Review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Sorry I have not published a post in a while, but school is back in session and a few major developments in my professional life have kept me pretty busy but for the good. Yet, no matter how busy I am, I always try to still make time to curl up even for just five minutes at a time with a good book. I was heartbroken when I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s passing . I loved her novels because they always whisked me away to another era in U.S. history and helped me get as close as I can bear to aspects of the Black American experience. The other day I was listening to an old NPR Fresh Air interview with Morrison where she read a passage from her last novel God Help the Child and the few lines she read were so intriguing that I immediately made a detour to the closest bookstore to pick up a copy. The novel begins with Sweetness explaining the shocker, horror, and shame she felt when her daughter Lula Ann was born. Both Sweetness and her husband Louis are exceptionally light skinned and most likely members of the Blue Vein Society. In the maternity ward, she momentarily contemplates smothering the baby rather that have her dark skin body and lips press against her breast to nurse. In the end, she decides to spare her life but not her feelings. She refrains from as much physical contact as she can with her daughter through the most pivotal years in a child’s development. She provides her with the financial necessities in life but fails to provide her any outward displays of affection and emotional intimacy. Her husband, still convinced that she cheated, leaves her in protest to having to raise a dark- skinned child.

Nevertheless, Lula Ann grows up to be gorgeous and successful. Her onyx skin becomes an “exotic” feature that helps her win lovers from all nationalities and opens doors for her in the cosmetic industry. It appears that she has triumphed in the end over the taunts about her skin hue from her peers and her mother’s emotional neglect. She has proven to everyone and herself that she can certainly find the physical intimacy her mother deprived her of from almost anyone she chooses. Yet, as you continue reading, you later realize that she is still the same little insecure , skinny, dark-skinned, knobbly kneed, girl of her past and, Lula Ann begins to panic when a love loss brings this insecurity to the emotional and physical forefront.

Although Lula Ann’s story is the focus of the book, all of the characters she encounters or pursues has their own story and each one is mired in a childhood pain or tragedy that has attached to them like a cancer and metastasized over the years into adulthood. I have to warn you that these tragedies are dark and unsettling but they were for me a constant reminder of the inability for any of us to ever free ourselves of our positive or negative childhood experiences. I was a little disappointed by the fact that with the exception of Sweetness’ story, the setting for the majority of God Help the Child takes place in modern day. Sweetness’ story was very compelling and left me with an insatiable desire to learn more about her, but maybe that was the point Morrison was trying to make. As a society we shine the light and focus on the perpetrators of crimes against children. We are obsessed with wanting to know why anyone could hurt or neglect children. Rarely do the children who are victimized get the opportunity to share their story and heal. We don’t care to know how they will cope into adulthood and the type of person they will become. Reading this novel left me like many of the characters also asking myself, ” Are my childhood experiences carrying me through life or am I carrying them?” If my childhood experiences are carrying me, “Are they tired, weary, and ready to rest?” Rest in peace Queen Morrison. Thank you for blessing us with your courage to tell the stories that no one else bothered to tell.

Toni Morrison’s “Home” Forced me to Remember Home.

Toni Morrison portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

Final Exams, teacher end of the year evaluations, and a community historic preservation project I am currently spearheading has me wishing lately that there were 48 hours to a day. As a result, I have not had time to read as much as I normally would but that is expected this time of the year and I know that rest and relaxation are only eleven days away! I did manage to squeeze in, Home, a novel last week by the queen Toni Morrison.

Home revolves around the story of Frank Money, a Korean War veteran and modern day African American Odysseus wandering through the South trying to find his way back home to Georgia following the war. However, unlike Odysseus, the only gods he encounters are the gods of the American South in the 1950s: Segregation, Poverty, and White Supremacy. I love Morrison’s subject matter and her ability to create characters and settings that remind me of places, family members, and experiences I have and have never been nor had. She is able to recount the African American experience in such vivid and emotional details with her choice of words and an uncanny ability to convey emotion that she always strikes a cord with me. I love her stories for their depth and development but I love them even more, because I feel that she is telling my story and my mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s, and great great grandfather’s story in this country. I feel the ability to appreciate and connect with her stories because the characters and their experiences flow through my very veins.

Picture of African American soldiers during the Korean War from americanradioworks.publicradio.org

The story begins with Frank Money daring to return to Lotus, Georgia a place with few opportunities with the intent of finding his sister Cee who he heard was in grave trouble. Along the way, he is plagued with some pretty horrific flashbacks from his tour of duty in Korea that often curbs his ability to decipher reality. In the end, you finally get a better idea of what part of his flashbacks were rooted in true past events or fabricated to help him deal with his past sins. I also really enjoyed the tender but despondent chapters where Frank and Cee reminisce about about their relationship. Frank was Cee’s valiant protector and Cee’s innocence and naivete gave Frank’s life purpose even during childhood.

Gordon Parks
Segregation Story Series

However, it was the women who come to Cee’s aide when she was horrifically violated in a incident that too closely mirrored the real actions of James Marion Simms, the “father of gynecology” that I loved the most in this story. Their determination, dedication, solidarity, and strength warmed my heart and made me pick up my phone to check on my 80 something year old aunt. Everyone with a female loved one from that era can find comfort and nostalgia in the way they called on the old remedies that would earn the ridicule of modern day doctors but were the only element of salvation poor African American women in the South could depend on to save or treat their children and spouses.

Gordon Parks, Untitled
Taken in 1950 in Ft Scott, Kansas

As you can see from the pictures above, I am currently trapped in a Gordon Parks vibe. However, looking at these photos from the 1950s really made me feel like I was in Lotus, Georgia while I followed Cee and Frank as they learned to come to terms with their past and become the masters of their own destinies and how they saw their own purpose in this world. Home forces to me to remember home and was definitely worth a read.