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Growing Up Too Black

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James Keyser/Contact Press Images
Toni Morrison, Princeton, New Jersey, 1992

The title of Toni Morrison’s new novel echoes that of the sly, langorous Billie Holiday ballad “God Bless the Child.” But while the child in the song is blessed, or deserves to be blessed, because he’s “got his own”—something, presumably money, that will enable him to thrive regardless of what “Mama may have”—the children in God Help the Child have nothing: no power, no agency, no protection from the unfeeling or predatory adults around them.

The novel begins with a woman who calls herself Sweetness absolving herself for having had a daughter whose skin is much darker than her own, and explaining why she has mistreated little Lula Ann:

It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black…. Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter, the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity?… I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me.

Such passages remind us that Morrison, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, has consistently proved herself to be an intrepid writer, boldly reporting on the ongoing war between kindness and cruelty, acknowledging how often children are the collateral damage in those battles and, in this opening salvo, taking on the delicate subject of color prejudice within the African-American community. Though race and class are important elements in the novel, it gradually becomes clear that any child, regardless of skin color or social status, can fall prey to the horrors that adults visit upon the young.

Sweetness is hardly the worst mother in the book, and unlike the more luckless children whose stories Morrison tells here, Lula Ann overcomes (or appears to have overcome) the damage inflicted by a woman who has chosen a new name just to distance herself from her daughter. “I told her to call me ‘Sweetness’ instead of ‘Mother’ or ‘Mama.’ It was safer. Being that black and having what I think are too-thick lips calling me ‘Mama’ would confuse people.”

Lula Ann Bridewell grows up to be a beautiful woman who also rechristens herself, dropping “that dumb, countryfied name as soon as I left high school. I was Ann Bride for two years until I interviewed for a job at Sylvia, Inc., and, on a hunch, shortened my name to Bride, with nothing anyone needs to say before or after that one memorable syllable.” Bride carefully selects her wardrobe and so effectively deploys her intelligence, ambition, and good looks that, while still in her twenties, she “runs a major department in a billion-dollar company”:

I named it YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium. It’s for girls and women of all complexions from ebony to lemonade to milk. And it’s mine, all mine—the idea, the brand, the campaign.

All of this may strike us as quite unlike Morrison’s previous novels, most of which have been set in the past. Beloved took place around the time of the Civil War, A Mercy in the late seventeenth century; Home was set in the aftermath of the Korean War. But God Help the Child offers a take on contemporary manners that at first seems closer to satire then anything Morrison has done so far.

Bride drives a “sleek, rat gray” Jaguar with a vanity license, drinks Smartwater, wears an “oyster-white cashmere dress and boots of brushed rabbit fur the color of the moon,” and measures her sexual relationships against “those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half-naked in surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin.”

There’s a complex irony in the idea of a woman who has been made miserable because of her color growing up to become a purveyor of luxury skin-care products. And we may wonder if Morrison is planning to look more critically at our culture’s attempts to convince women that buying the perfect moisturizer is the key to happiness and fulfillment. But Bride, haunted by crimes and betrayals far worse than this relatively benign form of consumer fraud, isn’t particularly troubled by the political implications of her profession:

In addition to breasts, every woman…wanted longer, thicker eyelashes. A woman could be cobra-thin and starving, but if she had grapefruit boobs and raccoon eyes, she could be deliriously happy. Right. She would get right on it after this trip.

It might have been interesting to see Bride at a sales meeting or in the boardroom, but this is not that kind of book. Morrison is more engaged by beauty in the abstract, and by larger concerns—surface vs. substance, the extent to which childhood, appearance, and prejudice mold and deform us—than by the details of what a woman does at a lucrative and glamorous job.

At various points the novel shifts from the familiar and the real to the allegorical and the mythic, and then shifts back again. The challenge that Morrison has set for herself is to have it both ways, more or less at once: to populate a fairy tale with credible human beings and to set it in a world in which the paranormal coexists with the same electronic gadgets and brand names we recognize from our own.

The change of setting from past to present is reflected in the novel’s prose. The lyricism of Home (“Maniac moonlight doing the work of absent stars matched his desperate frenzy”) and the intentional obscurities of Paradise have mostly given way to more colloquial vocabulary and syntax. The sentences are shorter, less ornately decorated with metaphor and simile, and this uninflected sparseness—the voice seems to fit a range of characters—serves Morrison well as the narrative’s point of view moves deftly among them.

God Help the Child reminds us of how enjoyable it can be when a writer uses multiple perspectives—a technique by which Morrison insists on considering variant aspects of a situation and on facing the contradictions that arise from her characters’ often mercurial and tormented psyches. As she so frequently has in the past, she combines tough-mindedness with forgiveness as she propels Bride through tragedy toward greater self-knowledge and a conclusion brightened by penitence and hope. Even Sweetness is allowed to express her humanity and remorse:

If I sound irritable, ungrateful, part of it is because underneath is regret. All the little things I didn’t do or did wrong…. Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.

God Help the Child succeeds in embracing the philosophical, the political, and the metaphysical without sacrificing momentum. The brief novel is densely plotted, and—curious about the secrets that these men and women hesitate or refuse to disclose—we read on to find out what happens and how these hidden traumas will come to light.

The plot includes a series of revelations and surprises, nearly all of which involve a case or an allegation of child abuse. As a girl, Bride was the star witness at a trial that resulted in a teacher named Sofia Huxley being sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for molesting her students. Years later, after Bride’s lover Booker deserts her, she takes to the road to track him down, and finds refuge with a kindly couple of hippie survivalists who have rescued a little girl called Rain from a life of hellish exploitation on the streets. Bride’s best friend Brooklyn has chosen to tell no one about the childhood suffering that has left her with a quasi-clairvoyant intuition for “what people want and how to please them.”

The account of Booker’s early home life—initially much happier and more secure than the gothic childhoods of the novel’s girls and women—is one of the loveliest and most relaxed sections in the book:

Every Saturday morning, first thing before breakfast, his parents held conferences with their children requiring them to answer two questions put to each of them: 1. What have you learned that is true (and how do you know)? 2. What problem do you have?… Booker loved those Saturday morning conferences rewarded by the highlight of the weekend—his mother’s huge breakfast feasts. Banquets, really. Hot biscuits, short and flaky; grits, snow-white and tongue-burning hot; eggs beaten into pale saffron creaminess; sizzling sausage patties, sliced tomatoes, strawberry jam, freshly squeezed orange juice, cold milk in Mason jars.

But finally Booker too turns out to have had a youthful brush with tragedy that has deeply affected his response to the world and “hurtled him away from the rip and wave of life.”

After the first few chapters we may begin to realize that God Help the Child is not so unlike Morrison’s previous novels as its setting and surface might lead us to conclude. Quite a few of her books have featured an injurious familial relationship. Sweetness’s rejection of Lula Ann is less appalling than the violence that Sethe inflicts on her daughter in Beloved, or the death of Plum, burned alive by his mother in Sula. Many of these murders and desertions are, Morrison suggests, responses to the evils of slavery and to the pressures of raising a family in a racist society—pressures so destabilizing that a woman may feel that the only way to safeguard her child is to kill it, or at least kill its spirit. As Sweetness says, “I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges.”

Indeed, a number of recurrent themes connect this book to its predecessors: the influence that racism, class, culture, and history exert over every large and small interaction; the ease with which sex can rearrange one’s plans; the ineradicable loneliness that is among the most painful and valuable components of the self; the effects of belonging to, or feeling exiled from, a community. In this novel, as in Sula, Morrison’s frankness about the way in which competition over a man can undermine a close female friendship is typical of her willingness to let observation override the idealized and the politically correct. And the romance between Bride and Booker—the magnetism of their attraction, the differences in their backgrounds—recalls the affair between Jadine Childs, a fashion model, and the rootless Son in Tar Baby.

The vein of magical realism that has run through Morrison’s work—in Beloved, an angry ghost wreaks havoc in a Cincinnati home; in Song of Solomon, a laborer rises out of the cotton fields and flies through the air—surfaces here in the somatic changes that threaten to turn the voluptuous, confident Bride back into the unloved, undernourished Lula Ann, a “crazed transformation back into a scared little black girl.” First Bride’s body hair disappears, followed by the holes in her pierced ears. She loses weight, stops menstruating, and her breasts vanish, leaving only nipples:

No one had noticed or commented on the changes in her body, how flat the T-shirt hung on her chest, the unpierced earlobes. Only she knew about unshaved but absent armpit and pubic hair. So all of this might be a hallucination, like the vivid dreams she was having when she managed to fall asleep. Or were they?

After one such dream, an erotic fantasy about Booker, Bride understands that “the body changes began not simply after he left, but because he left.”

Oddly, we may have less trouble accepting these occult occurrences than we do in believing some of the book’s more realistic moments. Having learned that Sofia Huxley is about to be released, Bride—unlike the other prosecution witnesses who may be dismayed and even frightened to learn that the person they helped convict is getting out—follows her from the prison to a motel, knocks on the door, and introduces herself. Certain that Sofia will be glad to receive “something friendly without strings,” Bride presents her with a sort of swag bag full of goodies chosen to ease her transition from incarceration to freedom:

I’d been planning this trip for a year, choosing carefully what a parolee would need: I saved up five thousand dollars in cash over the years, and bought a three- thousand-dollar Continental Airlines certificate. I put a promotional box of YOU, GIRL into a brand-new Louis Vuitton shopping bag, all of which could take her anywhere. Comfort her, anyway; help her forget and take the edge off bad luck, hopelessness and boredom.

Predictably, Sofia fails to appreciate this gesture of goodwill, and beats Bride so severely that her battered face requires reconstructive surgery from which she does not recover for many months. Readers may well wonder: Has Bride—who may be self-involved and shallow but is by no means stupid or entirely insensitive—really imagined that Sofia would be grateful for her gift, especially in view of the fact that Sofia was imprisoned partly because of Bride’s testimony? Did it not occur to this savvy businesswoman that the terms of Sofia’s parole might preclude her using the airline travel certificate at any time in the near future? Are we to conclude that our heroine’s moral compass and common sense have been set so thoroughly askew by her bad treatment as a child and then immersion in capitalist beauty culture? Is a predilection for stubborn self-justification one of the traits she has inherited or learned from Sweetness?

Not only does Bride fail to understand why her friendly overture is rejected, but she blames and resents Sofia for her ingratitude:

The bitch didn’t even hear me out. I wasn’t the only witness, the only one who turned Sofia Huxley into 0071140. There was lots of other testimony about her molestations…. Even Sofia Huxley, of all people, erased me. A convict. A convict! She could have said, “No thanks,” or even “Get out!” No. She went postal. Maybe fistfighting is prison talk. Instead of words, broken bones and drawing blood is inmate conversation.

A similarly puzzling moment comes later in the novel, when Bride’s search for Booker leads her to the home of his aunt, a warmhearted and maternal woman named Queen, who shows Bride some pages on which Booker has jotted down what appear to be random musings:

Hey girl what’s inside your curly head besides dark rooms with dark men dancing too close to comfort the mouth hungry for more of what it is sure is there somewhere out there waiting for a tongue and some breath to stroke teeth that bite the night and swallow whole the world denied you so get rid of those smokey dreams and lie on the beach in my arms while I cover you with white sands from shores you have never seen lapped by waters so crystal and blue they make you shed tears of bliss and let you know that you do belong finally to the planet you were born on and can now join the out-there world in the deep peace of a cello.

After reading this paragraph, a woman of Bride’s sophistication might reasonably decide that perhaps the breakup might not have been such a bad idea. Yet Bride is enchanted by what she feels she has learned from him:

Bride shook her head. She had counted on her looks for so long—how well beauty worked. She had not known its shallowness or her own cowardice—the vital lesson Sweetness taught and nailed to her spine to curve it.

Equally vexing is the question of why it takes the intelligent, perceptive Booker—a reader of Walter Benjamin, Frederick Douglass, Melville, Dickens, and Robert Hass—so long to figure out Bride’s closely guarded secret about the falseness of her testimony against Sofia, something that we will likely have intuited early on in the novel. In the final chapters, Booker learns what really occurred when Bride was a child. But by then we may be wondering how we could have spent so much time in Bride’s company without suspecting the truth about her experience. It’s one thing to withhold information from the reader, but quite another to feel that a character is withholding information from herself.

Admittedly, repression can cause one to forget the past, but that’s not what seems to be happening here. And this sacrifice of plausibility in order to arrange a climactic, expiatory confession weakens the novel, much as Crime and Punishment would have been weakened had Dostoevsky delayed revealing, until the end, the fact that Raskolnikov had murdered two old women. Toni Morrison’s great talent and her passion for her subject—the mistreatment of children, and the heroic effort required to transcend the residual damage of abuse—would have sufficed to propel us through these pages without the artifice that makes Bride more of a construct than a fully realized character.

One reason why we may have less trouble accepting the magical elements in the book than some of the more apparently naturalistic ones is that we have learned to suspend our disbelief in the presence of something that, we feel, could never occur. But when we are shown “real” people interacting in what we assume to be the “real world,” the writer—regardless of the authority of her narrative voice, or of her prodigious ability to will characters and events onto the page—is obliged to persuade us that a person might think and behave in the ways we observe her reflecting and acting.

If Bride remains to some extent opaque, it’s at least partly because—especially in the more poetic passages—we have trouble visualizing and understanding what exactly she is seeing and telling us. In pain, following an automobile accident, she notes that “the piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of knives pointed at her and aching to be released.” And it’s hard to know what to make of either the language or the logic of this description of a rustic landscape:

A city girl is quickly weary of the cardboard boredom of tiny rural towns. Whatever the weather, iron-bright sunshine or piercing rain, the impression of worn boxes hiding shiftless residents seems to sap the most attentive gaze…. Bride wasn’t feeling superior to the line of tiny, melancholy houses and mobile homes on each side of the road, just puzzled.

What exactly is “cardboard boredom”? Does one feel superior to houses or to the residents of those houses? And if Bride isn’t feeling superior to these country folk, why does she describe them as “shiftless”?

Does the heady atmosphere of the mythic free the writer from having to pay attention to the details that, if gotten wrong, can distract the reader and briefly cast us out of the novel? We can only try to imagine why little Rain, who has grown up on the city streets, should be so mystified by the sight of a black woman. Or why, when Bride’s secret finally emerges, no one—not Bride, or Booker, or Queen—so much as considers informing the authorities, so that restitution (ideally including some form of financial compensation) could be made.

In view of the scope and the gravity of Morrison’s themes and ambitions, why should such points matter? They do, because plausibility depends on the writer’s punctiliousness about just such details as these.

Ultimately, God Help the Child had the effect of making me want to go back to Toni Morrison’s earlier novels, among them Sula and Song of Solomon, which remain my favorites. These are wonderful books in which we are convinced by the naturalistic no less than the fantastic. They owe their power to the pure force of storytelling and the effect of precise and transparent language. We continue to reread them because they work on multiple levels and because we admire and believe every word.