God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison *****

godhelpthechildI’d been looking forward to reading this book, and I’d been dreading it. The fact that Morrison is such an outstanding writer makes the pain in her prose more tangible than most. One doesn’t feel the pain of a character; one feels the pain of a friend. And so even though I have three of her books I haven’t read yet sitting on my to-read stack, challenging me as if to ask why I had skipped them so many times when it was their turn, I still asked for this hot-off-the-presses title for Mother’s Day. When I opened it, my son (the eldest, the one who worries about me now and then) said gently, “So Mom…you know…have you read Toni Morrison? Because…” And I told him I had, and I knew, and that I would also read something light or funny during the time I read this one, to break up the horror.

Going into it with that level of caution, not unlike going out to pick flowers when I was seven, wanting the heavenly fragrance of the posies that grew in our California yard but not wanting to encounter the rattlesnakes that sometimes lay coiled in their vines, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Because although there is certainly plenty of pain to go around, our protagonist advocates for herself; she takes charge. I came away feeling as if there was more that was good in the world, and in people, than bad.

And when we go to the contest for best first lines, hers should be a contender, particularly when one considers context: “It‘s not my fault.” Lula Ann’s mother was horrified at the very sight of her newborn: “Midnight black, Sudanese black.” She and her husband were both light-skinned people, “What we call high yellow”.

“You should have seen my grandmother; she passed for white and never said another word to any of her children.”

It’s all there on that first page: betrayal, betrayal, betrayal, and in the case of Lula Ann’s parentage, betrayal suspected (by her father) and denied (by her mother) and a marriage undone.

I think of my own family; when I was born, everyone in my family, and all of the photographs carefully lined up of those that had gone before, were of the super-pale variety found on the British Isles and in Northern Europe. Turn us loose in the sun for twenty minutes without sunscreen and we look like a family of lobsters.

And yet, over the generations, we have chosen to marry and procreate with people of color. Then, since there were already Black and Asian children in the family, the family members that could not have children adopted two children, the first one white, the second Black. At family parties, the Black relatives all congregate for part of the festivities, then move out to rejoin the rest of us.

And I know it’s not at all the same as for Morrison’s fictional family, because Lula Ann’s parents didn’t have the choice to be all white, or to bring people of color into the family. My generation and the Caucasian members of subsequent generations have had the power to choose who would be in their immediate family; of course, our Black and Asian relatives also had a choice of who to marry, but they also had less power socially and economically, so again: not the same thing. They have none of the history, none of the rage that is inherent of being a son or daughter of a grandson or granddaughter of slaves.

Lula Ann is instructed to call her mother “Sweetness”. There’s deniability there. Her mother doesn’t want people to think…to think something is wrong.

She grows up, ironically, to become a model who is prized for her dark skin. She turns it into a brand, with help from a friend, and wears only white, using the name “Bride”. White clothing day in, day out, to emphasize her darkness. She owns a cosmetic brand but wears no cosmetics. She needs to appear pure in order to carry it off.

She has a man, until he finds out the secret that is buried in her past. Actually, he doesn’t know the whole thing, and that’s where the trouble begins.

Literary fiction often carries power and authority that nonfiction can’t convey, and so it is with God Help the Child. I suspect professors that teach African-American Studies are putting it on their required reading list, and that’s a great thing, because there is so much to think about packed into this slender volume.

If you don’t have this book, get it and read it. If you don’t have the money, go to your local library and put yourself on the waiting list. And if it is assigned to you to read for a class, please, please, don’t buy a paper to get out of reading it (and don’t copy this blog post and turn it in as if it were your own). Don’t read the Cliff Notes. Read the book. It is both accessible and potent. It may be the most important book you read all year, and you won’t forget it.

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