After the abolishment of slavery, the black community became the core of African American culture and life. This was due in part by segregation and other socioeconomic factors, but also to the spiritual and social unity of each black member. This was well exemplified in the story, as each former slave underwent arduous struggles to affix the broken pieces of their lives and attempt to become independent members of the community in a time which did not allow them to accomplish such a feat.
The black community played a major role in Beloved, especially with their interactions with Sethe. After Sethe’s escape from slavery, she traveled to Cincinnati to reunite with her children and mother-in-law, Baby Suggs. She arrived at 124, a house constantly filled with people and happiness.
Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested while their children tried on their shoes. Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. (Morrison, 87)
Sethe was enveloped with love and security, while Baby Suggs, the local spiritual leader, became the driving force in the community, gathering the people together to preach self love and respect. “When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing…” (Morrison, 87)
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a book about a community made up of individuals running away from their pasts. In meeting a few of those individuals and learning how and what they are running from, it becomes obvious that no one can deal successfully with the burden of past memories alone. Those who attempt to face their troubles alone wind up tiring out and giving up, as is demonstrated by Baby Suggs. Sethe and Paul D however, try to fight back the past only to realize it cannot be done alone. After doing so, they find that with the community or a loved one to “encourage you to put some of your weight in their hands,” (22) the present becomes tolerable and a future possible regardless of the past.
Baby Suggs, a prominent figure in the community with an intolerable present and past, which helped her learn early on what it was like to be left alone, to deal with difficulties. When the community that had served as her strength withdrew its support, because they were angry and had taken offense to the “uncalled-for-pride” (137) Baby flaunted when her grandchildren and daughter-in-law were finally together, she no longer felt the support.As if the weakness Baby was suffering from their disapproval was not enough, the family was hit with another blow, when Sethe was imprisoned. As Sethe is being taken away by the sheriff, the community who was already looking unfavorably upon the family’s pride, asked the questions: “Was her head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight?” (152). These questions foreshadowed how, as long as 124 continued to be prideful, the community would keep their support withdrawn from the family that lived within. As a result, Baby Suggs, Sethe and the rest of the family was left to deal with their trials alone.
Hence, Baby who at one time found her strength in the community, lost that sense of belonging, her strength then died leading to her giving up the fight. Her past was like her present – intolerable, and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering colors.(4) Without the community, Baby Suggs stopped looking towards a future and relinquished her fight to ponder color, an occupation that took no energy on her part and that she could accomplish without anyone’s help.
Similarly, Sethe was left to deal with her problems alone, rather than giving up however, she threw herself into keeping what she has left, and protecting her family from the past. “To Sethe, the future was a matter of keeping the past at bay. The ‘better life’ she believed she and Denver were living was simply not that other one” (42). Sethe’s equation for a future meant subtracting or running away from the past at all costs. This task proved to be extremely difficult and taxing on Sethe, for
not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil. (5)
With Sethe, determined to never run away again as she did from Home Sweet Home, she is left to deal with the past while in 124. Being left to deal with such terrible memories alone, in a sense plagued by them, Sethe is found doing all she can to keep any more horrid pieces of her past from surfacing.
In talking with Paul D about Home Sweet Home and their past, Sethe says: “but it’s where we were, All together. Comes back whether we want it to or not” (14). The way Sethe personifies the past as if it was a demon who shows up without warning to wreak havoc on the one possessed, is an image that continues to come up throughout the book. In fact, Sethe has difficulty in dealing with the past so much that she expends all of her energy on it, leaving little to build a future. “Her brain was not interested in the future. Loaded with the past and hungry for more, it left her no room to imagine, let alone plan for the next day” (70).
Baby Suggs and Sethe are not the only ones who are left dealing with an all consuming past, Paul D and Ella along with the rest of the community, are plagued with similar issues. In fact as mentioned earlier, Sethe says while talking to Paul D that they are “all together” in dealing with Home Sweet Home. Hence, Paul D begins to share his memories, finding it difficult to speak about something he has never before shared (71). However, just as he begins to reveal some of the darkest parts of his past, he stops because saying more might push them both to a place they couldn’t get back from. He would keep the rest where it belonged in that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. (73) To this Sethe responds by rubbing his knee, trying to calm the both of them, in “beating back the past” (73). The difficulty they have in dealing with the past is obvious and, the fact that both keeping pushing it back in an effort to escape it, is no wonder.
Ella, another member of the community which is found with a past just as
terrible, is found taking a different view to the way it comes back to haunt.
Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the presentDaily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. (256)
Hence, Ella looked forward to the future with a positive view. In believing that no one’s past should have so much power, Ella upon realizing that Sethe and the others at 124 are being invaded by the past, decides to help. In bringing together the women of the community to act as a support for each other, as they once did in the clearing when Baby Suggs was a preacher, they are able to accomplish what Sethe could not on her own. By unifying their strength, they broke 124 free from past’s firm hold so that future’s sun could shine.
Having this accomplished, Sethe and Paul D are able to realize: “theygot more yesterday than anybody. and need some kind of tomorrow” (273). Hence, they are able to feel the support that Baby Suggs once enjoyed, which enables them realize that they can have a future when their energy is used in planning one rather than escaping the past.
As is seen in the last chapter, this revelation applies not only to Sethe and Paul D. Through the use of “everybody”, “their” and “they” this chapter seems to have been written by the community itself with the final understanding being, that the past is at times better forgotten and not passed on. For, just as Baby Suggs continually told Sethe, “lay em down,” so are the last words of the book translated with the hope that all will take the advice and move on to the future, not forgetting the past but simply letting it remain in there. (86)