Growing Up Too Black

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…

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