Musings on Toni Morrison's God Help the Child
By Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman
When I read early publicity that Toni Morrison’s newest book, God Help the Child, was a novel written about a dark-skinned black woman who is brutalized by her mother because of her color, it struck a chord. It resonated with me because my first book, The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families, is a sociological book that will be published later this year addressing similar issues. I relished in imagining that Morrison and I may have vibed on the same conceptual wavelength without knowing it, pondering questions of colorism in black families, and leading us to publish a book on similar topics in the same year. I eagerly pre-ordered Toni Morrison’s new book, with excitement and incredulity … and then fear crept in. As a fledgling sociologist, I thought that Morrison’s book could only mean one thing: the kiss of death for my book. But wait, this was no irrational fear. Anyone who has read Morrison’s work knows that when she gives a theme her treatment, she forfeits the necessity of any more words. She articulates with ease in 150 pages, what I can not accomplish with a modicum of the same impact in 350 pages. Visions of us intellectually vibing were now overcome with the sense that her book would render my book redundant and, at worst, mundane. I had the sinking feeling that Toni Morrison had stolen my thunder.
Immediately after this thought passed through my mind, I was overcome with laughter. A laugh that lasted several times longer than the original thought itself. A laugh that was borne out of how completely and utterly preposterous it was to imagine Morrison “stealing my thunder.” What thunder? All I could do was laugh at the absurdity of this idea, as my passion for reading, my desire to write, and my interest in colorism, all find themselves linked to the reverberations of Morrison’s thunder. My childhood memories of her books on my mother’s bookshelf, the same ones that later migrated to my own shelves trace a more accurate truth – my work is the sociological undulation, a mere residual of her oeuvre. Toni Morrison, literary genius and Nobel Laureate, does not and can not steal anyone’s thunder - She IS thunder!
Like a trident, her sharp pen stirs latent emotions, crackling softly and then forcefully striking us at our core with plots that slog us kicking and screaming to see the un-seeable. God Help the Child is about skin color privilege and childhood trauma, but it is also the way Morrison weaves these themes together to produce the novel - unapologetically brutal, emotionally unsettling, and yet alluring. Morrison wields words that leave wounds, sending the reader to find reprieve only by reminding themselves that the novel is an invention of her creative genius. What is only more disturbing than the traumas that she wrenches us through is the possibility that the heinous traumas that she portrays might be real. But, a mother would never do this to her child. Children are not raped and then silenced by adults. Parents do not betray their children when they need them the most ... Or do they?
In direct dialogue with Morrison’s idea, my book, The Color of Love offers a sociological and theoretical analysis of the themes, relationships, and family dynamics that have always been part of Morrison’s repertoire since her first book, The Bluest Eye. What is different is that I explore the resistance and reproduction of racism in black families in Brazil in ways that capture the diasporic relevance of these family processes. The nuances of mother-daughter relationships that are structured by colorism are mirrored in the real lives of Lilza and Corina in my research. The disgust that some parents feel when they deliver a dark-skinned baby are reflected in interviews with Taynara and Dona Elena, two interviewees in my research. Echoing Morrison’s sense that “what you do to a child matters,” is my chapter entitled, “Home is Where the Hurt Is,” which discusses how differential treatment based on racial features can lead to life-long trauma and disadvantage.
But much like Morrison’s work, colorism is merely one element of the book and only tells part of the life history of my respondents. Other chapters address how black mothers and fathers in Brazil transgress racial boundaries or may engage in differential treatment as a survival strategy in a society where blackness is an offense. At the emotional level, I explore the ambivalence with which black mothers engage in “gendered racial bargains,” including the withholding of support and use of racial modification, another protective strategy against racism and sexism. Still other families flaunt their blackness, revel in their kinky coils, and compel others to do the same. Mothers are at the center of these practices, much like Sweetness in God Help the Child. Morrison saves the last words for Sweetness, an abusive mother who is far too complex to dismiss. A meticulously crafted figure who resents her dark-skinned daughter, Morrison rather than outright condemning her motherhood, compels us to also consider the brutality of racism. Sweetness, similar to mothers in my book, views the inflicted traumas as “not my fault” or rather as a necessary evil in societies that stigmatize and destroy blackness often without recourse. Indeed, in the face of this type of necessary evil, the only plea possible as Morrison suggests is that “God help the child.”
Unwilling to wait for my copy of Morrison’s book to arrive at my doorstep, I purchased it at my local bookstore and I consumed it in one sitting. Her book is a reminder that my path in the social sciences builds on the provocative ideas that she and other great writers (Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neal Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, among others) have masterfully represented through their novels and plays. Beyond the literature itself, Morrison’s challenge, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it,” has been the poignant prescription that has guided my career. After reading, God Help the Child, I am convinced that it does not render my work redundant or mundane. In fact, it sets the stage or rather clears the path for my book, The Color of Love, to be included as part a conversation that Morrison has made more significant and palpable because of her book. Much like her other works, God Help the Child is written in lightening. But this time, for the first time, I can enjoy the powerful reverberations of her thunder under my feet, while perhaps making small ripples of my own.