A lot of literary characters meet their end by drowning—and in fact, so have a lot of authors. However, if a character falls (or otherwise gets drenched) in water before reemerging, this constitutes a kind of rebirth. Not only has the character emerged alive, they are “alive all over again.” A symbolic baptism has taken place.
Some aspects of religion have a particularly resonant poetic or psychological power. This is true of baptism, which is why it appears so frequently in literature. Although religious baptism is very specific, symbolic baptism represents rebirth more generally, and is arguably something we all undergo as we grow and develop.
In Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Milkman gets wet three times, an allusion to the form of Christian baptism in which the person is submerged three times in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. He emerges from the experience a better man, a fact that highlights the link between baptism and character development. Beloved, meanwhile, is filled with baptism imagery, illustrating the power of water to signify new life and the boundary between good and evil.
In making such frequent use of baptism imagery, Morrison is not necessarily trying to convey a Christian message to her reader (that is, she is not trying to convince the reader of the truth of Christianity). Rather, her use of baptism corresponds to the fact that she is writing from within and about the African-American community, for whom Christianity plays a large cultural and historical role.
Foster is not claiming that every time a character gets wet it is a form of baptism—remember, “always” and “never” are ideas to avoid in literary study—but that readers should look for clues that a symbolic rebirth has taken place. Drowning, meanwhile, has its own set of symbolic implications. In African American literature, drowning is often linked to the Middle Passage—the mysterious, treacherous, and hellish journey across the Atlantic during which many African slaves were thrown overboard either dead or alive. The Middle Passage has itself taken on mythic associations within literature, representing the unknown and the world of the dead.
Here Foster shows that a given symbol can have both universal and particular meanings, and that these can work in tandem. Generally, drowning is associated with suffering, mystery, and death. Drowning during the Middle Passage, while it still represents those things, has further connotations specific to the reality of slavery. These include the extreme sense of the unknown created by the fact that few records exist of the Middle Passage from slaves’ perspective.