I Waiting Until the Cows Come Home: Male Sexuality in Toni Morrison’s "Beloved."
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Editor's Note: Last fall I took a class on neo-slave narratives. Here is an essay I wrote on Toni Morrison's novel Beloved.
Beloved presents an array of situations examining the effects of slavery on enslaved individuals whether it’s trauma, broken families, disrupted communities, or sexuality. Toni Morrison’s exploration of slavery’s impact on the male sexuality of the enslaved males at Sweet Home raises questions about male desire and the objectification of an enslaved person’s body.
One of the features of Beloved that makes it such a powerful examination of slavery is its often brutally depiction of humanity’s baser natures, whether it is the desire for power or pure lust. Here, Morrison depicts the enslaved men of Sweet Home satisfying their sexual desire by having sexual relations with cows. Such acts seem against previous depictions of the men of Sweet Home as “real men,” but a deeper reading suggests there is a certain nobility to the men, a nobility that arises despite the dehumanizing aspects of slavery. As I will show, there is a line these men will not cross (raping a woman), regardless of what it costs them to do so.
Slave narratives rarely deal with the sexuality of the enslaved, another element of the enslaved’s lives that can and is explored in neo-slave narratives. Beloved allows readers a chance to see not only sexual practices, but more importantly, how these sexual practices were affected by being enslaved.
This is interwoven with slavery’s objectification of enslaved bodies. In his article, "Reading rigor mortis: offstage violence and excluded middles 'in' Johnson's 'Middle Passage' and Morrison's 'Beloved.' (authors Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison),” Vincent O’Keefe examines the dehumanization of the enslaved and slaveholders, examining the objectification of enslaved bodies. One means of analysis is through the depiction of characters’ sexuality and whether they objectify others in order to fulfill their lusts.
A prime example is the depiction of the enslaved men on Mr. Garner’s farm (“Sweet Home”). Here, Garner prizes his enslaved men, calling them men and boasting to other slaveholders, “’Y’all got boys,’ he told them, ‘Young boys, old boys, picky boys, stroppin boys. Now at Sweet Home, my niggers is men, every one of them. Bought em that way, raised em that away. Men, every one’” (Morrison 12). Garner’s men are tested when Sethe arrives at Sweet Home as the young woman provides them an opportunity to fulfill their sexual desires. The men at Sweet Home are depicted as having strong sexual desires, “They were young and so sick with the absence of women they had taken to calves” (Morrison 12). Indeed, Sixo, one of the Sweet Home men makes a 30-mile journey for a sexual tryst (Morrison 29), putting himself at tremendous risk while he is absent and uncertain how to meet with his romantic partner, Patsy (aka “The Thirty-Mile Woman”). Morrison’s frank description is tempered by another option the men had—sexually assaulting Sethe. However, Morrison paints a picture of the men’s restraint, “Yet they let the iron-eyed girl be, so she could choose in spite of the fact that each one would have beaten the others to mush to have her” (12) and she makes it a point to state the men’s patience, “A year of yearning, when rape seemed the solitary gift of life” (12). Mr. Garner’s Sweet Home men are no animals, unlike the so-called men who assault Sethe after School Teacher has taken control of Sweet Home.
Critic Rebecca Balon observes Sethe’s courtship:
The fact that she will make a choice and that it will signal an entry into heterosexual monogamy is a foregone conclusion given that Sweet Home is constructed by the master as a place where slave identity can be provisionally human, and that construction of “humanity” relies on heterosexual monogamy (Balon 144)
While it can rightfully be argued the Sweet Home men rape the cows to fulfill their sexual desire, they degrade themselves so they will not degrade themselves even further (or Sethe) by raping her.While the Sweet Home men satisfy their sexual desires with farm animals, that is not their only option. The men could engage in homosexual acts. Balon notes how the Sweet Home men prefer bestiality to homosexuality, finding sexual gratification among cows rather than each other.
Homosexuality is a lifestyle Morrison appears to present as a viable option in Beloved. Consider Balon’s reading that:…the plot does not necessitate the reading that the women have homosexual interactions with each other, the richly suggestive language that describes their infatuations with each other adds homoeroticism to the web of perverse, nonnormative sexualities Beloved weaves” (147).Thus, homosexuality does not take place, but the book’s homoerotic moments make it clear it is part of the story’s world.
Like Dana in Kindred, the Sweet Home men seem unwilling to cross a certain line in terms of what they will allow to be done with their bodies, in this case homosexuality. This invites further analysis in terms of criticism involving feminist theory and queer theory. How is Morrison’s depiction of the Sweet Home men influenced by her gender and how would this passage be analyzed using queer theory? These questions relate to the issue of slavery’s dehumanizing effects including the objectification of an enslaved person’s body.
Balon, Rebecca. "Kinless or Queer: The Unthinkable Queer Slave in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History." African American Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 2015, pp. 141-155. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/afa.2015.0011
O'Keefe, Vincent A. "Reading rigor mortis: offstage violence and excluded middles 'in' Johnson's 'Middle Passage' and Morrison's 'Beloved.' (authors Charles Johnson and Toni Morrison)." African American Review, vol. 30, no. 4, 1996, p. 635+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.proxy.buffalostate.edu/apps/doc/A19420314/AONE?u=buffalostate&sid=AONE&xid=209caea4. Accessed 24 Sept. 2018.