God Help the Child
Toni Morrison, an author that I gladly read twice, thrice, whatever it takes, that I study and annotate and emulate, came out with her highly anticipated novel, God Help the Child. Even with her illustrious presence as author, literary thought leader, Nobel, Pulitzer, et al., this, her eleventh novel, met mixed reviews, proving that writing, even for the best of the best, never comes easily or without risk. So, with the greatest respect I wondered if it wasn’t a case of form over fiction. Bear with me as I try to explain…
Picking at Point of View
Lula Ann Bridewell is a blue-black child born of fair-skinned folks. From the point of view of Lula Ann’s high yellow mother, a little bit of color is a curse. She holds Lula Ann at arms-length because of it and justifies doing so as preparation for an intolerant world.
“I wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges.”
This mother’s rejection is all but complete when she insists the child call her Sweetness so as not to confuse people when they’re seen together. Sweetness is an oxymoron even before she reveals thoughts of smothering her daughter or abandoning her to an orphanage. Sweetness refuses to comfort young Lula Ann as a mother should. The cumulative effect is pivotal and colorism1 becomes one of the underlying themes driving the plot.
Morrison’s way with prose paints Sweetness as vividly offensive, especially considering the time and setting. While vague, the setting upstages her when you realize it’s the 90s. It’s hard to picture a black mother of any hue obsessing over skin color as much as Sweetness does with her millennial child. Even if you allow that Sweetness may have come from the rural South and that her color obsession stemmed from her observances, the context still feels like a throw-back. That incongruence at the start of the novel took my head out of the story and had me scratching it while trying to fathom her modern day color hang-ups. (I scratch my head over some modern day celebs like Stacey Dash too.) However, all the justification Morrison gives to support Sweetness’ point of view felt to me like news of a bygone era.
Faultless Form: Storytelling Structure
I turned to form in order to get past my initial problems with point of view. Form was worth examining because the novel’s narrative is delivered almost solely through each character’s first-person point of view; that is, each chapter places a character center-stage so to speak and we hear that character’s testimony (kind of like a reality show confession booth).
The novel, in four parts, could very well play like TV or a theatre production. Part one introduces the main characters: Sweetness, Bride, Brooklyn, and Sofia. Sweetness sets the tone with her opening line, “It’s not my fault.” But what’s not her fault? Is poor parenting not her fault, is damage to her daughter’s self-image not her fault, or is it just being black that is not her fault? Once we’ve heard Sweetness justify why “it’s” not her fault, the chapter closes.
Chapter two opens with Bride (this is the name Lula Ann chooses for herself as an adult) repeating the words of her ex-lover, “You not the woman I want.” Readers get to know that Bride is a beauty. She is confident and urbane as the successful manager of a new cosmetic line called You Girl.
Then she halts everything to travel to Decagon—her motive is mysterious. Outside her relationship and career she becomes vulnerable, reverting to her former self. Her womanly assets disappear and she begins seeing in herself an insecure little black girl.
Bride has $5k and travel tickets in a Louis Vuitton bag that she is ready to generously give Sofia Huxley an alleged female sex offender whose fate she sealed with the point of her finger. It takes a minute or so for Huxley to realize who Bride is, after all, Bride was six years old when Huxley was locked up. Bride’s generous gift is lost on Huxley who goes berserk and beats the crap out of her. When Bride comes to, she calls Brooklyn, a coworker: someone Bride considers a true friend. Brooklyn nurses Bride back, but…
We hear Brooklyn’s point of view in the third chapter. With her blond dreads, she seems all too eager to appropriate everything, especially the professional void Bride leaves at “You Girl.” She also reveals her failed attempt to seduce Bride’s man in this chapter—a man she derides in her subsequent testimonials.
We hear from Sweetness whose proudest moment was when Bride fingered Huxley in the courtroom—it produced the first and basically last uninhibited embrace from Sweetness. And at the end of part one, we hear from Sofia Huxley who had a loveless childhood at the hands of “religious” parents who never visited Huxley in prison—an allusion to Matthew 25:36 and the Huxleys’ selective piety.
Naked, and you clothed me…in prison, and you came to me. Matthew 25:36
Morrison spends most of the novel developing Bride and Booker as characters. Everyone else is an actor playing a supporting role. This formula works except in the cases where it feels too coy, like in my earlier example with Sweetness. In any case, the ancillary characters offer-up surprises that help readers understand Bride and Booker’s complexities. And the novel’s form faultlessly compensates for the tiny fissures in its fiction.
The haunting similarity between God Help the Child and God Bless the Child adds intended semblance to the novel. The latter of course is the song written by Billie Holiday circa 1939. Morrison however, recalls in an interview with the Guardian, that she wanted the title of her book to be “the Wrath of Children.” She deliberated that it more clearly described her story that she felt painted a picture of how adult actions can seriously alter a child, how children process their negative encounters, be it through anger, withdrawal, or finger pointing, and how the effect is perpetual.
Although I see why Morrison might have wanted to name her book “the Wrath of Children,” I’m glad God Help the Child won the title fight. Why? Because Morrison’s writing is famous for its complexity, and is complimented by a title that rivals it. The title, God Help the Child, brings a layer of irony with it from Luke 8:18, the parable of the light, and a layer of insult with it inherent in Holiday’s lyrics based on a negative impression left by her mother.
Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
If you apply Luke’s parable to the testimony Sweetness gives in the first chapter, then you have a mother that paradoxically bore little light for her daughter and had even seeded her esteem issues. Juxtapose this to the final chapter where Sweetness’ negativism almost paraphrases biblical verse, and what she seems to have (a confident daughter and a new grandchild) is really not hers.
Take heed therefore how you hear: for whoever has, to him shall be given; and whoever has not, from him shall be taken even that which he seems to have. Luke 8:18
Although both titles run to capture the same flag, God Help the Child does it furtively, speaking volumes with few words. Children are the characters most in need of help as they are betrayed by adults in Morrison’s novel; therefore, it makes her narrative more about what you do as an adult with what you’re dealt as a child. “Wrath,” had it been used in the title, might have changed reader expectations. I didn’t see wrath in the narrative as much as I saw reaction: for every action there is a reaction. The cautionary tale of which is that toward children, adults might strive to be temperate in their actions, words and deeds, lest they reap what they sow.
This is Morrison’s first novel set in current times and I certainly hope it will not be her last. I highly recommend this book for a good read and a catalyst for conversation. If you’ve read Morrison before, go into this read with an open mind and without making comparisons because it’s unlike anything she’s written before.
I enjoyed the audio version read by Morrison herself, but then I have a subscription to Audible. I prefer reading along in a hard-bound book because there are things the audio simply can’t catch. For example, if it weren’t for the physical book, I might never have developed an opinion regarding the novel’s form.
Check out some of the wonderfully detailed articles and interviews about God Help the Child online.
by Walton Muyumba in the Atlantic,
by Kara Walker in the New York Times: Sunday Book Review,
or by Maddie Oatman in Mother Jones
1 Colorism is the stratification of people based on color within their own race, but it can also include color preference by people across racial lines too. In practice, darker skinned people are discriminated against, and color is determinant in granting privilege or opportunity. Colorism plays out like remnant colonialism (e.g., house slaves were chosen by the extent to which they looked more distantly African, the brown paper bag test was once a litmus test for certain African-American organizations, and even today working actors and models are disproportionately fair-skinned).
*Featured photo (as seen with the book jacket) by: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders