). This further reinforces Denver’s belief that her grandmother is helping them from the other side, showing the magnitude of the effects of Baby Suggs’s love upon the family. After all, Baby Suggs practically raised Denver after Sethe’s husband disappeared, as was typical of black grandmothers.
Even after Baby Suggs witnesses Sethe murder her other daughter in order to prevent her from being sold into slavery, she cynically expresses her sorrows about her own experience as a slave in order to shed wisdom upon Sethe and her grief. Baby Suggs states “you lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don’t you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased…my firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that’s all I remember” (Morrison 2016, 5). As tragic as Baby Suggs’s experience with her children was, the separation of slave children from parents through sales at the auction block as well as through high child mortality rates was, unfortunately, a common reality for black mothers, grandmothers, and families in general. According to Wilma Dunaway in her novel entitled The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, “nearly two-thirds of all Appalachian slave sales separated children from their families – 70 percent of these forced migrations occurring when they were younger than fifteen. Masters had a good economic reason to sell children separately” (2003, 68).
Because it was almost impossible to keep biological families intact, black people relied upon fictive kinship ties and extended kinship networks as a support system. Oftentimes, elderly women were the ones who “adopted” and cared for displaced children, as well as connected other fictive kinship ties, and Baby Suggs is a prime example of this. She acts as the “community preacher” in Sethe’s town and treats every person in the community like family. She would lead mass congregations of people in a place called “the Clearing,” where she would preach to “laughing children, dancing men, crying women”, but “she did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more…she told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine.” Baby Suggs preached to the people “Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes…and O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!” (Morrison 2016, 88). Baby Suggs preached words of self-love and acceptance to a community of former slaves who were in the process of reclaiming themselves and their identities – all things they had lost to slavery.
Sethe’s household, before the news got out about her infanticide, was “a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised and soothed. Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested there while children tried on their shoes. Messages were left there for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon” (Morrison 2016, 86). Baby Suggs, a wise and caring grandmother to everyone, brought life, color and hope to a community with an extremely dark past. Even though she lost all of her family to the institution of slavery, the emptiness within her allowed her to be compassionate to everyone else around her, an unjudgemental preacher who preached on behalf of her people as opposed to her God, as she was “uncalled, unrobed and unanointed”, and build a family of her own through fictive kinship ties within her community. The people not only found a spiritual leader and healer in Baby Suggs, but they also found a grandmother of their own. The people even called her “Baby Suggs, holy.” The younger women in the community especially found comfort in Baby Suggs because of the advice she would give them, as was typical of older black women of the time period in order for them to support each other and survive as best they could.
Even after her death, the presence and wisdom of Baby Suggs could be felt by those who loved her, including her granddaughter Denver. At the end of the novel, when the embodied ghost of Sethe’s dead daughter has continued to feed off of Sethe, Denver contemplates whether or not to ask for help from the community, as she has been isolated from the outside world for most of her life. The spirit of Baby Suggs acknowledges the dangers against black people in the outside world but tells Denver to “know it, and go on out the yard. Go on” (Morrison 2016, 244). The spirit of Baby Suggs essentially tells Denver to learn how to live under her circumstances, no matter how bad they may be for black people, and to make do by any means necessary for the sake of her mother. The message that Baby Suggs conveys rings true for African Americans even today: that because society will never love them, and because they will continue to face oppression, they must love themselves and build a life for themselves and their families regardless. In other words, the value that they are denied in society should be found within themselves.
Baby Suggs had such a profound impact upon the lives of people, that they all agree to help Denver and her family for the sake of their happy memories with Baby Suggs. As Morrison describes, “when they caught up with each other, all thirty, and arrived at 124, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves…Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them, urging more” (Morrison 2016, 258).
A whole community was congregated together to help a family in need because of the love and resilience shown by a grandmother. And it is this powerful black community, united by shared hardships, that rids Sethe of the ghost of her deceased daughter Beloved. Among other things, this shows that Baby Suggs’s wisdom, like the wisdom of all black grandmothers, was powerful enough to unite a community that once shunned Sethe and her family. It truly transcended generations and showed Sethe that even through all of her mistakes, she could find forgiveness and acceptance within herself and that she was, in fact, her own “best thing.”