In chapter 2 of Beloved, Sethe remembers, “a man ain’t nothing but a man,” the phrase her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, often used before she died. It is significant that Sethe remembers this now, on this night, because Paul D—one of the men who was a slave at Sweet Home, where Sethe was also a slave—has come to visit her after not having seen her in two decades. They are reaching back for their youth, and Sethe is beginning to feel something she hasn’t felt in years. Just as she is beginning to think he might stay and be there for her, however, she starts to feel him leave—not physically, as Baby Suggs had experienced it when she was alive, but emotionally.
As she thinks about what happens when a woman starts to depend on a man, Sethe thinks back to Baby Suggs’s life as a slave. She knows Baby Suggs loved and started families with men who were sold off or lent out by their slave masters, who ran away or were hanged, and she seldom saw them again. Both Baby Suggs and Sethe could see how their loved ones—men, women, and children—were being used by white masters who, upon needing money, would sell and trade their slaves at will. Baby Suggs never even had the chance to say goodbye to her own daughters, who were sold. She and and Sethe had to live in a world where they and the other slaves on the plantation had no choices.
Baby Suggs knew and conveyed to Sethe that slaves were nothing but pieces on a game board to be moved around by slaveowners for the slaveowners’ benefit, no matter the cost to the lives of the slaves. The one bright spot, Sethe remembers, was her husband, Halle—Baby Suggs’s son—who bought his mother’s freedom by loaning himself out on his one day off, Sunday, for five years. But as Sethe reflects, even Halle was only a man, as neither she nor her mother-in-law ever heard from him again after Sethe left Sweet Home.