Beloved | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Beloved | Context


Fugitive Slave Laws

According to the Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793 and 1850, it was illegal for anyone, whether in a free or slave state, to help enslaved people escape. Protecting them or housing them was also illegal. Slaves were seen as property, and local governments were required to return escaped slaves to their owners. Slave owners were allowed to cross into free territory to reclaim their property.

Slavery and Family Life

Set in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1873, Beloved takes place after the end of the Civil War. However, flashbacks take the reader to a time when slavery was still the law of the land. Survivors of the brutal Middle Passage, the inhumane crossing by ship over the Atlantic Ocean, were sold to the highest bidder. Their names were changed, and they were forced into labor. Enslaved people were often treated like animals. When they disobeyed, they were chained and beaten or tortured in other ways. It was rare for slaves to be taught to read or write. Families were often broken up; mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers were sold and sent off to separate farms. Slave women of childbearing age were seen as birthing machines. Their job was to produce as many new slaves as possible, especially following the 1807 law halting the importation of slaves from Africa. Slave populations were kept steady due to the the rape of black women by white men that produced "domesticated" and trainable children. There was no regard for motherhood, love, or family continuity. In fact, as slave narratives such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass show, family bonds among slaves were discouraged to ensure dependency on the slave owners.

Margaret Garner

Beloved is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner. Born a slave in Kentucky, Garner, her husband, and their four children escaped to Cincinnati in 1856. They made it to a safe house, but within hours their master and federal marshals captured them. Garner was determined that she and her children would not return to captivity. She took her children to a back room. When the authorities found her, she had slit her two-year-old daughter's throat and wounded the other children.

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