God Help the Child is Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel. Despite the serious subject, her prose is so elegant and lyrical that I was surprised several of our book group found the book too brutal. Compared to the constant barrage of violence and sexuality in our news, movies and books, I am still not certain how this book was exceptionally brutal, unless it is a testament to the effectiveness of Morrison’s delivery, the power of the truth she reveals.
Just as Morrison barely scratches the surface of her character’s lives, our discussion was mostly skin deep but telling. We were fascinated by the genetics of skin and eye color, trading stories of children and grandchildren. One of us mentioned the current controversy of the Virginia Governor having performed in blackface. Wasn’t blackface just a musical performance made famous by Al Jolson in Jazz Singer? How could you be judged about something you didn’t know was wrong? When did blackface become offensive? An African-American member said that it had always been offensive – they just weren’t allowed to say anything about it. She also reminded us that it is experience that teaches how shades of skin color makes a difference. Sweetness’ reaction to her daughter’s blackness was learned behavior from her own mother, who chose passing for white over her children.
We discussed the characters’ names and how African Americans choose nicknames for themselves because for so long they had names chosen for them that did not fit them. They are more often now to have odd names that better reflect their appearance, their history, their reality. We discussed how common names change. How in the past there were so many women named Mary that several of our members go by their middle names instead. We did not discuss the possible literary significance of names, as suggested by one member in an email: “Names are like red herrings. Booker makes me think of Booker T. Washington, and Sofia (I looked it up: Wisdom).” And what about the significance of Rain? Or of Adam?
We touched on parenting, on the priest abuse scandals in the news, on the even more recent Southern Baptist abuse scandal. We discussed the fairy-tale quality of the story, in which Bride goes into the woods, reverts to the little black girl, and discovers her happy ending. Although we didn’t discuss it so straightforwardly. We wanted to know more. Was Brooklyn really Bride’s friend? Why did Booker throw his trumpet into the water? Did he finally just realize that he couldn’t play the trumpet so he gave it up? Was it to honor Queen? What happened to the $5000 and the plane ticket? Are we sure that Sofia wasn’t guilty?
Some of us loved the book, others did not, some were in the middle. None denied the power of Morrison’s prose:
“Her clothes were white, her hair like a million black butterflies asleep on her head.”
“. . .the raindrops falling from a baby-blue sky were like crystal breaking into specks of light on the pavement.”
“Sweet Jesus had given her a forgetfulness blanket along with a little pillow of wisdom to comfort her in old age.”
“Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it.”
February is African-American Heritage month. Heritage months are intended to make sure that everyone has a chance to see themselves reflected, importantly, in the world around them. It gives some of us a chance to see the world through another lens. Obviously, this could happen at any time, all year round. We read a renowned author this month who offered us an inclusive fairytale for our times that I hope broadened our horizons, if only because we got together and talked about it.
- Other works discussed:
- May Angeleou quote: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (multiple attributions online)
- The Road Beyond Ruin (2018) by Gemma Liviero
- The four agreements : a practical guide to personal freedom (1997) by Miguel Ruiz
- Educated : a memoir (2018) by Tara Westover
- Black-ish (Television Series) Season 5, episode 10, Black Like Us