Toni Morrison

Feministing Reads: Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

God Help The Child book coverToni Morrison is a national treasure, and a new Morrison novel is a national event. Superlatives proliferate: she is among our greatest chroniclers of American history, our greatest portraitists of black communal life, our greatest analysts of subjectivity under duress, our greatest institutional advocates for black feminist literature. 

She has meant so much to so many of us. In his recent review of her new novel God Help the Child (Knopf), Saeed Jones notes how much our love asks of her: “Even when she is sitting right in front of us, we can’t see her in the midst of her own blazing light.” We depend on her not just to make meaning through her books, but to mean. We — I, certainly — invoke her reverently, defend her rabidly, and return to her often.

At 84 years old she could easily retire graciously, reemerging for the occasional lifetime achievement award or well-paid speaking gig, but Morrison shows no sign of slowing down. In a brilliant recent profile for the New York Times Magazine, Morrison told Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “I’m not going anywhere soon.”

As if nodding to this great burden of fandom, her new novel’s dedication reads, “For You.” The epigraph that follows is Biblical, but God Help the Child reads more like a cross between contemporary fable and police procedural. It opens with a series of monologues from the novel’s principle characters, some confiding, others defensive. “It’s not my fault,” begins Sweetness. “So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened.” The great misfortune? Not murder, rape, or violation — though this slim book has more than its share of those crimes — but rather the birth of a too-black daughter. “She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”

Veteran readers of Morrison will immediately remember her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), in which dark-skinned Pecola Breedlove is made to feel ugly for her blackness. Like Pecola, Sweetness’s daughter Lula Ann is bullied mercilessly, most persistently by her own mother, and her tenuous sense of self is formed in this crucible of racism and parental injury.

But Lula Ann is born in the 1990s rather than the 1920s, and unlike Pecola she survives into adulthood. In Sweetness’s strictness and rigid respectability she echoes Dorcas’s demanding aunt Alice in Morrison’s mid-career novel Jazz (1992), and just like Alice, Sweetness loses control of her charge early and for good. Sweetness is a light-skinned child of light-skinned parents — “what we call high yellow” — and she justifies her own distaste for Lula Ann’s blackness by insisting that she had to be tough to prepare her daughter for the wider world’s toughness.

Sweetness does not anticipate that in this new millennium her daughter will learn to rebrand her blackness as something exotic and alluring. A failed job interview prompts Lula Ann to christen herself “Bride” and begin wearing white, exclusively, after which she quickly climbs the ranks of a glamorous cosmetics company. “Black sells,” her stylist assures her, provided you know how to package it; “It’s the hottest commodity in the civilized world. White girls, even brown girls have to strip naked to get that kind of attention.”

Morrison, of course, knows this appetite for blackness to be racism’s reincarnation rather than its death, and even in her triumph Bride recognizes the objectification it entails: “I sold my elegant blackness to all those childhood ghosts and now they pay me for it.”

In a desperate attempt to curry favor with her mother, eight-year-old Lula Ann testified against a teacher falsely accused of sexually molesting her students; fifteen years later, Bride’s mysterious boyfriend Booker leaves her just as the convicted teacher is about to be released on parole. The two events become conflated in Bride’s mind, launching her on a halting and indirect quest to set things right with both parties.

With Booker, Bride had felt confident, stable, and open. In contrast to the dehumanizing gazes of her colleagues and admirers, Booker seemed to truly see and hear her. When he leaves she begins to quite literally regress — with one of Morrison’s trademarked supernatural flourishes, Bride’s pubic hair disappears and her breasts flatten. The newly hostile world is compared to “the atmosphere in her mother’s house where she never knew the right thing to do or say or remember what the rules were,” and Bride gradually becomes possessed by “the scary suspicion that she was changing back into a little black girl.”

In outline, this extreme dependence on the validation of a male partner may rankle the feminist reader. But one of Morrison’s great themes — explored almost exclusively between heterosexuals, it bears mention — is the often surprising manner in which we become essential to each other. As we learned from Son and Jadine in Tar Baby (1981), from Joe and Violet in Jazz (1992), and now from Bride and Booker in God Help the Child, our individual borders turn porous and shifting when confronted with another’s. We adapt to each other, grow around each other, and a betrayal of that radical responsiveness can be world shattering.

One of the savvier characters in this latest novel “knew from personal experience how hard loving was, how selfish and how easily sundered.” Morrison must teach us this again and again because it’s such an exacting lesson. And though God Help the Child can feel unrelentingly grim, Morrison believes her characters can learn, too. “What kind of love is it,” asks Booker, with eleventh-hour insight, “that requires an angel and only an angel for its commitment?”

I’ve mentioned that this novel is a slim one, and other reviewers have remarked upon how much leaner it feels than Morrison’s best-known work. I, too, found myself missing her more resplendent and commanding authorial voices. For long stretches of God Help the Child, the monologues prevent Morrison from letting flow her winding streams of language, though a third-person perspective emerges mid-way through the novel. I missed the slippery, voyeuristic, anonymous “I” of Jazz; the fractured and shifting perspective of The Bluest Eye; the sensuously mythic omniscience of Tar Baby.

But though individual monologues may fall flat, all of Morrison’s psychological insight is at work in the ever-elaborating relationships between her speakers — she, of course, knows them better than they do, and their full complexity becomes clearer as each new puzzle piece falls into place. Perhaps the totem of Toni Morrison is inadvertently obscuring the page itself; perhaps this latest mode should be welcomed rather than regretted, or at least measured against a different yardstick than the Morrison we claim so fervently.

Header image via.

New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

Read more about Sam

Join the Conversation