Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

Nurturing Milk

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I was struck by the number of references to milk in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. The references to milk in the novel are both direct and indirect. Sethe, one of the main characters, references milk often when recollecting her last memories of living at Sweet Home. Upon reconnecting with Paul D, she decides to tell the story of her escape. Sethe starts off simply saying, “I had milk..I was pregnant with Denver but I had milk for my baby girl. I hadn’t stopped nursing her when I sent her on ahead with Howard and Buglar”. She continues emphasizing her insistence on delivering milk to her baby: “All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me…nobody had her milk but me. I told that to the women in the wagon…The milk would be there and I would be there with it.”

While Sethe tells her story, she does not focus on the experience of being held down by men and being milked like an animal or the terrible punishment inflicted on her after confessing this to her owner. She focuses on the fact that she was not able to deliver milk to her baby. And, she does this while simply making bread. Morrison lists the ingredients Sethe uses which include flour, soda, salt, lard and water. What strikes me is the fact that bread can still be made by substituting water for milk. I think Morrison emphasizes two things in this short passage. Firstly, she shows how black women were treated during this period (and arguably now):as animals who are meant to reproduce and produce milk for others. They do not have any rights or power even as producers of life and they are not even entitled to their offspring (much less entitled to taking care of their offspring). Secondly, she shows how black women’s femininity was challenged during this period. Giving milk to an offspring is often equated to nurturing one’s offspring and giving one’s offspring what they need to develop and grow strong. Giving milk to an offspring also allows one to assume a mother role. Though Sethe does take care of her daughter Denver, she does not nurture her like one would expect (or stereotype) a woman to do. Sethe seems to focus on taking care of her daughter’s basic needs such as clothing and grooming. She makes dinner for Denver, supplementing the meal with bread but the bread is not made with milk. Thus, Sethe takes on a different kind of mother role. I’m assuming that they could have received milk from a neighbor or a milkman during this time. But, no one visits them-a fact that Morrison makes clear to the reader.

Indirectly, milk is referenced when Paul D remembers living at Sweet Home. He and the other Sweet Home men engage in bestiality in the absence of of black female slaves to love. The cows, like the black female slaves, produce milk for consumption by others and to nurse young offspring.Thus, cows become a substitute for black female slaves. The black female does not have the full rights of a human being. Instead, she has the duties of a farmed animal.

Another indirect reference is made later in the novel when Paul D tells Sethe that her husband Halle was an onlooker of the horrible abuse she was subjected to. Paul D tells Sethe the effect on Halle, noting that “Last time I saw him he was sitting by the churn. He had butter all over his face.” Interestingly, butter is made with milk as one of the main ingredients. I think this highlights that the pain of Sethe is a collective pain-a pain that is felt by many and seems to be an essential part (or average, everyday ingredient) of their life.

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One thought on “Nurturing Milk

  1. I was struck by the motif of “nurturing milk” as well, particularly the way Sethe relates to it, and the fact that she is proud of it and regards it with care. I think this displays her strength, choosing in dignity to find beauty and humanity in the one thing that everyone around her has fought so hard to dehumanize.

    Bringing this back into a more relevant sphere, I think of the movement that pushed women being free to go topless, “free the nipple” I believe, was the name of the shift. Seethe’s dignity was internal, not external. I think that’s what was so striking to me about the whole process. Curious to see what you all think of the contrast between the way in which Seethe looks at her milk and the world looks at it now.

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