— the character Violet Trace in Jazz
I BEGIN THIS ESSAY on Toni Morrison’s 11 novels with a personal confession, if that’s the right word. I find it harder, as I get older, to hear children cry. Usually, perhaps in part to protect ourselves, we dismiss the crying of children as unimportant because the things they cry about are trivial, as they would understand if only they weren’t children. But of course, they are children, they don’t understand, and that is the whole point. Lacking the ability to put matters in perspective, they understand only the hurt they feel, which, while it lasts, defines their existence, and against which they are defenseless. Lacking, for example, the word “betrayal,” they nevertheless often feel betrayed, and their inability to say so makes them cry all the harder. Lacking the understanding that the hurt they feel will end soon (assuming it will), they know only that their world has suddenly become a world of pain, permanently for all they know. Of course, the hurt usually ends soon — or does it? And they forget all about it — or do they really? Do we?
Becoming adults and raising children reveals the key difference, arguably the only difference, between these two groups: one wears a disguise. Often the disguise is not very convincing. We are, all of us, walking maps of the hurts we have suffered, whether we are conscious of those hurts or — possibly worse — not. In the world of these hurts, as in the world of dreams, time means little or nothing. It is not quite accurate to say that we constantly relive these hurts because to relive, to redo, to re-anything implies that at some point we have stopped.
That brings me to Toni Morrison’s novels. The near-nonagenarian has said more than once that she writes about and for black people, and if others respond to her books, great. Her novels are concerned largely with the past, with communities, and with characters’ often painful memories, the rehashing of which makes up so much of their present lives that the present and the past are difficult to distinguish, if in fact they are different to begin with. Together, the books constitute something like a black collective memory — a fictional one, of course, but one that holds up a mirror to its real-life counterpart; and because Morrison is a black person addressing other blacks — fellow sharers of this memory — she does not explain seminal past events, at least not initially, and, seemingly, not even on purpose. Those events are glimpsed at and referred to via fragments, which make sense only when they are repeated and join other fragments in that carefully, exquisitely disordered way of Morrison’s that does not so much form a narrative as reveal an eternal happening, a past that is one with the present. These fragments are units of obsession, bits of experience chewed like gristle but never reduced, swallowed but never digested — points on a chart of psychic pain (to mix metaphors) that is not limited to, but certainly begins with childhood. And if black America is viewed as a collective whole, then its childhood is defined by — its birth enabled by — the biggest hurt of them all.
Slavery is the black American Big Bang, unobservable yet ever-present, the source of all the hurt that followed, from second-class citizenship to self-hatred. Small wonder that, in creating her black universe, Morrison wrote four novels concerned to one extent or another with slavery’s legacy — The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981) — before writing a novel that deals with slavery itself, Beloved (1987), probably her most celebrated work. Maybe it is no coincidence that Beloved is the work in which Morrison raised to its highest level the art of gradually assembling fragments, as the characters struggle to reconcile themselves to what has been done to them and what they have done in response. The hell of it is that if the terrible things visited on the people in this fictional black universe are wrong, then so is the hurt they pass on, whether they pass it on out of hate, or ostensibly out of love, or out of fear, or longing, or some hopelessly tangled mix of some or all of these — and much of what the great collective black mind churns and rehashes and continuously inhabits is its own culpability, particularly in the harming of its children.
In Beloved, which was inspired by real-life events, a woman escapes slavery and then, cornered by slave catchers, kills her small child rather than see her in bondage. In Sula, a woman burns her grown, war-damaged son to death because she feels he is, metaphorically speaking, trying to reenter her womb. In A Mercy (2008), a slave woman urges a white man to purchase her own daughter and take her away because anywhere is better than where they are. In Home (2012), a troubled war veteran, arguably the most sympathetic of all Morrison’s characters, recalls killing a young Korean girl because she aroused his desire. In God Help the Child (2015), a light-skinned woman keeps an emotional distance from her dark-skinned daughter under the willful delusion that she is preparing the girl to face the world.
Slavery is the primal hurt, and the fragmented nature of Morrison’s storytelling may be seen as a reflection of the primal nature of her subjects. To speak in a fragment that is not understood, that in fact has no meaning for the hearer, is what the first humans must have done. Repetition of those fragments, and the act of joining those fragments with others, is the beginning of a language — and in her at-first-fragmentary approach to storytelling, Morrison has constructed a language adapted to the needs of a people who of necessity live at once in the present and the past. The animating spirit of her novels — that forked lightning present all at once across time — lights from within the areas of black experience she explores. And just as several of her novels have one-word titles that refer to concepts — Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), Home (2012) — those areas of exploration might themselves inspire such one-word titles:
Flesh. So much of psychic scarring involves wounds to one’s dignity and pride, and perhaps the ultimate threat to one’s dignity is lack of ownership of one’s body, lack of control over what happens to it — the condition, if not the definition, of slavery. To read Morrison’s novels in succession is, among other things, to witness her fixation on her characters’ bodies, her documentation of those bodies’ features. This documentation can be seen as a reclaiming of the bodies in this black American universe — from the merely noticeable (the size of Shadrack’s hands in Sula, the size of Son’s hands in Tar Baby, Hagar’s “very very long” fingernails in Song of Solomon, Joe Trace’s different-colored eyes in Jazz, the shape of Mavis’s nails in Paradise) to the deformed (the uneven lengths of Milkman’s legs in Song of Solomon, Heed Cosey’s disfigured hands in Love, Eva’s mysteriously missing leg in Sula) to the supernatural (the reappearance in the flesh of the murdered title character in Beloved, the de-aging of Bride’s body in God Help the Child, Milkman’s ability to fly at the end of Song of Solomon) to the simply bizarre (the missing or invisible navels of Pilate in Song of Solomon and Heed in Love). This corporeal documentation is an act of love. Perhaps Morrison’s surrogate is the aged Baby Suggs in Beloved, who tells those at her gatherings, “we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Such reclaiming also applies to …
Names — another aspect over which slaves had little or no control. The fierce reaction against this lack of control explains why, for example, LeRoi Jones became Imamu Amiri Baraka and Stokely Carmichael became Kwame Ture. Morrison, however, does not look to Africa in reclaiming the names of her characters. In true black American fashion, she uses the tools at hand — the oppressor’s tools, if you like — to fashion things the oppressor never dreamed. And so, in Morrison’s hands, the English language — the oppressor’s language — gives us character names including Soaphead Church, Macon Dead, Guitar, First Corinthians, Beloved, the self-named Joe Trace (because his parents abandoned him — “disappeared without a trace”), Violet Trace, Golden Gray, Wild, Hunters Hunter, Able Flood, Divine Truelove, and (from Beloved) Stamp Paid — the story of whose self-naming may capture the spirit in which many of Morrison’s characters come to be called what they are called: after what he had been through, “he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.” As Guitar puts it in Song of Solomon: “Niggers get their names the way they get everything else — the best way they can.” This renaming, reclaiming, is an act of defiance and of …
Rage — which is inevitable and which has the power both to cleanse and to warp. Sethe’s house in Beloved is occupied by the title character, the now-grown ghost of the child Sethe killed to save from slavery. Beloved, who represents Sethe’s guilt, shame, and self-hatred, disappears after Sethe tries to attack a white man — the sympathetic Mr. Bodwin — suggesting, perhaps, that black rage toward whiteness itself, the force behind slavery, as opposed to individual whites, is natural, even healthy. To a degree: While such anger might be healthy to express and thus exorcise, it is folly to build one’s life around it, to let it transform into hate. Witness the blacker-than-thou community in Paradise, whose obsession with producing dark-skinned children and strictures against marrying the light-skinned appear to narrow their line of descendants to the vanishing point. The management of anger is an art; properly channeled, it can create art. A character in Jazz considers the “complicated anger” in the black American music of the title, how it contains “something hostile that disguised itself as flourish and roaring seduction.” That “something hostile” has to be contained, or it will contain you. The novel’s mysterious narrator muses about women who think they want a rest but don’t because “what is waiting for them, in a suddenly idle moment, is the seep of rage.” This rage is, indeed, felt perhaps most strongly by women, those chief bearers of suffering in this black American universe, and it is an element of survival, one that threatens yet also strengthens their …
Sisterhood. Jazz represents just one example — though the most surprising one — of a contentious but unbreakable bond between women. Violet, whose husband, Joe Trace, has killed his young lover, befriends Alice, the dead girl’s mother. Women in Morrison’s universe understand that they need one another regardless of what they do to one another. In Sula, the title character’s affair with the husband of her best friend, Nel, ends (for years) the two women’s association but not the love they feel for each other; Christine and Heed in Love, friends since childhood, maintain a bond into their last years despite — arguably because of — the rift between them created by one successful, charismatic, monstrous man. In each case, a conflict brings women into, or keeps them in, proximity to one another. In each case, the wisdom they possess in spite of themselves, perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, keeps them from making total enemies of one another. The disparate communities of women in Paradise and A Mercy fight among themselves almost as fiercely as they cling to one another. Much of what is fought over, among women and other characters, is …
Legacy. Almost as much as they struggle in the present, Morrison’s characters struggle to make sense of the past — not only their own pasts but also the legacies of those who went before. History, legacy, and inheritance are Milkman’s salvation in Song of Solomon; they are a source of dispute in the community in Paradise, whose members disagree about the words of the town’s founder; and they are the bone of contention between Christine and Heed in Love. The painful parts of the past are all too clear in the characters’ minds; the parts that might sustain them are sometimes not clear enough. But the need for them is eternal because in their world one missing element is that great healer known as …
Time. The backward-looking nature of Morrison’s novels means that they do not progress in linear fashion. Because we read as much to discover what has happened as what will happen, time is static. The stories do not begin or end — their events simply are, ever existing in the great black mind, revealed in Morrison’s fragment-by-fragment language — just as the celestial bodies in Kurt Vonnegut’s world of Tralfamadore are not fixed points in the sky but strands showing at once where they are, where they have been, and where they will go. Contemplate this too long, and your head might threaten to explode. And so, it helps that in Morrison’s universe, amid the pain and struggle, there is also …
Humor. Much of it surfaces in dialogue. I quote this passage from Song of Solomon at length to give the full flavor of the scene:
“See this?” Reba put her hand down in the top of her dress and pulled out a diamond ring attached to a string. “I won this last year. I was the … what was it, Mama?”
“Five hundred thousandth.”
“Five hundred … no it wasn’t. That ain’t what they said.”
“Half a million is what they said.”
“That’s right. The half a millionth person to walk into Sears and Roebuck.” Her laughter was gay and proud.
“They didn’t want to give it to her,” said Hagar, “’cause she looked so bad.”
Guitar was astonished. “I remember that contest, but I don’t remember hearing nothing ’bout no colored person winning it.” Guitar, a habitual street roamer, believed he knew every public thing going on in the city.
“Nobody did. They had picture-taking people and everything waiting for the next person to walk in the door. But they never did put my picture in the paper. Me and Mama looked, too, didn’t we?” She glanced at Pilate for confirmation and went on. “But they put the picture of the man who won second prize in. He won a war bond. He was white.”
“Second prize?” Guitar asked. What kind of ‘second prize’? Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-half-millionth.”
“Can if the winner is Reba,” Hagar said. “The only reason they got a second was cause she was the first. And the only reason they gave it to her was because of them cameras.”
“Tell ’em why you was in Sears, Reba.”
“Looking for a toilet.” Reba threw her hands back to let the laughter escape. Her hands were stained with blackberry juice, and when she wiped the tears from her eyes she streaked the purple from her nose to her cheekbone. Much lighter than Pilate or Hagar, Reba had the simple eyes of an infant. All of them had a guileless look about them, but complication and something more lurked behind Pilate’s and Hagar’s faces. Only Reba, with her light and pimply skin and deferential manner, looked as though her simplicity might also be vacuousness.
“Ain’t but two toilets downtown they let colored in: Mayflower Restaurant and Sears. Sears was closer. Good thing nature wasn’t in a hurry. They kept me there fifteen minutes gettin my name and address to send the diamond over to me. But I wouldn’t let ’em send it to me. I kept asking them, Is this a real contest? I don’t believe you.”
“It was worth a diamond ring to get you out of there. Drawing a crowd and getting ready to draw flies,” said Hagar.
“What’re you going to do with the ring?” Milkman asked her.
“Wear it. Seldom I win something I like.”
“Everything she win, she give away,” Hagar said.
“To a man,” said Pilate.
“She don’t never keep none of it.…”
“That’s what she want to win — a man.…”
“Worse’n Santa Claus….”
“Funny kind of luck ain’t no luck at all….”
“He comes just once a year….”
This scenario is the Morrisonian universe in microcosm: it is self-contained, its humor entirely dependent on context but, within that context, like all great humor, it is at once logical and absurd. (“Either you the half-millionth person or you ain’t. Can’t be no next-to-half-millionth.”) Like all great humor, Morrison’s is rooted in deadly seriousness — in this case, the seriousness of racial segregation is revealed here in all its absurdity: a black woman wins a diamond because segregation has led her in search of a particular toilet.
Beauty. Morrison constructs a language of fragments to write about and address black people. Like any real language, it rises from its rudimentary beginnings to heights of beauty, reflecting the beauty — in spite of everything — in this black American universe:
“Without melanin, [his eyes] were all reflection, like mirrors, chamber after chamber, corridor after corridor of mirrors, each one taking its shape from the other and giving it back as its own until the final effect was color where no color existed at all.” (Tar Baby)
“But that’s not all a citysky can do. It can go purple and keep an orange heart so the clothes of the people on the streets glow like dance-hall costumes.” (Jazz)
“Sunlight is yearning for brilliance when the men arrive. The stone-washed blue of the sky is hard to break, but by the time the men park behind shin oak and start for the Convent, the sun has cracked through. Glorious blue. The water of the night rises as mist from puddles and flooded crevices in the road’s shoulder.” (Paradise)
This is beautiful language, but is it …
Truth? Does this beautiful language represent — capture the essence of — what really goes on? Beginning with Jazz, Morrison interrogates the nature of the omniscient voice. That novel’s mysterious narrator reveals near the end of the book that she has “invented stories” about her neighbors in Harlem. The seemingly omniscient narrator of Love — who, it is suggested, is dead — is a minor character in the story, and so perhaps her point of view is as subjective as any other character’s. In Home, the cracks in the wall of narrative authority become holes. The novel alternates between omniscient, close-third-person narration and italicized first-person narration by the main character, Frank Money, who at one point disputes a thought attributed to him earlier by the omniscient storyteller, revealed to be Frank’s interviewer. “I don’t think you know much about love,” Frank tells this person. “Or me.” Whom can we trust? Given the limits of any single person’s understanding, is anyone, is Morrison herself, up to the challenge of conveying the pain, humor, and beauty in the stories of our …
Children? We come back to where we began, just as Morrison has. Her first novel was The Bluest Eye, whose child character Pecola is the victim of both her father and her inheritance of self-hatred. The novelist’s most recent work, God Help the Child, also puts the abuse and scarring of children front and center. But those elements are present in all of the novels, whether the children, at the time we meet them, are young or grown, whether they are ours, or whether they are us. In Jazz, in Love, and especially in Home, Morrison courageously invites us to question the authority of the storyteller, the chronicler of these children’s lives, a questioning she surely knows will — and should — be turned toward her.
And sure enough: I don’t know what I am ultimately being told in Tar Baby, I’m not sure of the purpose — or the wisdom — behind Bride’s de-aging body in God Help the Child, and was it really not possible to avoid, in the same novel, the face-palm-triggering cliché of Booker throwing his trumpet in the river? But it is sympathy and beauty, not perfection, that we young and grown children, particularly the voiceless among us, seek in a teller of our stories. Imperfection does not negate towering achievement, does not preclude greatness. Such achievement, such greatness, are Morrison’s — in the service of her fellow black Americans and many, many others too. In writing about the character Reverend Misner in Paradise, she speaks about herself: “[T]here was no better battle to fight, no better place to be than among these outrageously beautiful, flawed and proud people.”
Clifford Thompson is the author of Twin of Blackness: A Memoir, Love for Sale and Other Essays, and a novel, Signifying Nothing. His upcoming book, What It is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man's Blues, will be published in the fall.