Toni Morrison once said that as much as she loved the work of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin she felt that as black writers they looked over their shoulders to explain things to white people too often. She said that she found it “demoralizing” to have to explain black life to white people again; to be required to write about “typical blacks.”
I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin…. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world.
Morrison disliked the question of universality, she said, because behind it was the suggestion that to write for black people was somehow a diminishment.
Black writers have long asserted that the Negro is the metaphor for America, and Morrison is more inclined to redefine the nation’s cultural past than she is to explain black people to anyone. In Playing in the Dark (1992), a series of lectures on “whiteness and the literary imagination,” Morrison argues that the general themes of American literature—innocence, individualism, masculinity, freedom—are responses to the “abiding” “Africanist presence” in the New World, just as the romantic character of so much nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, “the private imagination interacting with the external world,” comes from an evasiveness about slavery, race, and the moral questions inherent in the country’s images and treatment of blacks. She says that when she began to read as a writer she discovered, as Ellison had done, how much the American idiom owed to black culture.
When Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), black writers had already won the battle for realism. The grim social truths that had been resisted as proper subjects of imaginative literature by publishers and some readers had become, for black writers of her generation, a hindrance to experimentation with the novel, not to mention too restrictive of what could be said about black life. But the 1970s were also the time of the Black Aesthetic movement, an attempt on the part of black writers to create their own terms for evaluating literature, such as saying that black narrative had its own characteristics. One of them, the critic Addison Gayle Jr., dismissed Faulkner as a champion of white supremacy and attacked Ellison for sticking up for him. Ironically, as the editor Erroll Macdonald has suggested, Faulkner’s work reached the very black writers who didn’t want to hear about him, because the Spanish-American magical real-ists celebrated in the 1970s for being, among other things, not European had been greatly influenced by Faulkner in translation.
In 1955, the year Faulkner was promising to shoot Negroes in the streets of Mississippi, Morrison wrote her master’s thesis at Cornell on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. In interviews she gives a strong sense of having read widely in both the experimenters and the explainers. Perhaps that is why the Black Aesthetic movement’s quarrel with Faulkner isn’t so much resolved in Morrison as made irrelevant by her work. She draws inspiration where she finds it, either from Faulkner or from the discoveries of black cultural nationalism. Like Ishmael Reed, Morrison has wondered if there could not be such a thing as a distinctly African-American novel, “a truly aural novel.” “There was an articulate literature before there was print,” she said. She has called her own work “village literature” for “the tribe.”
It is a surprise to find a strain of corrective chauvinism in a novelist of Morrison’s boundary-crossing appeal. In her job as an editor in the late 1960s and 1970s Morrison published the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. Morrison also helped to edit The Black Book (1974), an informative and visually fascinating “scrapbook” of photographs, old newspaper columns, letters, advertisements, posters, handbills, and documents having to do with the achievements of blacks in America going back some three hundred years. Her commitment to publishing black writers and works of black history fits with her writing a novel about the harm the dream of blue eyes could do a vulnerable, dark black girl in the days before “Black Is Beautiful.” Yet Morrison perhaps didn’t have to wait for the resurgence of interest in black history in the 1960s to discover her themes. At predominantly black Howard University in the early 1950s, where she studied with the poet Sterling Brown, students would have been aware that they were already playing a part in black history. In her later work, Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998), the stories she tells revise and expand American historical lore.
Morrison once said that she waited for an audience to move over to what she was doing. Not to take anything from Valerie Martin’s brilliant achievement, one wonders if Property doesn’t owe something to the ground Morrison cleared in her masterwork, Beloved. She has acquired her own manner and style over the years. Each novel is somewhat different from the one before, involving a new risk.
Although Morrison has also been known as the publisher of black women writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, she wasn’t writing the kind of thing the period is remembered for: the feminist critique of black men. Its absence in her own work has always set her apart from other black women writers who emerged on the scene around the same time she did. The women’s movement was entering another popular phase in the 1970s, but Morrison, in looking back, said she couldn’t understand why white women were talking about loving one another, because to her way of thinking black women had always understood the importance of friendships among women.
Some of Morrison’s readers have puzzled over the authorial sympathy in The Bluest Eye for the father who blights his daughter’s life with his alcoholic’s violence and then rapes her, as if trying to understand the oppressor in the next room were the last thing to expect in fiction by black women. And Morrison followed Sula (1973), a novel about a terrible secret that binds two women together from childhood, with Song of Solomon (1977), “a novel informed by the male spirit.” Black men “travel, they split, they get on trains,” but it is the children who pay the price.
Black communities in Morrison’s novels are patiently made up of closely observed houses, streets, and neighborhoods full of their own special lore, their burdens of memory. Jazz is set in Harlem and Tar Baby (1981) has Philadelphia and Paris, but the small town is Morrison’s métier, whether utopian village, dangerous backwater, or rust-belt notch. Morrison is in the tradition that interprets the novel of manners as moral investigation, and in this literature the small town is the microcosm, the reflection of the larger American society. Perhaps she has in mind the small Ohio town she comes from as well as the era in which she grew up, when black people of different classes lived in snubbing, backbiting proximity.
More than any other black writer in contemporary African-American literature, and without its being her primary intention, Morrison captures the battles of class and the struggles to define status that are part of the history of the places where black people were allowed or where they turned up, whether in the stuffy midwestern pocket of Song of Solomon or the dry all-black Oklahoma town of Paradise. Then, too, Morrison respects the entrepreneurial pride some black people had in spite of segregation—making a way out of no way, as the saying went. As a single parent, a working mother, Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, spent two decades in an office and before that was a college instructor. “You can’t idealize hard work,” she said, before adding that the great home of the soul is the open road.*
In Love, Morrison’s eighth novel, Junior, a young woman, is trying get off that open road, just as Christine, the old woman whose childhood home Junior insinuates herself into, realized years ago that she had nowhere to go other than that unhappy paternal kingdom after the freedom of the road had led her only to degrading relationships, a kind of prostitution. Junior will find Christine in the kitchen, forced by circumstances to cook for another elderly black woman, Heed, once Christine’s best friend, and exactly her age, until Heed, when still a child herself, married Christine’s rich grandfather, Bill Cosey, the last of whose once considerable property, a mansion near a North Carolina coastal resort, is the battlefield for their war of attrition. In her earlier fiction, Morrison has also used the stranger or a face from the past as the catalyst for the changes, revelations, or havoc that the families stewing in their houses both dread and crave. But she is as interested in how she tells a story, how a novel is put together, as she is in what kind of tale she is spinning out.
Love opens with a mysterious first-person voice: “The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.” The elderly black woman speaking disapproves of women calling attention in public to their sexuality, behavior that became socially acceptable in the 1970s, when she gave up talking because she no longer understood people. She has taken to humming.
People come in here for a plate of crawfish, or to pass the time, and never notice or care that they do all the talking. I’m background—the movie music that comes along when the sweethearts see each other for the first time, or when the husband is walking the beachfront alone wondering if anybody saw him doing the bad thing he couldn’t help.
Her hum is private, below range, suitable, she says, to an old woman who objects to the way the century is turning out.
The Invisible Woman, the “I,” goes on to tell us about “female recklessness” in humid, God-fearing coast country. Prostitutes have always set the style, she says, but even the wildest woman with scars can’t hide her innocence, the “winsome baby girl” curled up inside. They all have a sad story about dragon daddies, false-hearted men, mean mamas, and monsters who made them tough instead of brave. Sometimes their hurt is too deep for a tale. “Then the only thing that does the trick, that explains the craziness heaping up, holding down, and making women hate one another and ruin their children is an outside evil.”
In the community she comes from, Up Beach, people believed in “Police-heads,” creatures in big hats that came out of the ocean to harm loose women and eat disobedient children. The “I” claims to have seen them in 1942, when thunderclouds gathered and some hardheaded children drowned. Among the incidents attributed to Police-heads: a wife suffered a stroke the day after she committed adultery; a woman buried the deed to her father-in-law’s beachfront in the sand, where a loggerhead, a snake, dug it up.
Like people, demons get hungry and in the 1950s Police-heads “trolled” Bill Cosey’s Hotel and Resort when it was still the best-known vacation spot for colored people on the East Coast. The “I” woman remembers Sooker Bay when it swirled with first lieutenants, doctors, businessmen. People came from as far away as New York and Michigan to hear Fatha Hines, Jimmy Lunceford, the Drops of Joy. She gives the history of what went wrong, economically: in the 1960s, women complained about the fish smell of the Up Beach cannery in their clothes; Cosey’s daughter-in-law, May, blamed civil rights, saying that colored people were more interested in blowing up cities than they were in dancing at the seashore. People who bragged in the 1940s of their vaca-tions at Cosey’s were in the 1960s taking cruises to the Bahamas and Ocho Rios. But integration was not the cause of the resort’s decline, for its being boarded up and its acres sold off to an Equal Opportunity developer who put up cheap houses, the Invisible “I” hints.
We are told that now, in the 1990s, Up Beach is twenty feet underwater because of a hurricane, but part of Cosey’s Resort remains, looking as though it is rearing backward. Even though the main doors are padlocked, to look inside is to see a hotel interior that still promises ecstasy and the company of best friends. The unseen speaker hasn’t seen the Cosey women for a while. She says that since that girl in a skirt short as underpants moved in, she has been worried about them “leaving me here with nothing but an old folks’ tale to draw on…I know I need something else. Something better. Like a story that shows how brazen women can take a good man down. I can hum to that.”
Having set the scene and, as it turns out, given the ending at the beginning as well as a possible moral for her tale, Morrison moves back to the day Junior enters the lives of the Cosey women, Christine and Heed. But this voice, this choric figure standing aside yet possessing the answers sought by the players in Morrison’s drama of misspent love, returns from time to time to wonder and pity at the drift of life around her. “It takes a certain intelligence to love like that—softly, without props.”
Because Christine and Heed are disliked in the town of Silk, North Carolina, they are much talked about, as Sandler and Vida Gibbons, whose grandson, Romen, works for the two women, illustrate with their kitchen gossip. Years after Bill Cosey’s death the rumor lingers that he was poisoned. “Hale at breakfast; dead at lunch.” Later, we learn that others say he died either of a heart attack, heartache, or rampant syphilis. His presence, like his portrait in Heed’s bedroom, dominates the household, and the power he exerts over the house on Monarch Street even in death—his funeral was in 1971—is one of the novel’s several themes. Mostly, Morrison asks us to think about the women who were dependent on him, their complicity in their own unhappiness, how ill prepared they were to shape their destinies. In a way, Love is a tale of a harem’s end. The women in Cosey’s life think of themselves and are remembered by others primarily for whatever value they had had to him.
Junior is answering Heed’s advertisement in a local paper for a secretary to help with highly confidential work. Christine—who knows “every black ever born from Niggerhead Rock to Sooker Bay, from Up Beach to Silk, and half the ones in Harbor as well, since that is where she had spent (or wasted) a whole chunk of her life”—is immediately suspicious.
The telltale signs of a runaway’s street life were too familiar: bus station soap, other people’s sandwiches, unwashed hair, slept-in clothes, no purse, mouth cleaned with chewing gum instead of toothpaste.
They have no telephone and Christine guesses that Romen helped Cosey’s widow, Heed, “a high-heeled snake,” to place the ad. Upstairs in a room crowded with furniture, Heed strikes a refined pose at the window. She detects a “bold laziness” behind Junior’s blunt but equivocal answers. She
needed someone who could be coaxed into things or already had a certain hunger. The situation was becoming urgent. Christine, true to her whore’s heart, sporting diamonds in their rightful owner’s face, was pilfering house money to pay a lawyer.
Age, the fact that neither can leave, has brought an “unnegotiated cease-fire” to the years of punching, wrestling, slapping, and arguing.
Love’s warring women disclose their grievances and memories to Junior, to themselves, and to each other by measured, menacing degrees. In her novels, Morrison often builds her stories through the use of different voices, multiple points of view. In Love, the scarcely noticeable and therefore wholly seductive omniscient narrator allows the “I” to comment on episodes in her voice, but otherwise the novel calmly visits the nostalgic and bitter thoughts of the main characters. The brusque dialogue has an atmosphere of being witnessed, of eavesdropping almost. And all the while Morrison patiently leaves clues to the central mysteries—who will get the house; did Bill Cosey leave a will other than the drunken notes he made on a menu one night in 1958 and if so what happened to it; and whom did he truly love. Clues come in the conversations and in moments of reflection that the reader doesn’t realize contain important information until later on, because, chapter by chapter, the people affected by their closeness to Bill Cosey add to what we need to know, usually something another character doesn’t know, but needs to.
In addition to Morrison’s straightforward but richly gentle prose, the pleasure and fascination of Love lie in how effortlessly she merges the threads of her story of damaged women, leftover pals, and newcomers. We get their histories in portions as Morrison moves from Junior to Sandler and Vida, from Christine and Heed then back to Romen and Junior, the circle getting smaller as the action nears its climax. Junior, all black leather jacket, “high, martial” nipples, and hair in “layers of corkscrews,” believes she has landed into a good, if weird, situation. Job security rests in figuring out what is going on between the two women. Only later do we learn that she is from “the Settlement,” a community of the desperately poor on a nearby mountain slope. Its inhabitants, generations of truants and troublemakers, are called “Rurals.” The only crime in the Settlement was to leave it, to get out. Junior wound up in a “correctional facility,” but at least she escaped her abusive uncles, half brothers, and cousins who are responsible for her crippled foot. Her foot was crippled when she tried to run away and they chased her in their car and ran over her. They pretended she was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, and she didn’t contradict them. At first she won’t take off her boots when she and Romen make love.
Junior is seventeen-year-old Romen’s first love affair and as such she changes him, he who was shunned by his friends as a chump because he helped the victim of a gang bang at a party. Junior insists that they have sex in ever stranger, more daring places. Romen provides the connection between Cosey’s house on Monarch Street and his grandparents, who, as outsiders, remember Bill Cosey from a different angle. His grandmother Vida had worked nine years at the hotel behind the desk. She thinks of Cosey as her rescuer, because her job took her from the swamp and cannery. “His pleasure was in pleasing.” Though the hotel was already in decline when she began work there in 1962, Vida remembers that lamps ringed the dance floor, men wore beautiful shoes and perfect creases, women trailed about in chiffon and moiré, and famous people kept coming back to rock the ocean air, because of “beaming” Bill Cosey and his wide hospitality, his reputation for discreetly supplying what every guest needed. Petty thieves and overbearing wives could not win out against Cosey’s charm and L’s, whose real name may be Estelle, cooking.
Cosey’s Resort was more than a playground; it was a school and a haven where people debated death in the cities, murder in Mississippi, and what they planned to do about it other than grieve and stare at their children.
Cannery and fishing families had been proud of the resort, though they never went there themselves until toward the end.
Vida’s husband, Sandler, first went fishing alone with Bill Cosey when he was twenty-two and Cosey seventy-four. “But the more [he] learned about the man, the less he knew.” While Vida can recall the women’s gossip about what went on at the hotel over the years, Sandler knows what Cosey got up to with his male buddies, and the bigshots, white and black, who enjoyed outings with beautiful women on Cosey’s party boat. He remembers how Cosey adored his son and how everything seemed to leave him when his son died as a young man.
Sandler also knows how much of Cosey’s style was a reaction to his own father’s miserly ways. Cosey’s father had accumulated capital by being a snitch, the Uncle Tom who informed on other blacks to the sheriff and landowners. Sandler knows as well that Bill Cosey refused to redeem the family name by selling land to a black community group instead of developers. Sandler had briefly worked as a waiter at the hotel, but accepted a supervisory job at the cannery that was on offer to a black man only because of the racial situation in the country in the 1960s. It is interesting that Morrison chose as her witnesses of Cosey’s glamour people excluded from his world. Sandler and his wife are the working poor, the survivors of every era, Morrison seems to be saying.
“The best good time this side of the law” is the hotel’s motto. Bill Cosey’s portrait builds as the thoughts of the living return to him, just as black history—the fate of Jim Crow institutions like Cosey’s Hotel and Resort—gets told through grumbles about the changes in black life. After his son’s death, Cosey lost interest in everything apart from fishing and harmonizing with tipsy friends. May, Christine’s mother and Cosey’s widowed daughter-in-law, tried to keep things going, but she fired the loyal, hired the trifling, and let gangster types, dayworkers, “cannery scum,” and payday migrants bring down the tone of the place and encourage police attention. Perhaps Christine had it the roughest: in 1947 at age seventeen she left home with four Samsonite suitcases and in 1975 she returned for good with a Wal-Mart shopping bag.
Her first boardinghouse was sympathetic to whores, but she in her pearls and navy blue suit found a husband in the army who was as young as she. “As marriage goes, it was ridiculous.” She went overseas to Germany with him and there the relationship fell apart. In the years afterward the granddaughter who hated her stepgrandmother, Heed, and whose education had been neglected in spite of her time at finishing school, was a waitress, a kept woman, the girlfriend of an activist in the freedom movement in the 1950s, an activist herself in the 1960s, then part of a group whose members finally told her in the 1970s that she was too old to hang with them.
Then home: a familiar place that, when you left, kept changing behind your back. The creamy oil painting you carried in your head turned into house paint. Vibrant, magical neighbors became misty outlines of themselves. The house nailed down in your dreams and nightmares comes undone, not sparkling but shabby, yet even more desirable because what had happened to it had happened to you. The house had not shrunk; you had. The windows were not askew—you were. Which is to say it was more yours than ever.
Or maybe Heed, from Up Beach, had it the roughest. Christine and May were enraged that Bill Cosey had chosen a girl who didn’t own a nightgown for his second wife. The catalog of humiliations they visited on her as soon as she appeared in her wedding gown make up a great deal of her memories in the novel. She did not give him an heir, and eventually his protective love evaporated and he took to other women. Early on, Junior wonders why Heed can’t write her book about her husband’s family herself. Perhaps she was hampered by arthritis or memory loss or some other “old-lady sickness.” She understands that Heed is something of a fraud, because her grammar lapses during their first meeting. “But most folks I seen had perfect hands, you know, because that’s the way we was taught.” Only much later do we realize that handwriting is all Heed has to go by; she is illiterate. Toward the end of Love we learn that Heed was maybe twelve when Bill Cosey decided on her.
There are many comic moments in the novel, in the way that hatred can be outrageous. However, by the time Christine is firing the black woman lawyer who regrets having told her she had rights to Cosey’s estate, and Heed is getting Junior to search the hotel attics for menus on which to forge another, definitive, will; by the time we have heard more about May prophesying mass executions of blacks in 1964 and about her kleptomania—she believed she was protecting Cosey property, hiding the silver from the coming race war—these women have become moving in their sad and pitiable attempts to settle accounts. “When she [May] died in 1976, her beloved death penalty was back in style and she had outlived the Revolution. Her ghost, though, helmeted and holstered, was alive and gaining strength.” It was May who buried the hotel deed in the sand.
Again, Christine felt the bitterness of the past two decades tramping up and down the stairs carrying meals she was too proud to ruin, wading through layers of competing perfumes, trying not to shiver before the “come on” eyes in the painting over that grotesque bed, collecting soiled clothes, washing out the tub, pulling hairs from the drain—if this wasn’t hell, it was the lobby.
At Bill Cosey’s funeral, Christine and Heed got into a fight, a scene gone over more than once. L, the chef, stepped between the “rigid vipers” and restored order. Christine put away her switchblade; Heed picked up her hat. And the county’s “role model” got the dignified funeral he deserved. “After that no one could doubt that the best good times were as dead as he was.” L, being the chef, was an important ingredient in Cosey’s success. She also had an instinctive understanding of him.
Who would have thought that in the teeth of the Depression colored people would want to play, or if they did, how could they pay for it? Mr. Cosey, that’s who. Because he knew what a harmonica player on a street corner knew: where there was music there was money.
As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that the mysterious intermittent “I” belongs to L, the chef and also the hummer. She had quit working at the hotel the day of Cosey’s funeral and got a job in a diner. She went on cooking even after she could no longer stand at the stove and had to have a special chair. It is possible that she is already dead, speaking from the other side. “The ocean is my man now.”
Folk and mystic elements in Morrison are most comfortably feminine. Even in Song of Solomon, the navel-less sister, Pilate, is the determined representative of the spiritual, out to save her nephew from his materialistic legacy. In Love, Junior believes that she is communicating with Bill Cosey’s portrait in Heed’s bedroom, that he watches her and Romen as they have sex around town. Once she enters into Heed’s scheme to forge a will, she can no longer feel his presence.
The mystical seems to saturate the air of this North Carolina coast, a part of the natural world. In the scene toward the end in which Heed and Christine, the untrustworthy stewards, confront each other at the hotel, they take on the desperate grandeur of a folk creation. One of them must die; the other left to grieve and to understand surrender too late. It is fitting that the hurtful answers to the questions that destroyed their deep childhood love for each other are gone, too, safely borne away by L, who knows about the existence of Cosey’s will, what happened to it, and whom Bill Cosey, catching the wise in their craftiness, loved most in the end.
Heed’s family told her that she was named for a line taken from Corinthians—“Heed the Night.” Heed the warning, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians says. “You were bought for a price; do not become the slaves of men,” he also says. In Song of Solomon one of Milkman Dead’s class-bound, house-imprisoned sisters is called First Corinthians. This chapter of the Bible has so many unpleasant recommendations regarding the subordination of women that Morrison certainly must have a specific meaning in mind by invoking it. Razor-sharp observations are hidden in her softest lines. Love may be about passion between men and women, or family ties, or the tenderness the elderly feel for the young about to make their own mistakes, but in the end it seems to have the most to say about how women love, which is perhaps different from the way men do. The novel is modest in length, but constantly suggestive, a beautiful, haunting work about two wasted lives that also mourns for a certain time in black life.
December 4, 2003
See Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), and Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans (Random House, 1983). ↩