We must look a sight, she thought, and closed her eyes to see it: the three women in the middle of the Clearing, at the base of the rock where Baby Suggs, holy, and loved. One seated, yielded up her throat to the kind hands of one of the two kneeling before her. […]
They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look or feel of the lips that kept on kissing. Then Sethe, grabbing Beloved's hair and blinking rapidly, separated herself. She later believed that it was because the girl's breath was exactly like new milk that she said to her, stern and frowning, "You too old for that." (9.98-100)
If you feel a little uncomfortable, you probably should. Beloved seems to be crossing all sorts of boundaries with Sethe. Not that you couldn't already tell from the rest of the book, but Beloved is clearly a taker, not a giver.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart. (9.10)
Baby's form of worship is pretty corporeal (meaning it involves the body). It's quite different from your standard church fun.
Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME's and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence. 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. (9.4)
Why are people so drawn to Baby Suggs' spiritual community? What makes it different from a church?
The successful ones—the ones who had been there enough years to have maimed, mutilated, maybe even buried her—kept watch over the others who were still in her cock-teasing hug, caring and looking forward, remembering and looking back. They were the ones whose eyes said, "Help me, 's bad"; or "Look out," meaning this might be the day I bay or eat my own mess or run, and it was this last that had to be guarded against, for if one pitched and ran—all, all forty-six, would be yanked by the chain that bound them and no telling who or how many would be killed. A man could risk his own life, but not his brother's. So the eyes said, "Steady now," and "Hang by me." (10.14)
Being on a chain gang means a community is forced upon you. After all, everything you do affects the other men you're with.
It made them furious. They swallowed baking soda, the morning after, to calm the stomach violence caused by the bounty, the reckless generosity on display at 124. Whispered to each other in the yards about fat rats, doom and uncalled-for pride.
The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air. (15.13-14)
Why do the townspeople disapprove of Baby Suggs's party? Was Baby Suggs wrong for throwing such a big shindig?
Some brought what they could and what they believed would work. Stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith—as shield and sword. Most brought a little of both. They had no idea what they would do once they got there. They just started out, walked down Bluestone Road and came together at the agreed-upon time. The heat kept a few women who promised to go at home. Others who believed the story didn't want any part of the confrontation and wouldn't have come no matter what the weather. And there were those like Lady Jones who didn't believe the story and hated the ignorance of those who did. So thirty women made up that company and walked slowly, slowly toward 124. (26.132)
This town may not fight for its right to party, but it definitely knows how to band together for the bad stuff. Especially when the bad is someone (or something) from outside the community.
Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind. Alone. Again. Then Denver, running too. Away from her to the pile of people out there. They make a hill. A hill of black people, falling. And above them all, rising from his place with a whip in his hand, the man without skin, looking. (26.146)
Despite what it may seem, this isn't a scene out of the (slave) past; it's a sign of what's coming: an exorcism of the past, Beloved, and the memory of slavery. But because Beloved is of the past, she can only view things from that perspective.
For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had stood in the doorway. For Sethe it was as though the Clearing had come to her with all its heat and simmering leaves, where the voices of women searched the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash. (26.144)
Beloved isn't pushy about faith and religion, but it does give us a pretty radical way of thinking about religious community. In this novel, it's all about women coming together. Are there any religions that follow this pattern today?
They forgot her like a bad dream. After they made up their tales, shaped and decorated them, those that saw her that day on the porch quickly and deliberately forgot her. It took longer for those who had spoken to her, lived with her, fallen in love with her, to forget, until they realized they couldn't remember or repeat a single thing she said, and began to believe that, other than what they themselves were thinking, she hadn't said anything at all. So, in the end, they forgot her too. Remembering seemed unwise. (28.4)
It takes a village to create (or uncreate) history.