In Toni Morrison's Beloved, are female slaves treated differently, or worse, than men?
Female slaves in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved suffer more than male slaves, because they are doubly oppressed: first as slaves, and then as women in a patriarchal, masculine society. Their experience as slaves is unique in many ways compared to the male experience, since gender roles were still being strongly reinforced in that world. One can argue that their treatment is worse because of the fact that people in positions of power will not easily relinquish that power. For example, white men are not willing to relinquish their power or privilege, and male slaves might exert power over female slaves in order to keep what little power, or illusion of power, they are able to exercise. As male slaves, they would always have more freedoms than female slaves, because of the simple truth that being male comes with different expectations.
The novel explores the concept of African American culture and the reclamation by African American women of an identity that had been either forgotten, or never claimed to begin with. It is important to understand the history of black culture in America, as well as the social context in which women are oppressed. The main characters in Beloved were both black and women, and so struggled in two ways to understand what true freedom was. In many ways, they were both tied down as slaves and as women who were supposed to fulfill certain expectations: to be “good” black women, to be good mothers, to keep their culture and customs alive for their people, while also being available physically and emotionally to support the white men, women, and children who had power over them.
At the same time, their husbands and lovers were sold off at the whim of their masters. They were separated from their children, forced to carry on sexual relationships with their masters, and care for their children as well. Meanwhile, the children of the slave women who had been sold off were forced to deal with the unsatisfied needs that had been plaguing them since birth. They needed a mother’s love. They also needed to be able to identify their “self” when it was not just tied to another, and the way that a lot of women do that is through their knowledge of their mother, their mother’s family history and traditions that have been passed down through generations. Instead, the character Seth is forced to make a difficult choice: give up her baby, watch her be raised in captivity as she was, possibly without a mother’s love, or kill her. According to Seth: “If I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is some-thing I could not bear to happen to her."
In order to truly be free, black women must be able to claim for themselves the freedom that is associated with rejecting and transcending the patriarchy, slavery, poverty, racism, social isolation, and many more conditions that they faced at the time. At some point, the layers of trauma become so real and deeply established in the subconscious of the victim that it becomes almost impossible to realize and express one’s true self. In Beloved, the character of Seth says, “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”