God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

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(Photo: Amy Attas)

I don’t know what I was expecting from Toni Morrison, but it wasn’t this. I knew she was a Nobel Prize-winning goddess who guides humanity towards the light, but I’d never read any of her fiction. It was more sensational than I thought it would be – so much violence, trauma, crime and fantasy. Too often black films and TV shows focus on slavery, the inner city, or impoverished strife, but I was surprised to have Toni Morrison going there. Her characters are still far better than the clichés of TV, but I still yearned for something calmer.

The story centres on Bride, a gorgeous young woman with a prestigious job spearheading a make-up line, as she struggles to reconcile her childhood and get over her ex-boyfriend, but the perspective shifts as Bride, her mother, her co-worker, her ex-lover, an old teacher, and a child companion each take chapters. The perspectives show the different sides of Bride, but also the different sides of the world. It’s a perfect demonstration of conflicting emotions driving plot. Why does Bride act-out as a child? Because she yearns for her mother’s touch – even a slap. Why does Bride’s mother refrain from touching her child? Because she’s trying to teach her that the world will not be kind to a dark-skinned girl. Why does Bride offer a freshly-released prisoner thousands of dollars in cash? Why does that ex-con beat Bride up instead of taking the money? It is comforting to understand, as the novel unfolds, why all of these things occur – to see each character’s motivations. It’s also disheartening, because it emphasizes the inevitability of conflict, arising from differing motivations and frustrating miscommunication.

I love Toni Morrison’s wordplay. I’ve heard the complaint that black hair is too often described as Medusa, a head full of wires, somehow unflattering and white-centric. Morrison gives one character a head covered in resting butterflies. She writes poetry for another character, and uses a mix of literary phrases and slang. All of it is clear and vivid.

God Help the Child is important, because it explores the privilege of light skin, even among people of colour. Bride is “Midnight black, Sudanese black,” and her mother is not. I remember when I first learned of skin lightening creams, which struck me as so strange because I yearned for a tan. I remember a tailor in Vietnam complimenting my pale sun-deprived belly, while I preferred the darker hue on my forearms. Why are humans so obsessed with skin colour? Bride’s mother explains it this way:

How else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can you avoid being spit on in a drugstore, shoving elbows at the bus stop, walking in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, charged a nickel at the grocer’s for a paper bag that’s free to white shoppers? Let alone all the name-calling. I heard about all of that and much, much more. But because of my mother’s skin colour [her mother passed as white], she wasn’t stopped from trying on hats in the department stores or using their ladies’ room. And my father could try on shoes in the front part of the shoestore, not in a back room.

This novel is important because it portrays modern African-Americans in a variety of roles, rich and poor, urban and rural. A character’s race gives no indication of their intelligence, their class or their situation. This novel is important because it demonstrates how the traumas of childhood can press on us for the rest of our lives; how helpless children are, and how that helplessness carries into adulthood for as long as the memory lasts. It shows what a privilege it is for a child to grow up safe, protected from adult worry. That when death or sexual abuse strikes a young person, all we can do is pray that God help them back to joy.

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