Critical Essays A Note on Slavery


Set on the bloody side of the Ohio River, life at Sweet Home mocks the "Old Kentucky Home" of Stephen Foster's saccharine, sentimental set pieces. For Mr. Garner's male slaves, life is bondage, longing, and potential death if they step outside the prescribed norms of behavior. Baby Suggs and Sethe, separated by color, class, and privilege from Mrs. Garner, know the eternal ache of seeing their loved ones "run off . . . hanged . . . rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized." For Sethe, blessed with six years of marriage to a loving man, the only tempering mechanism for daily drudgery lies in sprigs of myrtle, salsify, and mint that sweeten the bitterness of servitude. But for Baby Suggs, too lost in a milieu of passing mates and disappearing family, reality is a slave's truth: ". . . nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children."

For Cincinnati blacks, slavery's legacy lies beyond the whip, far from the auction block, a generation away from dogs, slave catchers, patrollers, rapists, child-sellers, iron bits, and pronged necklaces. The curse of bondage lies in the spirit that has been so dirtied that it can no longer love itself. Morrison composes her novel to honor the survivors — station keepers like Baby Suggs who have the courage and determination to fight not only the emerging Ku Klux Klan and other forms of white spite, but to wash away the baptism of silt that coats the psyche and blocks out the light. The holy Baby Suggs names the individual parts of the body that each freed slave must rescue — hands, feet, neck, liver — and concludes her sermon with an appropriate benediction: "More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."