So many who speak of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and her newest novel God Help the Child seem to concentrate, too much, on the word master’s age. Certainly to have survived in America for 84 years and not have drowned under the strain of being Black and a woman is no easy feat and should be celebrated. To have written 11 amazingly deep, consummate novels while carrying the weight of those burdens deserves another kind of praise—one similar to a canonization for the living. We’ve certainly witnessed her pull off the miracle of being a Black creative who’s been able to publish successfully, and to a captive audience, since the 1970s.
I won’t say “Morrison is still writing” in a tone that suggests she shouldn’t be, but instead, one of pure amazement, as I’m struggling here to do her words justice and use my own words to bow at her feet.
I’ve learned so much about being a woman from Mama Toni (which is the name I call her aloud along with a hard “umpfh” when her writing dazzles and delights me most). As beautifully written as her novels are, the conversations and lessons they offer seem as familiar to her readers as beauty shop talk. As with all her novels, Morrison offers us unique teachings in God Help the Child. These are a few I found most inescapable:
“She was so Black she scared me.” Sweetness—mother of the novel’s protagonist, Lula Ann—made this comment as her daughter’s newborn paleness began to fade. Morrison begins the novel talking about a kind of colorism that we, at least publicly, pretend to have overcome. Sweetness’s own grandmother could pass for White, so she did, and never spoke to anyone in her family again—including her children.
So Sweetness was a least three generations deep of high yellow, and when Lula Ann was born “midnight Black,” her mother and father (who was also light-skinned) were disgusted by her. Imagine the kind of oppression one suffers through that makes her hate her own daughter because she’s too far away from White to love. Colorism is necessarily presented as an illness and a byproduct of racism, where a mother literally hides her daughter when looking for housing in mixed communities because her daughter’s dark complexion is so menacing.
Morrison’s strongest lesson reminds us that as we fight our racism and White supremacy, we must also acknowledge and treat what living under such a system has done to us.
“What you do to children matters. And they might not forget.” Bride—who Lula Ann morphs into once she leaves her mother (and her mother’s disgust for her complexion)—never quite progresses past her childhood or really enjoys the magnificent life she’s created for herself after such a traumatizing adolescence. And aren’t we all adults trying to deal with the traumas of our childhoods?
Although she tries to pull off being a vixen—embracing her “Sudanese Black” complexion and always wearing all white—she is only able to muster a faux confidence. She is insecure and in constant need of affirmation, which is how she establishes what she believes is a friendship with Brooklyn (who isn’t a friend after all). It’s why after she looses her lover, Booker, she is unable to fully recover and slowly changes back into the mentally and emotionally abused child she was while living with Sweetness.
Morrison teaches us that we have to be mindful, present parents, and forgiving children, since we don’t get to choose either way. She also makes strong commentary about leaving the past behind; otherwise we’ll forever be stunted and will never blossom into the people we deserve to become.
“He was part of the pain, not a savior at all, and now her life was in shambles because of him.” Bird made the mistake that so many of us do. She took refuge in another human being and expected him to heal her. But we can only heal ourselves. As soon as Booker left Bird, she fell completely apart. She should have known, as poet Warsan Shire wrote, that she could not make a house out of a human being. The truth is, we are responsible, and the only ones responsible, for our joy. And no one wants to carry the load of being responsible of holding someone together. Bird masked her pain with opulence, but never once sat down with a therapist to sort through her past. This is a tradition in our community that dates back as far as colorism and needs to change.
Morrison, through Bride’s characterization, offers a cautionary tale of what happens when we choose to bury our pain instead of giving it air so it can heal, and when we expect far too much from other folk who are trying to exorcise their own demons.
There are many more prodigious themes Toni Morrison offers in her God Help the Child. Share your favorite below!
Josie Pickens is an educator, culture critic and soldier of love. Send her your love + relationship questions here. Also, follow her on Twitter @jonubian.