For my past seven semesters here at Geneseo, I have approached settling into my classes for the most part in the same way, with small variations as I advanced in my college career. Things like memorizing my class schedule, picking my “unassigned assigned” seat, deciding how to feel best prepared for each class, and so on. Now, three weeks into my final semester at Geneseo, one thing that has been made abundantly clear to me is how strongly I relied on found communities within my clubs and classes to ensure a successful semester. More specifically, a community within a classroom environment has been invaluable to me. Most commonly, my classmates and I may have a different reading of the text which in my experience requires trust on behalf of both parties that neither will intentionally act in bad faith. As a result of these found communities, I have established relationships that have kept me grounded throughout my college career which were particularly helpful during the pandemic and as we transitioned back into the in-person format. In this regard I would go on to say that pillars of community rely on trust to take care of each other. As I reflect on the communities that have impacted my life and my college career, I think it’s only fitting that we explore the communities that we witness throughout Toni Morrison’s novel: Beloved.
Despite House 124’s first depiction being “spiteful” (3), the audience learns that prior to the death of Beloved, the house served as the center of the community. At 124, the main way they interacted with their community revolved around the feasts and the labor of meals. For example, the audience follows Stamp Paid as he makes a treacherous journey to get blackberries for Baby Suggs: “He walked six miles to the riverbank… Scratched, raked and bitten, he maneuvered through and took hold of each berry.” (160). Here, the reader recognizes that Stamp Paid has risked his safety and well-being for the berries, and as several of my peers pointed out during in-class discussion, Stamp’s act of sharing the berries was incredibly nurturing, selfless, and neighborly. Luckily, Baby Suggs was thankful for his efforts so, “She had decided to do something with the fruit worthy of the man’s labor and his love.” (160). Through Baby Suggs, Morrison effectively conflates the act of labor to love, and thus, it was something that should be shared, just as Stamp Paid had done. This act of labor from Stamp Paid not only fed 90 people but it strengthened their community: “124, rocking with laughter…Giving advice, healing the sick, hiding fugitives, cooking, cooking, loving…” (161). What began as sharing love, transformed house 124 into a literal safe haven for members in their community. During these feasts, their comfort with each other encouraged them to be vulnerable, express their problems and receive advice – just as they would do for others. The community began to rely on each other for food, advice and joy. However, this sense of community at 124 was short-lived.
As the community flourished, the envy of some of its members caused an irreparable rift. While most of the community members appreciated the abundance of their feasts, a select few became envious: “Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess.” (163). The envious members maintained this position that Baby Suggs for one reason or another was not deserving of the abundance that she had, and consequently shared. And it was that envious attitude that can be identified as the direct cause for the death of Beloved, and thus the dissolution of the community. In that, if you excessively talk negatively about someone – consciously or not, you will act or fail to act on behalf of those feelings. The community of 124 was no different as they failed to warn Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid that the four horsemen had returned looking for Sethe. As Stamp Paid recounted the death of Beloved to Paul D, the audience learns why Stamp Paid couldn’t stop Sethe: “Not anybody ran down or to Bluestone Road, to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in…Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special” (184-85). Here, we see that gone unchecked, the envy of some within the community prevented the saving of Beloved.
Although most of the novel centers around 124, Morrison is deliberate in demonstrating other communities to the audience through Paul D. He formed a community with 45 other enslaved men after he tried to kill Brandywine. While community typically has a positive connotation, in reality, that is not always the case. Sometimes, you build bonds of trust as a means of survival in situations that you are otherwise forced to be. In the case of Paul D, he was chained together with 45 men, so they needed to rely on each other. Here, the men were so in-tune with each other that they were able to communicate with their eyes: “They were the ones whose eyes said, ‘Help me, ‘s bad’… A man could risk his own life, but not his brother’s. So the eyes said, ‘Steady now,’ and ‘Hang by me.’” (128-29). As I researched the etymology of community and communication, it was no surprise that they both originate from the word “common,” but this just affirms to the audience how vital communication is to a community. Here, the men relied on their communication to keep each other alive. On the other hand, if anybody from the community at 124 had warned Baby Suggs about the arrival of the four horsemen, Beloved could have been saved. As we move forward in the semester and the novel, I look forward to exploring how communication may work to save communities, just as communication eventually freed the 46 chained men.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention the found Community or relationship between Denver and Beloved and its relation to Dante. As a result of her sister’s murder, she and Sethe were essentially isolated from the rest of the world, “I can’t live here…Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by.” (17). It is only when Beloved returns that Denver feels she finally has a companion who she cares for in house 124, “Denver tended her, and, out of love and a breakneck possessiveness hid…Beloved’s incontinence” (64). Immediately following her sister’s arrival, Denver was protective but also kept Beloved’s secret which involves layers of trust and intimacy often found in a community. However, when there is an exchange of trust between people, there is an opportunity for betrayal. As demonstrated in the chart of Dante’s Inferno, the ninth circle of Hell, also known as Cocytus, contains “Caina,” otherwise known as betrayers of kin. Following 18 years of solitude, Denver is incredibly attached, and even feels a sense of ownership over Beloved, so the mere thought of Beloved leaving her causes her to become upset. Upon losing her in the shed, and between tough swallows, Denver says, “Don’t. Don’t go back…I thought you left me. I thought you went back.” (145). Considering that Denver and Beloved are one of only pairs of siblings, I believe we are on the threshold of an upcoming betrayal between the two of them. My beliefs are confirmed even more when we consider Cocytus, the ninth circle of Hell, which Dante depicts as a lake of ice. Similarly, Morrison depicts a scene where Beloved, Denver and Sethe all venture out to skate on the ice near 124: “Holding hands, bracing each other, they swirled over the ice. Beloved…Denver… step-gliding over the treacherous ice.” (205). This scene shows them recklessly skating over the dangerous ice which signals to me that they are again dangerously close and have arrived at the threshold of betrayal.
On the thresholds of this class, my hope is that I can continue my tradition of establishing a community built on trust with my peers. As we saw with the communities from 124, with Paul D and between Beloved and Denver, they rely on each other’s vulnerability. And as Morrison depicts, the communities that thrived were the ones who communicated with each other. Being that this is only my second Morrison novel, I am excited to see how the other communities within the novel and the trilogy unfold as she continues to make intricate connections to Dante.