Natives of poverty, children of malheur
The gaiety of language is our seigneur
Wallace Stevens’s words might be the epigraph for the work of both Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, writers very different from each other, whose wonderful richness and vitality of language in a curious way obscure the moral and physical horror of the similar worlds they create or, perhaps, describe. Milkman Dead, the hero of Morrison’s new novel Song of Solomon, has a girlfriend who is trying to kill him. He tells a friend, whose only response is to say:
“Would you ask your visitor to kind of neaten things up a little before she goes? I don’t want to come back and have to look through a pile of cigarette butts for your head. Be nice if it was laying somewhere I could spot it right off. And if it’s her head that’s left behind, well, there’s some towels in the closet on the shelf in the back.”
The flippant tone conceals assumptions common to both speakers, that it is usual for a disappointed woman to come after you with a knife; that you may have to kill her before she kills you. And later the friend will try to kill Milkman.
This novel, and to an even greater extent Morrison’s earlier novels The Bluest Eye and Sula, and the stories in Gayl Jones’s collection White Rat, like her earlier novels Corregidora and Eva’s Man, entirely concern black people who violate, victimize, and kill each other. Little girls are raped by their fathers, by the boyfriends of their mothers, by neighbor boys. Little boys are drowned by neighbor girls. Women are beaten, mothers burn their sons to death, daughters abandon their mothers. No relationships endure, and all are founded on exploitation. The victimization of blacks by whites is implicit but not the subject. The picture given by both Jones and Morrison of the plight of the decent, aspiring individual in the black family and community is more painful than the gloomiest impressions encouraged by either stereotype of sociology.
It is interesting to notice that despite the chorus of rightly admiring remarks about the power and talent of both writers, little attention has been paid to what they actually seem to be saying, as if the mere execution of work as poetic and vigorous as this—by women, and black women at that—were sufficiently remarkable without the complicating features of meaning or moral commitment. Admittedly fiction is not as well suited to the representation of happiness and goodness as of pain and evil, but perhaps it’s more that no one wishes to believe in the unhappy lives they describe. Or it could be because both Morrison and Jones have chosen narrative modes that allow them to keep themselves and the reader at a distance from the content; but mostly it seems that meaning may have been overlooked out of embarrassment, because they write about things whites are afraid other whites may believe blacks do.
Ethnic and social groups, today wishing to assert and even to dramatize their distinctiveness, deny the well-meant assumption, formerly common, that people of different races and creeds are fundamentally the same. They insist upon difference, and although these books are clearly aimed at a general audience with the expectation of being understood, the white reader may experience a few self-doubts. Can a non-black reader understand them? Are blacks really like this? Are these works artistically but not literally true? or merely romantic or sensational? Or—another worry—is one’s accepting (or critical) attitude about their content mostly a projection of white racist attitudes?
It’s almost impossible to raise questions about black culture without the accompanying lecture about how it got that way, as if explanation were the same as excuse or prediction; but for Jones, Morrison, and James Alan McPherson, history, though immanent, does not seem to be the point. Their attitude seems to be that historical guilt, if indeed people ever feel it, is finally irrelevant, and if it affords history’s victims a little amnesty, that amnesty is woefully finite. We are all, including whites, in a world we did not make (to paraphrase Sartre), and the future is the only thing we can affect. If the secret attitude of Anglo-Saxons is that people of other races, charming or menacing primitives, cannot be expected to behave morally, neither Jones, Morrison, or McPherson takes such a patronizing view. “I can’t see how it helps. I can’t see how it helps anybody,” says Milkman of his friend’s revenge cult. Whether the non-black reader confronts or ignores the question raised by these books, the question is whether black people ought to be the way Jones and Morrison say they are.
How blacks ought to be is not a popular question and it is not one which many black writers have asked. Of the many distinguished books by blacks with which most readers will be familiar—by Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Eldridge Cleaver (who has in fact been asking the question lately), Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others, works of fiction or nonfiction, poetic or political—most have been written by men, and men on their way to live in Paris at that, or at least Algeria. Men children in the promised lands, they write about the problems encountered by blacks, usually black males, trying to make it in a white society; that is, they present a criticism not so much of black but of white culture, and that’s what gets known as the “black experience.” Undoubtedly white society is the ultimate oppressor, and not just of blacks, but, as Morrison and Jones show, the black person must first deal with the oppressor in the next room, or in the same bed, or no farther away than across the street.
Black male authors who have seldom failed to mention the rape of black women by cruel white masters have not dwelt on the present situation in which the most frequent victims of rape, according to statistics, are young black girls by black men. (And the most frequent cause of death among young black men is homicide.) In a demoralized subculture, everyone is a victim, but women, and especially girls, are actually the most defenseless. In these books, Morrison and Jones present them also as cleverer, more interesting, and eventually more homicidal than men; men are childlike, barely sentient, and predatory. Nearly all the women characters in these works have been sexually abused and exploited, usually as children, a pattern described in Jones’s fine story “The Women”; in her novel Eva’s Man, where a woman is finally driven mad by the indignities she has suffered and murders her lover; and in Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, about the madness of a child who is raped by her father. Defeated and hopeless, men turn first on women. It is little wonder that women’s accounts of the black person’s struggle should differ from male accounts.
Song of Solomon is a picaresque and allegorical saga of a middle-class northern black family, the Deads, in particular of the son Milkman Dead, but also of parents, sisters, aunts, cousins, and, when Milkman eventually travels south in search of treasure and family history, of numerous distant connections. The resemblance to Roots is perhaps the least satisfying thing about the book; the characters are apt at any moment to burst into arias of familial lore less interesting than their immediate predicaments. There are the sexual problems of Milkman’s parents, who required a love potion to conceive him, as if they literally exchanged their sexuality for their bourgeois aspirations. His old-maid sister Corinthians has a love affair with an old man she meets on a bus; the jealous cousin Hagar attempts murder. A hundred-year-old woman who lives in accumulating filth enacts her long-suppressed hatred for her dead white mistress. Aunt Pilate, six feet tall, with no navel, carries the bones of her father in a sack. There’s a hunt for gold in a cave, a murderous band of black terrorists who ritually murder whites, a young girl who dies either of love or a chill, and much more.
Here, as in Morrison’s earlier and perhaps more affecting work, human relationships are symbolized by highly dramatic events. In Sula a mother pours gasoline over her son and lights it, and, in another place, a young woman watches with interest while her mother burns. But the horrors, rather as in Dickens, are nearly deprived of their grisliness by the tone. It might be a folktale in which someone cuts someone else’s heart out and buries it under a tree, from which a thorn bush springs, and so on. Morrison is interested in black folklore, but in fact the influences of the Bible, Greek myths, and English and American literature are more evident, as in the work of other American writers.
There is a sense in which the use of myth is evasive. Morrison’s effect is that of a folktale in which conventional narrative qualities like unity and suspense are sacrificed to the cumulative effects of individual, highly romantic or mythic episodes, whose individual implausibility, by forcing the reader to abandon the criteria of plausibility, cease to matter. In this way, the writer can imply that hers are not descriptions of reality but only symbols of a psychological condition. Yet if her tales are merely symbolic, the reader can complain of their sensationalism. If they are true, her view of a culture in which its members, for whatever reasons, cannot depend for safety and solace on even the simplest form of social cooperation is almost too harrowing to imagine.
In the work of Gayl Jones one sees other literary influences—of Hemingway, perhaps, or Jean Rhys, highly wrought and economical—but also of those bus station thrillers in which a female narrator describes her loss of innocence, her sexual exploitation by a relentless string of single-minded lechers. The ancestress of Ursa Corregidora, the abused heroine of Jones’s first novel, is the lusty, busty high-yellow beauty so beloved on paperback covers. The difference is that Jones’s women, brutalized and dull, seem all too real. It is a skillful exploitation of the stereotype.
The stories in her collection White Rat were written in some cases earlier than her novels, so they confirm one’s sense of her direction and preoccupations: sex is violation, and violation is the principal dynamic of human relationships. In the sexual relation lies the struggle for power, the means of survival, the symbol of adulthood, the cause of suffering. Where Morrison is an art novelist, who can invoke black speech for striking effect, Jones is a vernacular novelist with a marvelous ear, for whom black speech is the only medium. A boy says to the narrator of “The Women,”
“You got a nice house,”…
“If you don’t got to live in it.”
“Your mama keep things around.”
“Yeah, my mama got those around too. She paint pictures and put them up on the wall. Daddy tell her take ’em down. She say she don’t like look at the bare wall.”
The monosyllables with which the characters conduct their lives suggest their defended isolation. It is as if there were only so much information to go around, and each person, jealous of the advantage it confers, is reluctant to share his. The jazzy banter that Morrison and McPherson both portray so well has the same back-to-the-wall quality. Though ignorance these days has lost much of its traditional status as a routinely stigmatized enemy of human happiness—indeed it is often admired—the plight of these characters renews one’s sense of its virulence.
The women characters in Morrison are all eccentric, brave, and resolute. Gayl Jones presents women who are stunned and withdrawn. But both writers arrange their narratives in such a way as to avoid preachiness and, perhaps, to avert accusations of disloyalty. Morrison often lets a character have a say, like Lena, in Song of Solomon, who asks her brother “Where do you get the right to decide our lives?… I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. Well, let me tell you something, baby brother, you will need more than that.”
Moral comment in Jones is more oblique. Ursa Corregidora, asleep, dreams resentfully of her possessive lover, “talking about his pussy. Asking me to let him see his pussy. Let me feel my pussy. The center of a woman’s being. Is it?” When she wakes up she denies her resentment. “The shit you can dream.” (His beatings have required her to lose her womb.) Because she writes entirely in the first person, Jones seems to record what people say and think as if it were no fault of hers, and Morrison seems to assert no more control over the exotic events of her narratives than the teller of a tall tale does. Perhaps art is always subversive in this way.
If there is always disparity between male and female versions of a culture, it is certain that the Authorized version will always be male and, hence, familiar. In the stories of James Alan McPherson the ordinary white reader will at first feel at home. There are some men’s magazine tall tales about romantic barroom types—the “bullshitters and goodtimers,” like Billy Renfro, the one-eyed car-payment collector—which could have been written by any American with an ear for dialect and a satirical gift:
At the murder trial, the defendant, Robert L. Charles, after having sat four days in silence while his court-appointed lawyer pleaded for him, rose suddenly from his chair during his counsel’s summation and faced the jurors. “It wasn’t no accident,” he told them in a calm voice. “I had me nine bullets and a no-good gun. Gentlemens, the onliest thing I regret is the gun broke before I could pump more than six slugs into the sonofobitch.”
But McPherson writes about real people, too, mainly middle-class people with middle-class reactions, making one wonder whether the savagely angry women, the failed women sliding off into madness (in Morrison and Jones, as in so many stories by other women writers) are, like Robert L. Charles, Billy Renfro, or Dead-Eye Dick, romantic exaggerations. Where is the real view? Or are there disparate views, all true, irreconcilable?
McPherson’s stories, absorbing and sensitive, seem at first glance colorless. The narrator of many is intelligent, analytical, and uncomfortably out of place in the settings of his stories. He thinks himself too good for the “street niggers.” (“Black guys like you with them funny eye-glasses are a real trip. You got to know everything. You sit in corners and watch people,” someone tells him.) But he also despises Paul, the white husband of a black friend of his, because he can’t quite be a “nigger.” He despises Professional Blacks, too, describing the current scene as one where “even the great myths floated apart from their rituals. Cynical salesmen hawked them as folklore. And language, mother language, was being whored by her best sons [n.b.] to suit the appetites of wealthy patrons…. Black folk were back into entertaining with the time-tested acts.”
Fastidious, leary of climbing on the soul train, McPherson makes explicit his sense of his artistic problem:
You are saying you want to be white?
A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology.
You are ashamed then of being black?
Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s strait-jackets.
Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. A white reader, at first sympathizing with his stiff discomfort, and perhaps disappointed at his straight prose, may wish he would hop on the soul train and have a little fun. But perhaps that would be bad advice. Perhaps what is exciting about the violence and depravity in Jones and Morrison is that they confirm white fears, the way the violence and depravity in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, say, confirmed cheap, antifeminist prejudice. It’s easy to say, comfortably or dismissively, while enjoying the rich, wild speech in Jones and Morrison: that’s how those people are. But maybe the plain, anxious people in McPherson’s stories, mapping out their future lives in “blocks of years, step-ladders of subgoals,” are what more people are really like.
November 10, 1977