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The circle and cross burnt into Sethe's mother's skin was the mark of her slavery. Like an animal, it was a sign that she was "owned," and it was symbolic of her status as a slave with no more rights or consideration than what would be given a beast. From Nan, the woman who cared for Sethe when she was a child, Sethe learned that her mother had come "from the sea," and had been used and impregnated by many white men. Sethe's mother had discarded the products of those pregnancies without even naming them, but had kept Sethe, whose father was black; to Sethe, "she gave the name of the black man." Like all the slave children at the place where she lived, Sethe was only nursed by her mother for a couple of weeks, after which she was turned over to the slave whose job it was to nurse and raise the children. Her mother never was allowed to show her love for her own child through simple acts such as fixing her hair.
Sethe does have a memory of the one time her mother came, picked her up, and carried her behind the smokehouse. There, she showed her daughter the brand of the circle and cross burnt into the skin under her breast. She told Sethe that she was
"...the only one 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."
In showing Sethe the mark burnt into her flesh, she was giving her an identity. When Sethe asked for the same mark, however, her mother had slapped her, because although it was the best she could give her, her identity was irrevocably determined by slavery, and the mark on her skin was the sign of her bondage. Sethe did not understand the implications of her mother's act at the time; she only fathomed its implications later, when she was forced by her present owners to have "a mark of (her) own." The full impact of her mother's act in showing Sethe the mark on her skin also became clear later. Intestimony to the realization that her life was essentially worth nothing, and that she would likely die because of terrible and potentially disfiguring abuse, Sethe's mother had said,
"...if something happens to me and you can't tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark."
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