The "Unchurched Preacher"
Baby Suggs is that person you go to with all of your deep, scary problems—the kind of problems you can't tell your parents or even your best friend.
She's the all-loving earth mother/therapist/pastor, "the unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it […] Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence" (9.87). Notice all those "un"s? They seem to be the key to Baby Suggs character.
The reason people like going to Baby Suggs with their issues is because she lives outside of the institutions that define typical, daily life—especially religious institutions. She's not opposed to them; she just includes everyone and everything so much that no religious institution could ever keep her.
In fact, everyone follows Baby Suggs like she's the leader of her own congregation, only her church is Nature, i.e. the Clearing:
When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing—a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees. (9.87)
Even Baby's house (which is actually Bodwins') is "un"town-like: it sits on the border between the town and the woods, which means Baby Suggs gets to live at a distance from all the social rules and standards that dictate town-living. You know, the stuff that defines high school (and, sometimes, life after high school): gossiping, stares, rumors, cliques. She's above all of that: "Talk was low and to the point—for Baby Suggs, holy, didn't approve of extra" (9.87).
You go to Baby Suggs with real problems, not with your stories about so-and-so.
Baby Suggs's 124
Maybe it's because Baby Suggs makes her house into a no-gossip zone—a place where people can really unburden themselves and find acceptance—that people also pass through 124 like it's party central:
124 had been a cheerful, buzzing house where Baby Suggs, holy, loved, cautioned, fed, chastised, and soothed. Where not one but two pots simmered on the stove; where the lamp burned all night long. Strangers rested there while children tried on their shoes. Messages were left there, for whoever needed them was sure to stop in one day soon. (9.86-87)
Way different than the 124 that greets us at the beginning of the book, right? That's the power of Baby Suggs. She can make a lonely house on the outskirts of town the place to be.
With that kind of popularity and zest for life, you've got to wonder why then-Baby Suggs is so different from the Baby Suggs we read about at the beginning of the book, the Baby Suggs, who,
[s]uspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead […] couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys [Harold and Buglar]. Her past had been like her present—intolerable—and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color. (1.4-5)
What a downer, right? So, what happened?
The obvious answer: Sethe killed her baby girl in Baby Suggs's shed. Because of that day, Baby Suggs loses the will to live like before; she shuts her house to the townspeople and stops going to the Clearing.
To Stamp Paid, it has to do with her loss of faith in God:
[H]e thought she was ashamed and too shamed to say so. Her authority in the pulpit, her dance in the Clearing, her powerful Call (she didn't deliver sermons or preach—insisting she was too ignorant for that—she called and the hearing heard)—all that had been mocked and rebuked by the bloodspill in her backyard. God puzzled her and she was too ashamed of him to say so. (19.176-177)
Sure, Baby Suggs suffers a profound change in faith after Sethe's day at the shed. But there's more to Baby Suggs's depression than just Sethe.
Baby Suggs, the Slave
Baby Suggs had some major stuff going on even before she ever got to 124. And it's that Baby Suggs who reappears after Sethe's act—the Baby Suggs whom the Garners name Jenny.
That Baby Suggs is beyond depressed—after all, what else are you supposed to feel when you're born into slavery and have no clue where all except one your children are? Even though her life at Sweet Home is a "marked improvement" compared to the other places in her past, "a sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home" (15.140).
Sound familiar? Yep—that "desolated center" is a lot like the description of the Clearing, only this "desolated center" is inside of Baby Suggs, and it's definitely not a cheery place.
But it's also one of those qualities that allow Baby Suggs to be who she is once she does get to 124: non-judgmental, all-inclusive, all-loving. She has the capacity to open her heart up to anyone since she pretty much has no ego and no family around her (until Sethe comes).Baby Suggs' Timeline