Margaret Garner – Protective Mother/Murdering Mother

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea “Margaret Garner”.

Few people would disagree if I said that there could not be a worse mother than a mother who murders her children.  A mother’s job is to protect, surely?

But what if you have been bred into slavery and have children, quite possibly by your white master who rapes you whenever it is convenient to him?  What if that master takes you on working trips to areas like Cincinatti where slavery is no longer legal and you feel on your skin the fresh air of freedom?  What if you escape slavery only to have officials raid the safe house with warrants to take you back?

Perhaps you too would take your children to a quiet room and attempt to give yourself and
them the only freedom you could – death.

In 1856 Margaret Garner was successful in slitting the throat of her two-year-old daughter and injuring her other children.  Two years later she died of typhoid fever.  She was never a free woman.  

It was while reading Beloved at The University of Leeds that I fell in love with the magical realist writing of Toni Morrison and also learned about Margaret Garner.  Much of Morrison’s poignant and haunting novel, that filters the collective experience of the tail-end of African American slavery into the story of one family, was based on Garner’s life.

It is no surprise that such a tragedy, coming as public opinion was penduluming in favour of abolition has been mythologised by various artists and even made into an opera, for which Morrison wrote the libretto.

One of the poems in my pamphlet that explores the theme of the protective mother depicts a pregnant woman fleeing domestic abuse:

I will go barefoot there, barebellied,
cup you like the future with both hands.
He won’t notice,
not until the salt is in my hair
and we are together in the
bluegreen of the gull cry.
(Becky Cherriman, ‘Urchin’, Echolocation)

Cathy Bryant read and commended this poem in the Mother’s Milk Writing Prize 2015:

The protagonist has suffered domestic abuse and is taking her baby to commit suicide. Yet this isn’t a bleak poem, somehow — the wonderful sea images are exquisite: ‘glimpsed worlds in the/full hollow of her stiff skirts’, and the joining of the drowning pair — ‘…together in the/bluegreen of the gull cry’ is a triumph — though the reader longs to save them.’

This hadn’t been my intention but I was not put out by her reading.  Bryant understands that in an extreme situation, a mother’s protective instinct for a child can lead her to take the most drastic action possible.  Margaret Garner did the best she felt she could in a social environment unfit for human existence.  As a mother, every tissue and organ in my body screams out at the thought of murdering a child.  I’m not sure I would ever have the courage to do what Garner did, nor if I could ever justify killing a child but I do understand and it is not a small part of me that admires her for it.


Image licensed under PD-US via Wikipedia –
Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

Workshop News

A Firm of Poets have been given a residency at The Hepworth Wakefield to celebrate the photography of Martin Parr.  They have lots of exciting things planned.  I will be running a drop in workshop for them on the evening of Thursday 18th February.  Do drop me a line if you think you can come along.  Find details at The Hepworth Wakefield

Upcoming Readings

Echolocation poetry pamphlet – Nottingham launch on Weds 24th February 2016
Echolocation poetry pamphlet – Leeds launch on Sun 28th February 2016

4 responses to “Margaret Garner – Protective Mother/Murdering Mother”

  1. Gill Lambert avatar
    Gill Lambert

    The poem with arsenic as a theme in ‘My Dear Watson – The Very Elements of Poetry’ springs to.mind. I don’t have my book here so can’t say who wrote it. Not sure whether you’ve read it, Becky?

    1. beckycherriman avatar

      I have now. It’s fantastic. So haunting. Janet Rogerson. I’m embarrassed to confess I’m only beginning to dip in since your comment. I like your poem too, Gill.

  2. Gill Lammmbert avatar
    Gill Lammmbert

    Thanks Becky. I love yours . and yes of course, Janet

    1. beckycherriman avatar

      Thank you, Gill. Hope to see you soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *