“A man ain’t nothing but a man,” said Baby Suggs. “But a son? Well now, that’s
With these words, Baby Suggs underscores the importance of family relationships among slaves. Because slaves are moved around like checkers, most families are broken up. Having a son implies that mother and child are able to spend enough time together to form a bond. Baby Suggs had eight children but only Halle was allowed to stay with her, so raising him and spending time with him provided her only true maternal experience.
She wished for Baby Suggs’ fingers molding her nape, reshaping it, saying, “Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield.”
Sethe recalls how Baby Suggs, singing a Negro spiritual, took care of her when she arrived at 124. This memory leads the reader to more fully understand what a compassionate and wise person Baby Suggs is. Baby Suggs possesses the ability to physically care for others, healing their bodies, and at the same tend to their mental and emotional needs.
Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb, and tongue,” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart—which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it.
The narrator describes how and why Baby Suggs becomes a preacher after she reaches freedom in Ohio. Her body has been worn out by slavery but her heart, despite losing all eight of her children, still has a seemingly limitless capacity for love. Her holy doctrine is teaching others to love themselves and cherish their bodies. While this message seems simple, it resonates for a group of people who have been used for their bodies.
“Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,” she said, “and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.”
On the day schoolteacher comes to 124, Baby Suggs expresses the damage white people caused in her and her people’s lives. His return marks the beginning of Baby Suggs’ surrender to the heartache of her life. Baby Suggs had left slavery behind but white people still came after her to take her family and whatever peace of mind she had. Schoolteacher’s return also destroys faith in her community because her neighbors fail to warn her.
The heart that pumped out love, the mouth that spoke the Word, didn’t count. They came in her yard anyway and she could not approve or condemn Sethe’s rough choice. One or the other might have saved her, but beaten up by the claims of both, she went to bed.
Here, the narrator explains that, after Sethe attacks her own children, Baby Suggs can find no peace. She is torn between supporting Sethe’s actions in keeping her children from becoming slaves and chastising Sethe for killing the baby. Baby Suggs is torn apart by her conflicting impulses and loyalties. As Baby Suggs’ heart is big enough to see both sides, she fails to resolve her conflict. She decides to give up trying instead.
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