ABSTRACT

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Sethe tells her friend Paul D how she felt after escaping from slavery:

It was a kind of selfishness I never knew nothing about before. It felt good. Good and right. I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon-there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to.You know what I mean? (Morrison 1987,162)

By distorting Sethe’s ability to love her children “proper,” slavery annexed Sethe’s power as energy for its own ends. Her words touch a deep chord in Paul D, for he too remembers how slavery felt. His unspoken response to Sethe expresses the mechanisms used by systems of domination such as slavery in harnessing potential sources of power in a subordinated group:

So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother-a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose-not to need permission for desire-well, now, that was freedom. (Morrison 1987, 162)

Sethe and Paul D’s words suggest that in order to perpetuate itself, slavery corrupts and distorts those sources of power within oppressed groups that provide energy for change. To them, freedom from slavery meant not only the absence of capricious masters and endless work but regaining the power to “love any-

thing you chose.” Both Sethe and Paul D understood how slavery inhibited their ability to have “a big love,” whether for children, for friends, for each other, or for principles such as justice. Both saw that systems of oppression often succeed because they control the “permission for desire”—in other words, they harness the power of deep feelings to the exigencies of domination.