Paul D: Manhood, Mass Incarceration, and a Great American Myth

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On its surface, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison is a work of historical fiction, bringing to life the situations and characters present in a world readers can only imagine. However, many of the problems Sethe, Paul D, and Denver face throughout the novel are still relevant, albeit in distorted or evolved forms. Even when Paul D had nothing to lose, he continued to experience loss, well past the breaking point of most individuals. He was robbed of his youth, his family, his friends, his freedom, and even his manhood. In many ways, he is the character most comparable to the twenty-first century. Paul D has nothing, and the system in place works tirelessly to keep him destitute and alone. After all of his hardships, the fact that he is still capable of feeling at all is itself an act of rebellion.

From his first introduction, Paul D is “the last of the Sweet Home men” (Morrison 7). The epithet is accurate, to the best of the characters’ knowledge, but is not a simple phrase by any means. Paul D does not look back at his time with anything close to true fondness: “It wasn’t sweet and it sure wasn’t home” (16). Sweet Home is a gross misnomer, but it was still the closest Paul D came to a family for most of his life. Before it was torn apart by the arrival of schoolteacher, he had two brothers, two friends he respected, and a master that treated them like men. It complicates the memories of the place, as Sethe says, “it’s where we were . . . All together” (16). At Sweet Home, Paul D felt like a man until schoolteacher came with his “pseudo-scientific ledgers, which transform feeling flesh into dead specimens of science and machines of (re)production” (Dobbs 564). The torture of schoolteacher threw off the balance of life at Sweet Home, and now Paul D is the last of them. But being “the last of the Sweet Home men” is almost bittersweet (Morrison 7). Paul D does have positive, if not fond, memories of being together with his found-family, and he obviously misses them. However, it is more complicated than missing a family that is gone.

When at Sweet Home with Mr. Garner, Paul D felt like a man. Later, after experiencing more of the world and after experiencing something close to freedom, “he wondered how much difference there really was before schoolteacher and after” (Morrison 260). Garner called them men, but he could have “changed his mind,” “took the word away” at any time, and they could have done nothing about it (260). Paul D can’t decide what it means to rely on someone else to decide on his manhood. They weren’t tortured physically, but when Mrs. Garner was widowed and needed money, she sold Paul D’s brother. Considering themselves men didn’t change the fact that someone else was in charge. Being “the last of the Sweet Home men” isn’t just bittersweet because he misses the people he loved (7). It is bittersweet because he must question even the relatively good times with Mr. Garner. It took schoolteacher’s calculated and inhumane treatment for the Pauls to question their place at Sweet Home, and even then, they were unsure what the right decision would be. Paul D realizes that he should have questioned their life more; he is appalled that he may have remained content to stay at Sweet Home with his brothers, “isolated in a wonderful lie, dismissing Halle’s and Baby Suggs’ life before Sweet Home as bad luck” (260). They were “isolated,” hopeful, and convinced that Mr. Garner respected them in a way that meant something. In the end, the idea and promise of Sweet Home was a lie, and Paul D is the only one around, unable to learn if the other men had already known this.

Eighteen years passed between Paul D leaving Sweet Home and meeting Sethe at 124, none of them easy. During those years, Paul D experienced almost every kind of brutal treatment possible. The trauma lodged in the “tobacco tin lodged in his chest” (Morrison 133). He couldn’t easily talk about his experiences, and nobody was around who could fully understand. In order to survive, he repressed the memories and feelings associated with the torture.

Sethe did not understand why Paul D had not talked to Halle the last time he saw him. Paul D’s response is simple: “I had a bit in my mouth” (82). Like “the last of the Sweet Home men,” this simple sentence conveys mental and physical torment that is easy to picture, yet hard to comprehend (7). Sethe acknowledges that even she can only partly understand, having only seen the effects of such treatment, never experiencing it herself: “There ain’t no wildness in your eye nowhere” (84). Treating people like animals, taking away the control and the humanity of speaking, gives people nothing else to lose. The plantation owners were deliberately trying to take away the humanity of enslaved people: “There is some comfort . . . in attributing the sheer brutality of slavery to dumb racism. We imagine pain being inflicted somewhat at random, doled out by the stereotypical white overseer . . . But a good many overseers weren’t allowed to whip at will . . . It was not so much the rage of the poor white Southerner but the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was neither arbitrary nor gratuitous. It was rational, capitalistic, all part of the plantation’s design” (Desmond).

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Like schoolteacher’s book of notes, documenting the ‘human’ and ‘animal’ qualities, forcing Paul D to wear a bit was a deliberate choice, taking away his autonomy and belittling his idea of manhood. In his response to Sethe, Paul D admits, “There’s a way to put it there and there’s a way to take it out. I know em both and I haven’t figured out yet which is worse” (Morrison 84).

The chain gain Paul D spent 86 days on what took out the “wildness” the bit gave him (84). Paul D’s experience in Alfred, George takes place prior to emancipation, but these work crews became more common in the years after the end of slavery. From her place of privilege, Scarlett O’Hara from ‘Gone with the Wind’ sums up the appeal of chain gains and similar enterprises, “I could sublease them for next to nothing and feed them dirt cheap. And he said I could get work out of them in any way I liked, without having the Freedman's Bureau swarming down on me like hornets, sticking their bills into things that aren't any of their business” (Mitchell 690). The end of slavery did not end capitalism’s need for cheap or free labor. The increased exploitation of incarcerated people started with the end of slavery, when people like Scarlett no longer had access to enslaved people to keep prices of goods cheap. Even in the false, idealized Southern world of Gone with the Wind, Scarlett was judged for employing prisoners, because some of them were white. During just this short speech, there is no indication that the “them” Scarlett is talking about are people at all (690). They could be horses, for all Scarlett cares.

Living his life in the box of the chain gain took the wild from Paul D, but it broke him in other ways. He started to tremble the moment they took him away from Sweet Home, and on the gang, it just got worse: “Locked up and chained down, his hands shook so bad he couldn’t smoke or even scratch properly” (21). He was not any freer at Sweet Home than in Alfred, Georgia, but the box was too much of a constant reminder. It was so bad that the physical labor was preferable, in a state where workers like Paul D were unlikely to live more than 5 years after they started (Childs 272). His torment was so bad that he was “Grateful for the daylight spent doing mule work in a quarry because he did not tremble when he had a hammer in his hands” (Morrison 49). Paul D’s white oppressors took every opportunity to treat him like an animal. A bit was forced on him, and a collar. He slept in a box, and was chained to do work. The use of his hands is taken away from him, regardless of the secondary nature of this reaction. Even his work he describes as “mule work” (49). It is unsurprising, once he gains his freedom, that he is ill at ease with the comforts of human life. He latches on to small things to retain the humanity locked away for so long.

Despite everything Paul D has gone through, he remains determined to function as a man. Partially, he does this through repression and the “tobacco tin lodged in his chest”, but his subtler method of dealing with his trauma is through song (Morrison 133). Early on in his stay at 124, Sethe refers to him as “a singing man” (48). More than just a simple pastime, singing is necessary for Paul D to keep a semblance of normalcy in this life. Through song, Paul D is able to begin to break the walls he has built up around the painful memories of Sweet Home and the chain gain. It is slow process, and at first he can sing “Nothing like what they sang at Sweet Home” (48). Peter Capuano hypothesizes in his article about the narrative of slave songs, specifically in Morrison’s Beloved: “Song offers slaves the opportunity to express their personal testimonies while remaining within the framework of their larger cultural experiences—all without actually speaking of their shame and trauma” (96). Instead of directly talking about their feelings and experiences, singing offers the chance to speak metaphorically and indirectly. When joining in with others, it offers a way to speak and share without completely breaking down, especially when in front of white guards.

Morrison agrees with Capuano, showing how men in Alfred, Georgia worked through their trauma together: “They sang of bosses and masters and misses; of mules and dogs and the shamelessness of life . . . They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time . . . they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on. Making them think the next sunrise would be worth it” (Morrison 128).

These 46 men experienced life in a way that were uniquely terrible, yet equally unsurprising. They were treated as less than human, and when they eventually lashed out, talked back, or got framed for disobedience, they were sent to somewhere unimaginably worse, sleeping in cages, silently relying on each other to survive. Each could have given up on his own, talked back to a guard or refused to work, but they persevered. Life had tricked them into believing better days were ahead, but none of them were quite ready to give up hope.

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Paul D: Manhood, Mass Incarceration, and a Great American Myth. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Paul D: Manhood, Mass Incarceration, and a Great American Myth.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
Paul D: Manhood, Mass Incarceration, and a Great American Myth. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 26 May 2024].
Paul D: Manhood, Mass Incarceration, and a Great American Myth [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2024 May 26]. Available from:

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