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Newton’s third law states that every action has a reaction. If someone were to push over a cup, it would fall. The cup would not stay stationary; it would react to the force being exerted upon it. If someone were to enslave another person, declaring them property and prohibiting their liberty, there would be a reaction as well, on a much more profound level. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which encapsulates American history in the emotional story of former slave Sethe and her family, serves as a testament to this. Morrison suggests that the dehumanization of slaves causes their loss of identity, resulting in some succumbing to insanity, others burying their memories, and others suffering a complete severance from their true purpose.

Morrison uses the character Halle, who is driven insane by slavery, to illustrate slavery’s destruction of identity. Halle, Sethe’s husband, in many ways, is different from the rest of the slave community. While many see freedom as an unattainable dream, Halle believes that freedom is possible and that there is a reward for hard work. His hopeful nature is reflected in his buying his mother, Baby Suggs, freedom through extra labor. His perspective changes, however, after he witnesses Schoolteacher’s nephews rape Sethe and take her milk. Powerless to defend Sethe, Halle experiences for the first time the helplessness of slavery. In realizing his inescapable reality, Halle’s optimism, an inherent part of his identity, is thwarted, leading him to insanity. In defeat, he sits down at the butter churn and smears butter all over his face, no longer the strong man he was. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass illuminates Morrison’s suggestion about slavery’s destruction of identity. In the narrative, he tells the story of slave masters’ use of alcohol as a tool to manipulate their slaves into believing slavery is better than freedom. In the slave masters doing this, slaves experience a temporary state of insanity, believing that “there was little to choose between liberty and slavery,” and that they “had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum” (Douglass, 84-85). Their belief is similar to that of Halle, who succumbs to the belief that freedom is impossible, causing him to stop pursuing it. In a broader sense, Morrison employs the character of Halle to show a truth that Douglass recounts in history as well: slavery robs one of their identity.

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Another character who Morrison uses to exemplify slavery’s destructive nature on one’s identity is Paul D, who buries the memories of his past. Paul D, who has endured immense hardships, represses his memories by figuratively putting them all into a tobacco tin in his chest in place of where his heart used to be. Morrison’s use of the tobacco tin in Paul D’s chest demonstrates slavery’s theft of identity, as well as humanity, for Paul D, believes he, like tobacco, is a mere product of slavery, and that all he is defined by is his enslavement. In other words, the tobacco tin serves to show that Paul D is psychologically branded by slavery. Paul D describes to Sethe how the events at Sweet Home dehumanized him, saying, “Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub” (Morrison, 86). Paul D’s tobacco tin is rusted shut and “nothing in this world could [can] pry it open” (Morrison, 133), which prevents him from dealing with the pain he suffered and from moving past it. Essentially, Morrison suggests that the dehumanization that Paul D experiences as a slave renders him numb, and therefore unable to develop a sense of self.

Once again, Morrison shows how the dehumanization of slavery takes one’s identity through Sethe’s loss of motherhood. An inherent part of Sethe’s identity is her children. Time after time, she makes sacrifices for the well-being of her children as they are “all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful” (192). Sethe is stripped of that identity when the Schoolteacher comes to 124 to recapture her and her children. Faced with the potential of slavery unforgivingly breaking apart her family, like many other slaves experience in the novel, Sethe tries to kill her children. She succeeds in killing her baby girl, and by doing so, psychologically scars her other children who bear witness to it. Thus, her efforts to shield her children from a life of certain trauma and dehumanization inadvertently break the bond of trust between her and her children. Morrison reflects on this break of trust in Sethe’s sons, Howard and Buglar, leaving 124 because they are haunted by the baby ghost and by the memory of Sethe trying to kill them. The distrust is also apparent in Sethe’s youngest, Denver, as she warns Beloved, “Don’t love her [Sethe] too much. Don’t. Maybe it’s still in her the thing that makes it all right to kill her children” (Morrison, 243-244). The fear Sethe’s children feel for her drives them away from her, robbing Sethe of the motherhood that defines her, which Morrison crafts to show slavery’s destruction of identity.

Whether enslavement causes insanity, emotional repression that strangles the self, or a permanent loss of one’s primary identity, the result is always that it severs the person’s ability to connect with others and to her or his true self. It robs the person of her or his authenticity and humanity. Without their authentic identities, Halle, Sethe, and Paul D are denied access to their souls and to the human connections that would help sustain them. The dehumanization of slavery destroys who they are. These characters are left to find their best selves under trauma and duress, and while Morrison’s novel does not tell us the outcome, likely, Sethe and Paul D do not likely recover, and, certainly, Halle does not. There is no “happy” ending under slavery, only profound loss.

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