Conjuring Aesthetic Blackness: Abjection and Trauma in Toni Morrison's God Help the Child.

Author:Keita, Fatoumata
Position:Critical essay


Marjorie Pryse contends that Black women novelists are "metaphorical conjure women" whose fiction has contributed to shed light on the commonalities of Black women's experiences and their shared ancestral roots (Pryse, 1985:5). As one of the most reputable and revered novelists, Toni Morrison is also a conjure woman who has carved out a strong niche in the American literary pantheon. Her writing mirrors the predicament of being born Back in America and the attendant emotional strains spurred by this condition. With her latest oeuvre, God Help the Child (2015), Morrison conjures stories of racial prejudice and its impact on Black women's maternal practices and the psychological development of their children.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Toni Morrison is also a bestseller and an eclectic Nobel Prize-winning author whose creative work has sparked a storm of critical comments and appraisals. This upsurge of critical interest [This critical interest in Morrison can be explained by Ann du Cille's comment: "today there is so much interest in black women that I have begun to think of myself as a kind of sacred text. Not me personally, of course, but me as black woman, the other" (du Cille, 1994:591)] has given rise to a wide range of interpretive possibilities and a wealth of insights into her fiction. Although she is at her mid-eighties, Toni Morrison's creative genius is not on the wane. On the contrary, it seems to have acquired more poise and assurance over the years, particularly, with the release of her eleventh novel, God Help the Child.

This latest oeuvre takes up and challenges the main themes of her previous novels like The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved and A Mercy. The narrative revolves around a plot of maternal loss with a history of racial hatred at the backdrop. It is a story of lost love and reconciliation, trauma and healing, abjection and redemption. It is above all, the story of a mother whose reluctance to accept her daughter's 'blue-black' colour and provide her with support and love, leads her to commit an abject crime. An innocent woman spends fifteen years in prison because of a false testimony of a little Black girl yearning for mother love and acceptance.

Like The Bluest Eye or Native Son, God Help the Child summons up all the terrors and horrors of blackness (the state of being a Black person). In addition, the novel re-enacts and dramatises the complexity of mother-daughter bond in the context of racial hierarchy where the lighter one's skin, the higher one's status in the social ladder, and the better chance one gets from life. Undoubtedly, the narrative opens the Pandora box of Black motherhood and attending trauma. It lays emphasis on the fact that "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget" (43). Lula Ann Bridewell's experience illustrates the idea that childhood trauma or sins return like lingering ghosts to visit and haunt their subjects in adult life. This return of the repressed shores up the idea of circularity and circling back that has been identified as an aesthetic hallmark of Beloved (Page, 1995).

In this paper, attempts will be made to show how Morrison conjures the terror of being a Black person by articulating an aesthetic transcendence framed around the abject and trauma. The aim of such a poetic is not only to reify blackness as an icon of beauty, an economic asset, but more importantly, to invest it with healing and redemptive powers conducive to impel catharsis. The author resorts to the apostrophic and deconstruction techniques to realise her subversive aesthetic of blackness (the quality or state of being a Black person), which makes room for the protagonists to overcome their racial trauma.

Genesis of Trauma: Loss and Self-Hatred

God Help the Child belongs to what Morrison has referred to as "a domestic affair" (Wilson, 1998:134) because it dramatises the 'pain of being black' (Angelo, 1998) in a society where whiteness represents the norm and the socially acceptable, while blackness is relegated at the margin. Set in the 1990s, the novel conjures the ghost of colour prejudice and stereotypes by unveiling its traumatic impact on a child whose birth is tainted by a genealogy of racial hatred and passing.

Sweetness Bridewell, haunted by the terror of blackness (the quality/state of being a Black person), deprives her only daughter of affection in order to preserve her privileged position, and thus, abide by the dominant rule of class solidarity and racial purity. Being "light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow" (3), Sweetness is unwilling to accept her "ugly, too-black little girl" (144) because "ain't nobody in my family anywhere near that color" (3). In doing so, she unwittingly maintains the iron curtain of racial divide and keeps blackness at bay.

Indeed, God Help the Child dramatises the internal racial prejudice that lies at the kernel of Black communities because of the legacy of slavery and white racism. In this regard, Paradise (1977) sheds light on the shame and trauma of the 'disallowing', which made the inhabitants of Ruby suspicious of outsiders and tenuous about racial purity. It is said that "all of them were handsome....coal black, athletic, with noncommittal eyes" (160). Proud of their blackness, their horror of whiteness becomes "convulsive'' as "they save the clarity of their hatred for the [light-skinned] men who had insulted them in ways too confounding for language.'' (189)

The descendants of the founding fathers of Haven or Ruby have internalised this ineffable racial trauma to the extent that difference was perceived to be a threat, and strangers, enemies. Similarly, in The Bluest Eye, Geraldine draws a demarcation line between "Niggers and "Coloured" (87). In the same novel, Pauline becomes aloof toward her daughter, Pecola, because "she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly" (186). She relinquishes her maternal duty toward her and devotes all her time to white children. Consequently, Pecola is deprived of maternal love and support like Lula Ann Bridewell in God Help the Child. All these cases illustrate with an acute clarity Morrison's statement that "there is a clear flight from blackness in a great deal of Afro-American literature. In others there is the duel with blackness (the quality/state of being a Black person), and in some cases ...."You'd never know" (Morrison, 1988:146). Whatever the stance of the writer, blackness lies at the heart of the conflicts and determines the fate of the characters as well as the aesthetic choices of the authors. As far as Morrison is concerned, she insists, "this black presence is central to any understanding" of American literature, hence, it "should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination" (Morrison, 1992:5).

God Help the Child takes issue with the legacy of ingrained racism and its negative influence on mothering. Every piece of Morrison's fictional work reveals one aspect of the complexity of Black motherhood and its compelling drama. God Help the Child, by emphasising the primacy of maternal responsibility and childcare, also displays that mothering is not "all cooing, booties and diapers" (178). Rather, mothering involves a good deal of adrenaline and the implication of the whole community because Morrison confesses that, "two parents can't raise a child anymore than one. You need a whole community--everybody to raise a child" (Angelo, 1994:260).

Unfortunately, Sweetness who inherits the patriarchal version of motherhood as an institution [Adrienne Rich has made a landmark contribution in the field of motherhood studies as she has tried to distinguish between two meanings of motherhood "that are superimposed on the other: the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution, which aims at ensuring that that potential_ and all women _ shall remain under male control." (Rich, 1986:2)], fails to connect her daughter to the beneficial and empowering nurturance of...

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