Toni Morrison and the Color of Life
by Ann-Janine Morey
Ann-Janine Morey is associate professor of religious studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 16, 1988, p. 1039. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
One of the distinctive features of American black slaves’ secret religion was the ring shout, probably adapted from African memories. A singer -- whoever felt so moved -- would step forth from the circle of worshipers. By chanting, dancing and clapping, the community provided a base beat upon which the singer would create his or her own distinctive musical text. This image of a physically engrossing community worship service that supported the individual voices is a fitting symbol for understanding the work of Toni Morrison.
In an interview in the Women ‘s Review of Books (March 1988) , Morrison talks about the necessity of black people sharing the story of slavery rather than "rushing away . . . because it is painful to dwell there." When people are able to tell their story, "they are not only one, they’re two, three and four, you know? The collective sharing of that information heals the individual -- and the collective." Like the ring-shout leader, Morrison’s voice-from-community has moved with increasing power to reclaim the whole story on behalf of a people.
Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye (Washington Square Press, 1970) , is a poetic tragedy about color that concentrates so much on the horror of racism that it is difficult to read. The highly acclaimed Song of Solomon (Knopf, 1977) , however, reveals a voice of restoration from within that community of pain. Milkman, propelled in search of his family history, finds it embedded in the history of slavery, recorded in the rhythmic chants of children’s games, like a miniature ring shout. Morrison’s comment on her most recent novel, Beloved (Knopf, 1987) , also suggests the guiding idea in Song of Solomon:
"There is a necessity for remembering the horror, but of course there’s a necessity for remembering it in a manner in which it can be digested, in a manner in which the memory is not destructive."
Beloved, winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and nominated for the National Book Award and the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, has been controversial. Critics have found it melodramatic, if not self-indulgent. Admirers of the novel, however, say these criticisms fail to appreciate that Morrison’s imaginative risks are necessitated by the magnitude of her topic. This is how one must write even to begin to assess and comprehend the legacy of slavery.
The novel takes place after the Civil War, in a small Ohio town. Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, live a reclusive life in a house haunted by Sethe’s dead child, Beloved. The ghost is temporarily banished from the house by Paul D, Sethe’s lover, but Beloved returns with a vengeance as the teenager she would have been had she not been slain. Beloved functions not as a supernatural but as a frightening natural presence, in her double significance as both the child killed by her mother to spare her a life of slavery and the haunting memory of all blacks who suffered and died under slavery. Isolated even from the black community because of the infanticide, Sethe barely survives both histories. She is given the possibility of healing, finally, by a community of women who gather to banish the voracious Beloved, and by the love of Paul D, who gathers himself to banish the equally insatiable guilt Sethe levels against herself. Morrison communicates an unforgettable sense of the strength, terror and devastation that is part of the black community, while skillfully portraying the unalterable connections between spiritual and physical life.
Their lovemaking and reconciliation begin with the image of a tree. Sethe’s tree is carved upon her back, "the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display," and Paul D "rubbed his cheek on her back and learned that way her sorrow, the roots of it, its wide trunk and intricate branches, . . . and he would tolerate no peace until he had touched every ridge and leaf of it with his mouth." In this intimate image, the ear of his mouth hears her story from the speech on her back -- mute, eloquent body language. "He wants to put his story next to hers," and he does so with a tender, sensual touch -- in natural, wordless communion.
The holiness of the body and the power of speech are also brought together in the figure of Baby Suggs. Baby Suggs is an unchurched preacher who calls her people to love themselves by speaking in love each part of the battered body:
"Here, . . . in this place, we flesh; Flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it, love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. . . . Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them, touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face, ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. . . . You got to love it. This is flesh that I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance, backs that need support; shoulders that need strong arms. . . . More than eyes and feet. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear em now, love your heart. For this is the prize" [pp. 88-89].
This is a physical resurrection brought on by speech, for with Morrison -- as with Walker and Hurston -- word and flesh, body and soul, belong together. Black writers know what it means for the flesh to be despised, and know that there is no life of the spirit without the body and community.
The affirmation of the physical loving body is a triumph, but pleasure taken in this achievement must not minimize its cost or the enigmatic evil that continues to haunt black writers. For white writers, the puzzle of the flesh usually has to do with the uneasy relationship of body to spirit. But many black writers observe no such distinction; their knowledge of the connection between body and spirit grows directly from personal and community history. In Morrison’s work, the enigma of bodily life revolves around color. Baby Suggs stops preaching because there is no word, words or Word that can free her from the evil of racism. "God puzzled her and she was too ashamed to say so." So she takes to her bed "to think about the colors of things." "I want to think about something harmless in this world," she says, and "except for an occasional request for color," she utters nothing, silenced by color. "‘Bring me a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t.’ And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. . . . Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died."
Color is something typically associated with women, which means that color is usually considered a trivial matter. Women have innumerable names for the nuances of colors (pistachio, fuschia, teal) when a few words would do (green, pink, blue). Women have their colors "done," and it is usually women who worry about whether or not the choir robes will match the chancel rug. More significant than this, however, is how much we use color as a metaphoric shorthand in assigning value. For example, to be colorless is boring, and to have many colors is to be rich (as in Joseph and his coat). We can be green with jealousy (or pea green with envy) , see red when angry (although anger can also blacken one’s face) , write purple prose, or get the blues (a term that originated in black culture). Yellow symbolizes cowardice, lavender is for gay people, and babies look best in pastels.
Artist Wassily Kandinsky argues that "the psychological power of color calls forth a vibration from the soul . . . which can influence the entire human body as a physical organism." He goes on to describe the power of particular colors, depicting black and white as partnered antimonies. White is "the vestment of pure joy and immaculate purity," while black represents the "greatest and most profound mourning [as all symbol of death." White represents the possibility of beginning and birth, black represents the silence of death, an inner sound of nothingness (On the Spiritual in Art [Hall, 1912], pp. 148, 183-189).
Against the essentialist mysticism of this thinking, it is important to ask: Whose face is blackened with anger, and whose babies look best in pastels? Who is announcing white to be purity and black to be death?
Black Muslim leader Elijah Mohammed told a creation myth that reflects how culturally conditioned our sense of color can be. According to his story, a tribe of beautiful, gentle black people settled in the Nile valley. One of them, however, was peculiar -- a "big-hearted scientist" who performed eugenic experiments through which he gradually lightened the skin of successive generations. By lightening their skin and taking away their deep rich color, he bred the humanity out of them and created a race of white devils. These white people were so degraded that the black people were forced to exile the scientist and his monstrous creations to Europe, where they continued to grow in strength and evilness, until they finally enslaved the black people around them. Or, as Baby Suggs says, "Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed. . . and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks." Obviously, the intrinsic value of black and white depends upon who defines their significance.
This was the point of the "Black is beautiful" slogan of the Black Power movement in the ‘60s in America and the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa. Conscientious white readers may be cognizant of such issues of linguistic racism. However, contemporary black writers go on to challenge the liberal assumption that we should erase color consciousness as a factor in human relations. Too often, white liberals try to demonstrate their racial generosity by insisting that color doesn’t make a difference, and that aside from the natural accident of color we have in common our humanity. Black writers know better. Color has made every difference in the world to the black American, and it continues to do so despite others’ good intentions. To be a colored body was to be under sentence of death, and Morrison does not flinch from trying to communicate what it means to be living color in a racist world.
Beloved is full of color: gravestones, vegetables, walls, quilts, clothing, flowers, houses, emotions, bodies. The accumulation of color is so powerful that by the time one of the characters finds "a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet wooly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp" on the bottom of his boat, readers must resonate with his exhausted fury -- if they have not been reading with an utterly blank heart. "Red" is all that Morrison need say, for she shows us what it means to know color as a matter of life and death.
Baby Suggs goes to bed to think about color because "she never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before." Sethe, on the other hand, having seen the red of her baby’s blood and the pink of her gravestone, hasn’t been able to see color since. Sethe tries to live in a world devoid of color. Baby Suggs tries to fill what world she has left with the very thing that is the excuse for her brutalization. Color itself is not demonic, and both characters know this. Sethe tries to claim color in her feverish last days with Beloved. She plans a garden of vegetables and flowers, "talking, talking about what colors it would have," and she buys ribbons and cloth to make garments for her Beloved. Color is life, and Sethe is trying to restore life. She nearly kills herself in the process, for the claim of tragic history can be overwhelming and insatiable. When Beloved is exorcised -- that is, when the community asserts the claim of the present over the torment of the past -- Sethe takes to her bed like Baby Suggs.
With heaps of brightly colored clothing on the floor around her, Sethe lies "under a quilt of merry colors," blanketed by a cherished symbol of women’s work. She is in pieces, like an unraveled garment or an unsewn quilt, and when Paul D returns for her, Sethe worries that if he bathes her in sections, "will the parts hold?" What she has given of color, however, Paul D gives back to her. He returns because Sethe "is the friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." Paul D contemplates the quilt "patched in carnival colors" and Sethe at the same time, and remembering how Sethe treated him as a man and not a slave, he helps her become whole. "You your best thing, Sethe, you are." And so her shattered self, like so many fragments of color waiting to be made into a quilt, is restored by the loving work of the colored heart.
To reclaim color, all color, as Morrison does, is part of reclaiming the inseparability of body and spirit and the historic witness of the enduring community. Shug Avery’s famous advice to Celie about the color purple might well be taken by the white reader as a message about another important color, black. "I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it." Maybe it pisses God off if we try to ignore color, because for Morrison, color, once part of the language of oppression, is being transformed into the language of life itself.