A Literary Jazz Quartet: ‘The Toni Morrison Book Club’ (2020)

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By Paromita Patranobish

What is common between George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Pecola Breedlove, Macon “Milkman” Dead, Guitar Baines, Sethe, and Sula Peace? And how does a literary text spill over into the reader’s world, establishing unforeseen connections between disparate times and places, creating reflective surfaces out of sedimented historical strata upon which private and public trajectories of contemporary life might be critically parsed, creatively reassembled, and recast within fresh interpretive horizons? What connects the names in the earlier sentence, half of them belonging to real individuals, African American men and women between the ages of 12 and 50 who died during law enforcement encounters in the last decade, and the other half to fictional characters from Toni Morrison’s novels – is a brutal and continuing narrative of black precarity in the United States, and globally.

It is this narrative, whose genesis can be traced, as Sylvia Wynter (2000) persuasively shows, to the Transatlantic Slave trade and a certain consolidation of the normative human subject as the white European male defined in opposition to the terra firma of geologic matter on the one hand and the black bodies of slaves on the other, both characterized as mute, inert, rich in untapped resources open to being mastered, and endlessly appropriable by the white master/owner in an economy of profit and exchange  that Morrison’s books take up: the fungibility and disposability of black existence in a world structured around the valorization of whiteness.

In reading Morrison’s novels together, and moreover in creating innovative practices of reading that dilate individual, personal engagements with texts by refracting these through a space of communal intellectual participation, The Toni Morrison Book Club testifies to the enduring relevance of Morrison’s works as an atlas for navigating the racialized topographies of the present. It offers alternative paradigms for literary consumption: “a group memoir—with Toni Morrison as our soundtrack” (5). This involves the creation of new phenomenologies of reading in which acts of reading together – transporting the solitary scene of reading to kitchen tables and passionately argued debates over shared casseroles, or living room sofas where watching a TV show while eating cupcakes in anxious, anticipatory silence segues into discussions about gun control, white fragility, and teenage microaggression – turn readership into a site for building solidarities, addressing repressed personal and intergenerational psychic traumas, and exploring radically new ways of writing about the links between sources of private pain and pain as an intrinsic part of black history, between private affect and an affective engagement with public history via the material texture of literary aesthetics. In the voices of four friends, professors of English at New Jersey College, all researching and writing about various aspects of race and racial politics, the book combines literary criticism with autobiographical narration while firmly centering with unwavering conviction, its primary focus on the relevance of Morrison’s work for a contemporary world marked by continuing systemic brutalisation and dehumanisation of black bodies and black lives.

Trauma and “The Strong Black Woman” trope

If the process of deliberate naming is an affirmative speech act that the book participates in, the motif of the ‘secret’ serves as its negative counterpart, thematically and figuratively enacting the field of silencing, repression, and elision that represents a fundamental condition of being black in America. Each author’s narrative/literary analysis is prefixed with the avowal of a hitherto unconfessed secret. “Cassandra’s secret is that did not want to write this book” (14) is the confession that launches us into the four stories. The figure of the negative contained in this statement is an effective strategy that the book deploys early in the narrative to draw attention to the structure of denial that underlies black female subjectivity encouraged to articulate itself through the misguided and profoundly debilitating tropes of physical toughness, mental strength, and spiritual resilience. The disavowal of secrets and a resistance to expression are in fact suggestive of both the unrepresentable and obscene (in the etymological sense) horror of white atrocities upon enslaved black bodies, and the effacement of this horror from historical record. Implicit in this refusal is also the black community’s internalization of oppression in the form of a recursive hatred of (one’s own) blackness and the denial of or refusal to engage with the psychological effects of this significant and buried history of racial violence. Racial violence is an open secret gathering within its ambit a cluster of negations – the invisibilization of black subjects and their labour, the socially sanctioned minimizing of black suffering and precarity, the normalized denial of opportunity and quality livelihoods to black communities, and the erasure or marginalization of black culture, history, and modes of expression from normative codifications of American culture.

For Cassandra Jackson, and Morrison as she reads the latter, the effects of racial mattering as a set of negations, violations, and invisibilizations, are articulated most tellingly in the fractured psychic states of black women. Morrison’s novels use a recurrent theme of women’s madness to indict the social inscription of the matter of black bodies not as liveable and grievable flesh but as what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson calls “the history of blackness’s bestialization and thingification: the process of imagining black people as an empty vessel, a nonbeing, a nothing, an ontological zero, coupled with the violent imposition of colonial myths and racial hierarchy” (2020: 1).[1]  Morrison’s novels highlight a crucial gap in black self-articulation – the presence of internalized trauma and its after-effects. The “staunch belief that black people did not go crazy…black folks, especially black women, did not have time to go crazy” (40) is mismatched when we examine various instances of post-traumatic stress in Morrison’s novels. In Jackson’s juxtaposed reading of Pecola Breedlove from The Bluest Eye and Sethe from Beloved, racial history is refracted through the deep structure of psychic trauma. Jackson’s analysis of both novels takes the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters as a site for investigating the traumatic residue of racial violence persisting in the ruptured materiality of women’s bodies – the scar tissue on Sethe’s back and Pecola’s blue eyes – haunted corporeal epiphenomena at the limits of representational coherence where magical thinking joins brutal reality to underscore the complex trajectory that trauma undertakes in its belated unfolding.

On the one hand is Beloved’s critical scene of infanticide: Sethe’s attempt to brutally murder her second child after strangling her first, witnessed by her slave-owning masters. On the other is Pecola Breedlove’s idealization of white stereotypes of female beauty based on images of Hollywood actresses circulated through popular media, and her mother’s hatred of her child as a projection of an internalized self-loathing for her own blackness. In both instances the violence of mothers towards girl children is Morrison’s coded cipher for articulating the convergent territory of racial trauma as both explicit and implicit, social and psychic, communally experienced atrocity producing a spectral theatre of melancholia, amnesia, dissociation, and fragmentation, the latter inadequately addressed even within African American historiography.

Both the slave owners and Paul D misinterpret Sethe’s murder of Beloved to save her from her destiny as a slave, as an act that makes her less than human. It confirms their inability to identify Sethe’s slaughter of her child as maternal love: “the ferocious and sometimes dangerous love of a mother whose right to mother is never promised and whose children are not children but instead reflections of a nation’s greatest fears” (20). The murder of Beloved in this reading is an anarchic and revolutionary enactment of love that cauterizes the unspeakable horror of slavery by mimetically reappropriating and transforming it into a form of agency, an assertion of possession as radical dispossession. Paul D’s verdict also shared by the plantation owners, that Sethe’s infanticide reduces her to a beastly status, flattens the affective and psychic complexity of her trauma by applying to it ethical and juridical standards that have no operative value in the first place in a world marked by chattel slavery. Similarly, in The Bluest Eye both the mother’s seemingly irrational hatred towards her child, and the daughter’s gradual descent into neurosis, are Morrison’s attempts at addressing the unconscious life of race as an unfolding intergenerationally transmitted trauma, and the role of the unconscious, incorporeal, virtual dimension of race as bodily affects, asynchronous memory, psychic impulses, and intensities of feeling: race as what structures modes of being and habits of perception.

In her original reading of both books, Jackson sees Morrison’s careful representation of the underlying vulnerability that causes black women to experience various kinds of psychological pain and collapse, as an effort to respond to cultural assumptions that valorize black women as embodiments of infallible strength and worldly grit. While actively advocated by many African Americans themselves, who either overlook instances of mental illness in their own community or talk about it in euphemistic evasions, the myth of black strength runs the risk of reproducing imperialist-racist stereotypes of the black woman’s animal-like incapacity for experiencing subtler human emotions. Jackson uses Morrison’s books to contextualize her own experiences of being the mother of a young black boy, a demographic that is under constant surveillance and subject to violence, and argues passionately about the need to acknowledge, especially from within African American representational and discursive spaces, the pressing question of black mental health and black women’s fragility.

The paradigm of black strength and heroism while performing an important work of reclamation of power, can become a mode of whitewashing the nuanced reality of black motherhood in a world that devalues, threatens, and demonizes young adults of colour. Black mothers not only have to experience the anxiety and rage of this imminent danger as a chronic and normalized part of the everyday structure of motherhood, they also have to negotiate the necropolitical underpinnings of race, its fundamental tendency to persistently de-recognize and reduce black lives to various forms of precarity by emphasizing the threat that the construct of black muscularity poses to white fragility.

Morrison’s empathetic depiction of black mothers as fallible and tragic creates permission for acknowledging and articulating tenderness and weakness as integral to the affective dimensions of motherhood and the process of collective healing from historical traumas. In a memorable scene from The Bluest Eye that Jackson cites in her account, a pregnant slave is described by a doctor to his white male students as someone who can give birth prolifically and with ease like farm animals, a trope in which scientific discourse combines with racial hatred to create a continuum of nonhuman matter that comprises animals, natural resources, and women slaves as sliding signifiers for one another in the service of sustaining plantation capitalism. The denial of softness and sensitivity to black women even by themselves then unwittingly participates in a cultural script that attributes to African Americans a brute and subhuman physical strength in order to sublimate white-European subjectivity to a higher realm of intellectual/spiritual refinement, a realm of higher feelings and sensibilities the ontological absence of which from black being becomes a justification for racial discrimination. Sethe’s inexplicable murder of Beloved or the Breedlove women’s fractured affections are commentaries on the configuration of black motherhood as a perennially haunted structure permeated by the violence of race, while attempting to counter the doctor’s white supremacist and speceistic narrative.

These representations of motherhood belong to a common space of maternal vulnerability that includes Toya Graham, Michael Singleton’s mother who upon finding her son in the midst of the Baltimore protests of 2015 strongly reprimanded her adult son in public before dragging him by force out of the street. The mothers in the neighbourhood play park, who unlike their Caucasian counterparts, cannot discipline their children with a simple ‘no, thank you’ because their awareness of the precarity of black children in public spaces sharpens the edges of their parenting with caution, paranoia, and fear. Jackson realizes the “contradiction” inherent in black motherhood during her harrowing experience of trying to find a doula/birth coach for her home pregnancy, getting both racially profiled and racially misrepresented in the process, because of the widespread belief stretching back to nineteenth century plantation culture, that black women can ‘do it themselves’ and are not therefore in need of doulas only supposedly meant for more fragile white to-be mothers.

Exoticism and Microaggression

If the strong woman stereotype as a means of devaluing black women’s bodies is one of the many cultural tropes used to perpetuate racial hatred, the other end of spectrum is occupied by, as Piper Kendrix Williams’s narrative shows, the fetishistic white male gaze that devalues black women by exoticizing their bodies. Piper’s dilemma in high school of desiring to be seen as a specific individual rather than a type, compounded by her invisibilization through various racist microaggressions, allows her to see a parallel in Florens, a seventeenth century slave from Morrison’s 2008 novel A Mercy. She focuses in particular on a telling scene of ironic reversals in the novel in which white colonizers on seeing Florens for the first time are both fascinated and repulsed by her colour, using, like the castaways on Prospero’s island trying to comprehend Caliban, Biblical myth and fantasy to speculate on her identity. As the white missionaries touch, examine, and study Florens, looking for demonic markers on her body, Florens participates in a process of counter speculation, critiquing the moral and intellectual myopia of the colonizers. Florens’s hypervisibility that is also a form of invisibilization is shared by a teenage Piper, the only black girl in an all-white school, who has to navigate an acute self-consciousness about her blackness through the cognitive landscape of white privilege and white normativity that is ignorant of and insensitive to her difference. The subversive irony of her dressing up as a black Scarlett O’Hara is lost on her classmates who fail to see her costume as a radical performance of race, while the white men who claim to be attracted to her exotic looks not only continually objectify her as either a prop to support their liberal white saviour masculinity or like in Florens’s case a curiosity to be possessed and explored, but also in keeping with the conventional hegemonies of racial phobia, refuse to interact with her in public view. In a spectacular exposition of the racialized and polarized optical regime of seeing/not seeing, visibility/invisibility, recognition/disavowal and by implicit extension white/black, and its close links with the ways in which black women’s bodies are inscribed and made visible, Williams points to the nexus between racial and gendered oppression. The microaggressions that victimize Piper without directly oppressing her while seemingly innocuous belong to the same racist order that put Till Emmet to a brutal end for socializing with a white middle class woman in 1955.

Guns and Laughter

In the other two sections, Juda Bennett and Winnifred Brown-Glaude approach Morrison’s novels through the lenses of humour as a literary tool, and the history of racial violence as a threshold from where to think about intersectional links between various kinds of non-white marginalities that constitute contemporary America – native American, immigrant, biracial, and other people of colour. In a skilful and provocative analysis of Morrison’s use of ironic and deflationary humour to depict her white characters, Bennett shows how irony serves as a critical device to comment on the gap between black experience and white responses to it. In the case of Amy Denver in Beloved, a novel that Bennett studies, this incommensurability between drastically divided worlds is a source of humour in the scene where Amy meets Sethe and helps deliver her baby, as well as productive of a strangely paradoxical zone of identification, empathy and correspondence between the two. Amy’s wild fascination for velvet and the seeming superfluousness of her desire for material and sensory plenitude that velvet symbolizes in stark contrast to Sethe’s utter privation, is at once laughable in its incongruity in relation to the women’s shared destitution, and a reminder of the white servant’s relative privilege in relation to her black counterpart. But Morrison as Bennett demonstrates is not willing to concede to any easy conclusions, and in fact it is Amy’s dream of velvet and her absorption in an alternative world of imagination, aesthetics, poetry, and song that becomes a potently therapeutic site for Sethe’s painful and perilous labour, making poetry and poiesis a form of care-giving in which differences are both highlighted and bridged. The concept of art as care-giving is what connects Juda personally to the world of Morrison’s novels.

Juda’s secret, the book tells us, is not just his closeted homosexuality in a white military household but also the code of silence that governs it. This silence not only requires stringent forms of self-censorship and secrecy about most matters but also necessitates a refusal to see what does not pass the convention, including a black dance show on TV that the young Juda finds empowering. The gesture of disavowal, a structure of the unspoken and the unspeakable that forms the underbelly of white privilege, becomes the creative thread that loosely joins the different contexts of Juda’s encounter with the African American community and culture, all the while remaining, in a manner true to Morrison, attuned to the comic pulse giving life and meaning to them. The young boy’s tentative and deeply personal engagement with black popular culture as offering affirmative possibilities for queer self-fashioning; the young hippie’s brief but intense moment of bonding with a black family over a common connection provided by the shared liking for a song, in the middle of a confusing car ride riddled with silences, alienation, and discomfort; and an attempt to teach Beloved in a women’s maximum security prison that ends up in unpredictable pedagogic experiments and unexpected revelations – each of these scenes of cross-racial engagement offers in Bennett’s sensitive narration, a new aesthetic and political use of the secret. Bennett’s interest in the aesthetics of humour is an attempt to find an ethical mode of addressing the historically sedimented rupture between black and white subjects, in which the white point of view in creating a map of intersecting traumas or marginalities, does not cannibalize, fetishize, or appropriate African American historical and cultural specificity. An acknowledgement of a space of contradiction, irony, contingency, and failure, rather than one of complete epistemic access, that humour opens up, becomes for Morrison and Bennett a possible ground for thinking about racial justice and redressal.

Echoing this approach to the question of race relations in America through the optic of contingency, Winnifred Brown-Glaude returns to A Mercy. Re-charting, like Cassandra, a synoptic history of armed violence, including police brutality against black men, and reflecting on the uneven standards around licensed firearms possession for blacks and whites, Winnifred’s narrative reaches back to the first contact between races as envisioned in Morrison’s novel. This part of the book is both intensely bleak as the author brings us into close proximity with the dailyness and magnitude of racist violence, including several personal experiences, as well as oriented in hope, assaying a vocabulary of social justice that tries to find a way out of violence “toward healthy responses and greater clarity” (4). The tenor for this politics of futurity based in hope comes from a correspondence between Brown-Glaude’s husband and son. This exchange which was later published by Brown-Glaude in Time Magazine is a father to son confession of what it is like to be a black father in contemporary America and living in constant fear for one’s child’s safety, to which Langston his son responds by talking about the need for continuing struggle for the sake of possible future change. This futurity is based for Winnifred in Morrison’s vision articulated through Jacob Vaark’s farm in A Mercy of a multicultural world where inherited power asymmetries gradually give way to a sense of communal grief and vulnerability. In Morrison’s novel a Native American farm-hand and epidemic survivor, an orphan and former poorhouse resident, a bereaved mother, and a black slave enter into a contingent space of labour, sickness, affective entanglements, and shared deracination. For Brown-Glaude this conception of a fraught hybridity is what energizes the racial justice and Black Lives Matter movement further by anchoring it in a topography of collective victimization and collectively experienced systemic oppression, and thus of racism’s points of intersection with xenophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous politics, and colourism.

The Toni Morrison Book Club is not just a book about contemporary forms of racism and the continuing relevance of a black feminist author vis-à-vis the present scenario. It also ultimately raises pertinent questions about the concrete and specific ways in which race materializes in relation to other historically mediated forms of oppression, about the ways in which we read and talk about race as non-blacks, and about the need to acknowledge patterns of collusion and complicity in racist violence and injury while remaining receptively cognizant of the possibility of emancipatory alliances. What I most love about this book is its seemingly effortless but obviously painstakingly crafted fusion of disparate genres, styles, authorial and personal perspectives cohering in the concept of a group memoir that the book masterfully assembles in a manner not dissimilar from the African American quilt and quilting traditions.

The supple, unpretentious, graceful narrative meanders in a manner similar to Morrison’s own style, bringing astute political analysis together with personal stories of navigating race. Critical and anecdotal, lyrical and angry, philosophical and passionate, The Toni Morrison Book Club is a collective and broad testimony to the enduring relevance of the author’s insights. It is also a heart-warming acknowledgment of the power of friendship to sustain and nurture individual journeys, offer sanctuaries and safe spaces in moments of crisis, and foster emotional and physical healing from shared traumas.

[1]     Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. New York: New York University Press, 2020.

Bio:
Paromita Patranobish is an academic based in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Modernist literature with a focus on nonhuman embodiment in works of Virginia Woolf. She has taught at Shiv Nadar University, Daulat Ram College, and Ambedkar University Delhi.

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