CAPTIVE BODY, LIBERATED FLESH

1987 brought the publication of two particularly influential and profound endeavorings into the historical bondage of black bodies and means for bodily reclamation: Toni Morrison’s Beloved in September, and Hortense Spiller’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” a few months earlier. Though their forms differ substantially, each delves into the haunting history of slavery in the United States in order to uncover its insidious roots and potential means for bodily liberation.  The pernicious physical and metaphorical markings on the body which Spillers so intricately explains are manifested throughout Beloved, particularly in Baby Sugg’s narrative of captivity and freedom. As Beloved demonstrates, the mutilation of the body is not merely physical, but also enacted through language and marks a “high crime against the flesh” that must be recovered and reclaimed for liberation (Spillers 260). Both understand the extent of slavery’s oppression via physical and linguistic smearing, and view the flesh as an essence of self which must be protected and adored. By distinguishing between body and flesh, Spillers offers a provocative understanding of the lasting impact of physical and textual markings on the body, which Morrison displays and offers potential resolution with Baby Sugg’s teachings in the Clearings about loving the flesh.

The forced enslavement of millions and millions of Africans through the Slave Trade stole and severed the black body from the self or will, scripting it with preposessed meaning. Spillers exposes the severity of offense in her examinations of ledgers that mark human bodies alongside tables, plates, and chairs, never naming the people whose humanity is effectively denied them (268). Looking from the left of the ledger, which contains the merchants’ names, to the right, which precisely computes the quantity of “cargo”, exposes this total objectification of African people from these initial passages. Beloved reveals its preoccupation with this dislocation’s lasting effects on those marked (yet also erased) bodies when it begins by calling to the “Sixty million and more” forced in the Atlantic Slave Trade (epigraph). Spillers terms this “diasporic plight” resulting from trade to the New World a “theft of the body” in that it “violently severs the captive body from its motive will” (259). This severing befalls hand-in-hand with “externally imposed meanings and uses” the slave owner/white American then places upon the exposed, dissected body. With the will or desire torn away, what is left is a body that is then inscribed with signifiers the dominant powers will determine. Toni Morrison describes the ability of these inscriptions to “dirty” one’s sense of self: “not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you…so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up” (295). The language of “dirty” is tied to an image of physical degradation, yet the most devastating result of this consuming oppression is the degradation of the self. Physical captivity produces an internal, psychosocial captivity in which the subject is bound by externally-imposed markings and made to feel dislocated and powerless.

These markings, though often literal, especially during slavery, are also iconographic and linguistic. Naming in particular is a powerful means of symbolically enforcing social codes and exposing who is in control. As Spillers asserts, “Dominant symbolic activity, the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounding in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation” (262). Once someone leaves slavery, she is still held captive by an even more violent system of identification and valuation via naming. The politics of naming sever the self just as if not more so than do physical wounds. When Baby Sugg’s former slave owner describes her lost children and how they most likely ended up, she “covers her ears to keep from hearing them [their names] come from his mouth” because she already “knows their names” (169). To hear her abuser speak her children’s names, an identity she has given them, and watch him twist them with his tongue would cause excruciating pain.

Though Baby Suggs knows their names, she does not know her own: the “ripped-apartness” of captivity prevents her from knowing who she is (Spillers 260). When an abolitionist asks what she, as a newly-freed woman, calls herself, she replies, “I don’t call myself nothing” (Morrison 168). The man, determined to believe that she must have a name, questions whether her former owner called her Jenny; Sugg’s telling reply is a resounding ‘no,’ qualified with, “If he did I didn’t hear it” (168). Here, Baby Suggs reveals the power of a name and the power of displacing it as well. Though she cannot control what her oppressor says, she can choose whether she hears the words or signification he utters. She implicitly understands Spiller’s claim that “sticks and bricks might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us” (262). Words have a potency to kill because they attack and interrogate one’s most inward site of self, one’s “private space” (259). The body as metaphor is yoked with iconography that determines its worth and denies it a meaningful existence.

Because captivity permeates through the physical, linguistic, and internal markings on a body, reclamation must counter all three. When Baby Suggs is held captive, she displays no interest in her physical body, no interest in speaking, and feels a resounding “sadness at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home” (165). Her narrative of reclamation, then, begins with the physical, then the linguistic, and ultimately the inner self through an adoration of flesh. When she is first freed, she looks down at her trembling hands and realizes that “these my hands. They mine” (166). In that moment, she becomes aware of her body and her ability to own her body. Soon after, she names herself Baby Suggs, what her husband called her, even though it goes against the white code of decorum (167). It is her Clearing spiritual sessions[1], however, that get at the heart of the captive body by turning inward to free the flesh.

Baby Sugg’s complex process of healing reflects the critical distinction Spillers proposes in her essay: that the distinction between body and flesh is “the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions” (259). When the body is abused, the flesh is likewise injured; though the body be broken, it is the flesh that signifies most because it symbolizes one’s essence. Flesh in this interpretation is prior to body because it is “that zero degree of social contextualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography” ( Spillers 260). While the body itself is dictated by the language that describes it, which necessarily depends on cultural context, the flesh cannot be “discoursed” away (261). The captive body serves to make visible “a gathering of social realities”, whereas the flesh represents how the inner self is shaped or torn by those realities (260).

Like the body, flesh can be torn, though those markings cannot permanently hide on the flesh. Reflecting on Middle Passage, Spillers understands that flesh there signifies its “seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, falled, or escaped overboard,” though it is the body that can be seen as visibly marked (260). That deep wounding, the “undecipherable markings” on the body which translate into a “kind of hieroglyphics of the flesh,” is why reclamation of flesh is necessary to liberate a person (260). The primary narrative of the person, restoring the flesh is essential to repair the body—though that restoration occurs in part through reclamation of the mismarked bodily text. Though slave life may have “busted” Baby Sugg’s “legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue,” Baby Suggs’s inward self, her heart still remains and she employs that to heal the flesh (Morrison 102).

Within these Clearings, preservation and adoration of the flesh is the central message. “In this here place,” she begins, “we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” (103). Baby Suggs first acknowledges with her community that they are flesh. They hold an identity outside the markings imposed upon them, and though it is bruised it is their own. This flesh is capable of the rawest and deepest emotion; of weeping, laughing, and dancing in order to experience healing, of expressing the sweetness that is the truth there is something left even after whiteness has done its best to corrode away their humanity. Baby Suggs is ever-aware that their flesh has been exposed to unimaginable torture and pain, acknowledging that “yonder they do not love your flesh… they despise it” (103). “Yonder” represents a place outside of the space their community has created. Though systems of oppression via externally imposed meanings posit that the black body is outside and “othered,” here Baby Suggs positively identifies this new space they have claimed and warns the participant of the danger outside (Spillers 260). The hatred white folk feel toward flesh exposes its potential for power and reclamation. There is an essence that persists and an essence that existed prior to the dehumanization of slavery. Because of these truths, it is essential that the former slave loves her flesh, hard, to undo the hieroglyphics that have seemingly seared themselves into the being. The surviving body may appear a “cultural text whose inside has been turned outside,” but a turn inward, into loving one’s flesh, can heal this painful reversal (Spillers 260).

 

[1] Though the flesh for Spillers is ‘ungendered’, it is Baby Sugg’s positionality and gendering that allows her to ask as spiritual leader in the Clearing. The black man who is captive subject becomes a body without flesh, effectively losing his manhood. Baby Sugg’s identification and clinging to her positionality as woman provide her with the unity and cohesiveness to act as spiritual guide in this healing process.

After Baby Suggs details how body parts can be celebrated, she reemphasizes that “this is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.” (103). Loving the flesh is not optional to the marked body; it is essential for bodily reclamation. Healing that initial site of self, free from social contextualization, is a difficult but worthwhile process. She moves through each body part in her spiritual ceremonies, explains the need for loving the flesh with each one, and demonstrates how one must love the flesh through that body part (by resting and dancing the feet, holding up the neck). Though flesh is separate from the body, Toni Morrison’s configuration of body and flesh places the two intimately interwoven so that stroking one will move the other, providing the positive upshot of Spiller’s position that wounds on the body are a crime to the flesh. Each description of Baby Sugg’s body parts moves inward, until she insists to the audience that they love “all [their] inside parts,” especially their heart, “for this is the prize” (103). Flesh is the most inward entity, that inner thing that exists without society or culture. The heart is an inner body part that functions here metaphorically for the richness and emotion present once one can liberate the self. It is love that will heal the flesh and restore the marked body.

Spiller articulates in a nuanced and complex manner the historical conditions that leads to the restoration Morrison displays through Baby Suggs’ teachings at the Clearing. Though Baby Suggs first has no concept of her own body or name, by declaring ownership of both she works to reunite her body and will. What removes the sadness in her center is a more invested adoration of her flesh, her inward essence that even linguistic discourse cannot entirely corrode. As Morrison and Spillers reveal, combating physical and linguistic bonds of oppression allows space for loving and thus liberation of the flesh.

©2020 by Jennifer Bitterly. Proudly created with Wix.com