Murder or The Highest Act of Love? - In response to the article you printed on Sethe Garner last week I decided that somebody needed to offer an explanation for her behaviour.
Daniella Genas A2 English Lit/Lang
Murder or The Highest Act of Love?
In response to the article you printed on Sethe Garner last week I decided that somebody needed to offer an explanation for her behaviour. I am a friend of Sethes and have been deeply upset by the incident. I have found it very difficult trying to decide whether or not Sethes’ actions were justified. I have received a hostile response from members of the community when trying to explain what I believe to have been Sethes’ motives. Contrary to popular belief I do not at all condone the actions of Mrs Garner. However, I can try and understand the desperation, which drove her to commit such a brutal act.
I am the daughter of a slave woman. My slave master father freed my mother shortly before my birth. He was consumed with guilt and terrified that his wife would find out he had impregnated a slave. When I turned eighteen, I became increasingly curious about the identity of my father. I was also interested in the circumstances surrounding my birth. After months of probing, my mother eventually informed me that I was the product of a rape. My father had followed my mother into the cowsheds where she had been sent by his wife to milk the cows. My father told my mother if she made a sound he would kill her. This act became frequent with my mother being forced to have sex with my father at least twice a week. After a few months it became apparent that my mother was pregnant. My father understood the implications immediately. As he was not especially rich he had only a small number of slaves. Of these slaves only one was male. This slave was the father of my mother and therefore could not be held responsible for her pregnancy. My father realised he would have to act fast to avoid suspicion, so he freed my then sixteen year old mother. She was sent to live with another free slave in Cincinnati where she and I live to this day.
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Stories of my mothers’ time in slavery have given me endless nightmares. Lashings were commonplace on the farm my mother grew up on. She saw many defiant slaves hanging by their necks from trees or even worse watch on as they were decapitated and left to bleed to death. Her life long ambition was to save me from the horrors she was made to endure. She would say, as I was growing up that she would have sooner seen me dead then allow me to be taken into slavery. A few years ago I quizzed her on what she meant by this. I was horrified by her response. She told me in a very cool tone that before she was freed she was contemplating ending my life. She had not figured out a way to do it without me suffering when my father informed her that she was being freed. If this had not happened I could have shared the same fate as Sethes’ daughter.
How could I forgive my mother for planning an attempt on my life? It is quite simple. Non-Negroes can only imagine the horrors endured by slaves at the hands of their owners. They are beaten, raped, starved and stripped of all human rights. The atrocities committed against my mother you would not think fit for an animal. Due to this appalling treatment my mother decided she could not allow her child to go through the same thing. It is with this knowledge that I can forgive my mother. She loved me too much to allow me to suffer. It was because of this intense love that she would have done something many would see as evil. My mother can relate directly to Sethes’ feelings of despair for the fate of her children.
I befriended Sethe shortly after she escaped from slavery. She was in a terrible state. The night she ran away she was pregnant with her daughter Denver. Her new slave master’s sons had taken her breast milk the night before. She told Mrs Garner her former owners wife who reprimanded them. After finding out that she had informed Mrs Garner the men whipped her so badly her back opened up. When it closed it left the scar of a tree in her back. Sethe called it a chokecherry tree as the white woman who helped her to freedom said that is what it resembled. Sethe never showed me her chokecherry tree but she spoke of it with a distant painful look in her eyes. Those boys broke Sethe’s spirit. They beat her when she was heavily pregnant and took her babies milk. I cried out loud when Sethe told me this story. How could Sethe have survived something so dreadful? The events, which took place those last two nights were the catalyst for the events that followed. The three white men spotted at the scene, were the same men who had attacked Sethe.
With this history I find it difficult to condemn Sethe’s actions and I am increasingly sympathetic towards her situation. To the white community Sethe is an example of why Blacks should not be free. According to them this characteristically black animalistic behaviour is repressed in slavery. Sethe’s last owner whom she called “School Teacher” was in the progress of research to prove that Negroes were a completely separate species to whites. He was trying to provide scientific evidence showing that blacks were actually animals not humans. Sethe told me how he would follow the slaves around taking notes on them. If this thesis were accepted as fact, it would provide justification for the whole of slavery. If Negroes were animals then there captivity could be rationalized in the same way as the ownership of a dog or horse. However if this theory is correct it still does not explain the horrific treatment blacks endure at the hands of their masters. Dogs are considered more highly than slaves even though they are not nearly as beneficial to the slave master. Dogs are not whipped to the extent slaves are and are not worked nearly as hard. Pregnant dogs are not beaten until they see no choice but to run away. If Schoolteacher is as smart as he obviously believes he is why would he treat a slave with several breeding years left, so terribly. If he had treated Sethe with as much consideration as he probably does his animals, he could have gained more slaves. He would own her children and any more she would more than likely have conceived. As it happens he has been left with nothing. Even an animal would eventually crack after a lifetime of torture!
Sethe spoke to me many times of her work on the farm. Her most acclaimed task was making ink for Mrs Garner. Schoolteacher would praise her for the way the ingredients were mixed in way only she could achieve. He would use this ink to write his thesis proving she was an animal. His common sense should have told him that for someone to do such a highly skilled task as making such perfect ink could not be an animal. Yet this fact never crossed his mind.
Many whites share this opinion that blacks are animals. Considering their historical background are they really in a position to pass judgement? Is it not animalistic what whites have been doing to Negroes for hundreds of years? Is what those men did to Sethe any less horrific than Sethe’s actions? Murder is wrong! I do not disagree with this at all. However was it truly murder or euthanasia? Sethe was trying to save her children from a life she knows would be full of torture and violence.
There are many ways in which you can look at Sethe’s conduct. You can condemn her, praise her, or just sympathise and try to understand why. Nevertheless one thing we should all see is that she did not kill her daughter because she just wanted her dead. She did it because she did not want her to join the living dead of slavery.