There is something special about the writing of Toni Morrison right from the start – her first novel was ‘The Bluest Eye’ (1970). Hers is a distinctive voice that draws the reader in. She remains as popular today as when she wrote those first words filled with place and people and color: “…here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother. Father. Dick and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress…” It reads like something out of that ‘Dick and Jane’ reader from grade school. Then is all runs together into one perplexing Dick and Jane mess. Is it the American Dream unraveled?
Claudia tells the story. She and her sister Frieda. She tells the story of their eleven-year old friend Pecola Breedlove (an astonishing family name) who is carrying her father’s baby; a girl who believes she will only be beautiful if her eyes turn blue. Blue like those blue-eyed, blond, white children who are loved in America. She had no place to stay, so Pecola came to stay with their family – just for a few days until the county could decide what to do with her – until her family was reunited. Her father had “…burned up his house, gone upside his wife’s head, and everybody, as a result, was outdoors.” (Horror of horrors, as everyone knew, was to be left homeless).
“… all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” Here, as with ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the world is seen through the eyes of a child; except for that blur of Dick and Jane at the head of each chapter echoing like a prolonged scream down through the entire book. She talks about that doll in a way that proves she does not comprehend its value. She knows she is supposed to take it in her arms and hold it – but it is cold and lumpy and scratchy and makes that awful noise that is supposed to sound like ‘Mama’; but in reality all she wants to do is to tear the thing apart so she can get to the place where the secret of its beauty is found. But that, of course, is impossible.
‘The Bluest Eye’ did not receive the recognition the author thought it should, and in fact it took 25 years before it would.
‘Sula’ (1973) picks right up where ‘The Bluest Eye’ (and Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner…) left off. Here, the Medallion City Golf Course is displacing what was one a neighborhood. When black people lived in that neighborhood is was called the Bottom. It is now called the suburbs. The pool hall, the hair stylist, the grill, even the foot bridge over the river are coming down to make room for ‘progress’. Nothing will be left of the old neighborhood when they get done with it.
The Bottom was bottom land promised to a freed slave for some work he did – that’s the ‘bottom’ up in those hills. It was part of a little river town in Ohio that didn’t used to have a name. Nel was born to a manipulative mother and, “Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.”
On the other hand Hannah, Sula’s mother, “… never scolded or gave directions…” Their home was much more comfortable, with lots of people dropping in. Nel and Sula were friends growing up. They stood together. When a group of Irish boys started harassing them, Sula pulled out her mother’s paring knife and sliced the end of her finger to show them she meant business.
Nel got married and settled down with her husband and had three children. Sula, however, left the Bottoms and wandered around in America for ten years. There is something a little stilted and contrived about these early works (compared to her later works). People are catching fire and drowning but there is little emotional attachment, it seems. (Or is it as Flannery O’Connor said about this being the southern reality?) They are not as natural as her later books, ‘Song of Solomon’ (1977) and ‘Beloved’ (1987). Still, one can sense the storytelling mastery that is growing in her work.
‘Song of Solomon’ was cited in awarding its author the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Early on she writes, “Just goes to show, they murmured to each other, you never really do know about people.” That’s what people were saying when their insurance agent was up on the roof of Mercy Hospital getting ready to jump with flapping blue wings on. It was as true of him as it was of any other character in that novel. It is true of all the characters wandering the streets of anywhere right now. You just don’t know about people.
“The next day a colored baby was born inside Mercy for the first time.” This was Macon Dead III who would later become known as ‘Milkman’ because he was breastfed for so long his feet were “… touching the floor.”
The trouble is, not only do you not know about people; most of the time people do not even know about themselves. Milkman spends a great deal of time in this novel trying to discover who he is and just where he fits in the history of his people.
His best friend, Guitar, comes to believe Milkman has cheated him, and threatens several times to kill him. In ‘Song’ as in all her novels, Toni Morrison is confronting the long-term consequences of that peculiar institution – slavery. The effects of slavery have been deep and are passed on from generation to generation. And the high-point of her examinations reside in her next novel, ‘Beloved’. Some claim that ‘Song’ is a better novel than ‘Beloved’, but really the comparison elevates both – they are both that good. If one had to choose, ‘Beloved’ edges ‘Song’ out by a whisker.
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel ‘Beloved’, you see, is a culmination of this extraordinary writer’s life work and is extraordinary itself for that reason. “Sixty Million and more,” reads its epigraph. It is unclear exactly how many people died as a result of the slave trade in American history – the number could be much higher. The practice of slavery, the participation in it, the horror of it, has left a deep stain on American history. Can Americans ever truly face the past of witchcraft trials and the extermination of indigenous peoples, and the institution of slavery and the exploitation of workers and women and find repentance? Or will Americans, like so many others, indulge in a continued mass amnesia that allows forward motion into the future, without ever allowing for a change of direction? Well, if it is up to writers like Toni Morrison, no one will be allowed to forget.
In her Forward to ‘Beloved’ Morrison relates, in thumbnail fashion, the story of Margaret Garner, also known as Peggy, an escaped slave woman who killed her two year old daughter (and attempted to kill the others), to prevent her from being returned to slavery. She and her husband Robert escaped across the river from Kentucky and made it to the home of a relative near Cincinnati, Ohio. There, slave catchers and police cornered them. Garner killed her daughter with a butcher knife and was preparing to kill the others and herself when she was apprehended. Her case became a landmark for the Abolitionist movement and the opposition to the fugitive slave laws, (which forced the return of escaped slaves to their owners). It was also inspiration for ‘Beloved’.
‘Beloved’, then, is the story of an escaped slave woman, Sethe, who killed her daughter, Beloved. She now lives with her daughter Denver in the house at 124 Bluestone where the crime was committed and which is now haunted. Her boys, Howard and Buglar ran away from home at age thirteen, secretly fearing their mother might one day kill them as well.
Paul D, also a former slave, arrived one day and sees how things have stagnated there in that house. “What kind of evil you got in here?” he asked. Not evil, she assured him, but the strong presence of her long lost daughter. Still, Paul D sees it as his duty to bring them all back into the real world of solid and present events, leaving the past behind them where it belonged. He took them to a carnival over near Cincinnati. When they returned a young woman with a broken hat was there in front of the house. When asked her name she replied, “Beloved”. Then she spelled it out slowly. She slept four days, only sitting up to take some water.
“This girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he (Paul) couldn’t say exactly why, considering the colored-people he had run into during the last twenty years. During, before and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything. Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked at night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merry-makers.”
Who was this young creature with the babyish features and the new look about her? She could be the girl who had been locked up by a white man over Deer Creek way. Or could she be, could she possibly be the very daughter, killed by her mother’s hand, that they all wanted her to be – come back in some supernatural form? Or was she, somehow, the personification of all the horrors of all those years and years and years when white slave owners held captive and did as they pleased with black human beings who were their slaves?
There are times when a story is so full of truth that it simply is – it simply tells itself in a powerful way without the need of fancification or ornamentation. That is the story of Beloved. Whether or not that child that shows up at 124 Bluestone was the child that was killed, or some other, simply does not matter. She is the specter of the past that is very real and will not go away until it has somehow been ‘exorcised’ by the entire community.
The storytelling did not end with her Nobel Prize, either. Picking up ‘A Mercy’ (2008), the reader knows once again he or she is in the hands of a master storyteller. This novel takes place in the 1680’s America of the religious divisions, the class divisions, the prejudice and oppression of the early slave trade that was just beginning to take root. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer takes a small slave girl named Florens, in payment for a debt. He did not normally deal in ‘the flesh’. Florens has the hands of a slave but the feet of a Portuguese lady. Her feet are not tough enough to withstand the rigors of this world. She was a daughter that had been cast off by her mother in order to save her. (Looking back with Ms. Morrison, one wonders how anyone had the strength to withstand the rigors that early America required.)
John Updike wrote a review of ‘A Mercy’ (‘Dreamy Wilderness’ The New Yorker, November 3, 2008) in which he writes, “Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on.”
“… in time we come to comprehend that it is 1690 in Virginia, and that the narrator is a sixteen-year-old black girl called Florens, who was, at her mother’s plea, impulsively adopted, eight years ago, by a white proprietor (“Sir” to Forens), in partial settlement of a debt owed him by an insolvent slave owner from Portugal called “Senhor.”
Mr. Updike concludes with this observation: “Varied and authoritative and frequently beautiful though the language is, it circles around a vision, both turgid and static, of a new world turning old and poisoned from the start.”
Adapted from 'American Masters'. Copyright 2011 by James D. Sanderson.
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