part two: she completes me

toni-m
Toni. Fierce AF.

SHE COMPLETES ME:

FEMALE FRIENDSHIP, IDENTITY, AND RACIAL SHAME IN TONI MORRISON’S SULA AND LOVE

This was the title of the English Honours thesis that I wrote in 2013, which has provided the foundation for the relationship between Woman and Girl in I sat and waited but you were gone too long.

The Nobel Prize in Literature for 1993 was awarded to Toni Morrison “who in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”. This “aspect” nodded to by the Nobel committee is African-American life and, more importantly, life lived from the postpartum throes of slavery through to the purportedly ‘post-racial’ world of today by African-American women. If you are looking for a sign of her acumen in this area, renowned feminist critic bell hooks completed her doctorate with a dissertation on Morrison’s work.

I focused my thesis on a lineage of scholarship that long preceded me and which had been built on old knowledge: that for many women, friendship is a strategy for survival. Take this Essence article as an example, which relayed a conversation held between Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni on the occasion of Toni Morrison’s 82nd birthday in 2013. This birthday was entitled “Sheer Good Fortune” and was a two-day commemoration of Morrison’s body of work that took place at Virginia Tech.

“The event was created by her longtime friends and fellow literary powerhouses Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou’s desire to “throw a lot of love around Toni” following the December 2010 death of her son Slade, who co-authored children’s books with her.

The historic gathering was a Who’s Who of the literary world — Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Kwame Alexander, Joanne V. Gabbin, Eugene Redmond, and many more came to mingle, laugh and reminisce with each other and the guest of honor.

Giovanni, 69, and Angelou, 84, joined these notables onstage for the event, reading from various Morrison works like Sula, The Bluest EyeSong of Solomon, Beloved, Tar Baby, Home and her play, Desdemona. Grammy Award-winner India.Arie also paid homage with a song she wrote at 19 after reading The Bluest Eye.

Morrison glowed, blown away by the living tribute and enjoying one of the rare times she and Angelou have shared the stage publicly. But, she says, the sisterly gesture that her girlfriends demonstrated shouldn’t come as a surprise. Black women are, after all, the original girlfriends. “Black women have always been friends. I mean, if you didn’t have each other you had nothing,” Morrison says, referring to the close bond that Black women shared historically.

Morrison focuses on female friendship in her work as a means of negotiating a discriminatory public sphere. In almost all of her novels, girls find each other on the cusp of puberty and “use each other to grow on” (Sula 52). These friendships become strategies of resistance as these girls use each other to create a sense a positive sense of self. Each girl identifies with the reflection of herself in her friend and this connection creates a counter-public sphere that celebrates blackness and femaleness. They work towards a sense of wholeness together.

The affective depth of these friendships is characterised by an extreme porousness between the two girls, which pits them against the individualism of dominant white (male) culture. Morrison’s model of identity, then, interrogates the value of individual recognition in the normative public sphere by offering an alternative model of selfhood that is predicated on mutual constitution. Instead of being seen “singly” in a world in which “freedom and triumph was forbidden to them,” her girls “use each other to grow on” in their effort to create “something else to be” (Sula, 52).

Crucially, the tragedy of Morrison’s work is that this alternative sphere cannot be sustained – the characters must continue on from this brief reprieve into a world in which they are circumscribed by being neither white nor male. These friendships are shattered by the violence of institutionalised racism and sexism.

However, what I am interested in is the moment before the shatter, the precious moment when this alternate space is possible and is capable of sustaining them. This is why the meeting between Woman and Girl takes place in a changing room in I sat and waited – it is a liminal space that must eventually be left but can, for now, allow them a moment of mutual affirmation. This inclusive model of identity-making is focused upon these women completing each other and asks the audience to reflect on how this model might be achieved in the public sphere.

Although neither of our performers is of African-American heritage, this relationship model is used in the play to reflect more broadly on the ability of women and girls to achieve a valorised sense of self in the contemporary landscape. Despite our 21st-century conditions, many still fail to experience a true equality in the Australian socio-political sphere. This is evident in examples as diverse as parliament’s treatment of Gillard through to the ongoing prevalence of domestic abuse and its horrifying failure to be addressed on an institutional level. Although it may only be a pebble in the ocean, this work hopes to offer women the possibility of imagining themselves in a cultural space in which their full potential can be realised.

It hopes to offer friendship as a strategy for survival, a site of resistance and, possibly, a model for self-making.

When Nel closed the door, Sula reached for more medicine. Then she turned the pillow over to its cool side and thought about her old friend. “So she will walk on down that road, her back so straight in that old green coat, the strap of her handbag pushed back all the way to the elbow, thinking how much I have cost her and never remember the days when we were two throats and one eye and we had no price.” (Toni Morrison, Sula)

This essay is the second of four short pieces that will be published here on the VIMH blog about the ideas driving I sat and waited but you were gone too long.

sky-soft

I am currently working my way through the oeuvre of Toni Morrison, an American author who I am thinking of writing my English thesis about. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she writes most of the story from the eyes of an eleven year old black girl called Percola Breedlove. In one chapter, Percola visits three whores, Miss Marie, Poland, and China, who live on the floor above her. Poland only talks when she’s drunk and only sings when she’s sober, “her voice sweet and hard, like new strawberries.”

The chapter ends with one of her songs, which split me open like a walnut shell.

I know a boy who is sky-soft brown

I know a boy who is sky-soft brown

The dirt leaps for joy when his feet touch the ground.

His strut is a peacock

His eye is burning brass

His smile is sorghum syrup drippin’ slow-sweet to the last

I know a boy who is sky-soft brown

in the hands of the mother

What if emotional trauma was transferred intergenerationally by physical scarring?

Imagine: a parent is traumatised in some way, be it through war, domestic violence, racial persecution, etc. This trauma, rather than having an intergenerational trickle effect (where the fear/anger/isolation of the parent is transferred in some diluted form to the child) it would only manifest as scar tissue on the body of the child with no emotional residue (which I imagine would feel, if rubbed between your fingers, like resin. In my mind, fear is sticky.)

This recalls, in some sense, that article I wrote about a while ago, which explored the phenomenon of descendants of Auschwitz survivors having the survivors’ tattoos inked on their own skin. Although this is voluntary on the part of the descendant as a testament to the survival of their relative, it echoes this idea of a physical manifestation of past experience. Imagine if this was a way that we could read a person’s history.

We could literally read it on their body. Like in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the main character’s back is covered with a cherry blossom tree (which you come to realise is the latticework of scar s left from when she was a slave), we could read struggle, and past struggle, on skin. I could take your hand, or left shoulder, or elbow-bend and run my fingers over the lines of thick dense tissue and ask you what’s happened to your family.

This sketch is by Kathe Kollwitz and is called Kopf eines Kindes in den Händen der Mutter or Head of a child in the hands of the mother. It was this that set my braining running on this question. Imagine if we could suspend the pain of survival and replace it with scar tissue. But wouldn’t we want to feel the pain of the struggle that it took for our parents and our grandparents to survive? Otherwise we’d risk slipping back into the ease of invincibility. But surely our scars would also pay testament. Maybe the concerted rejection of apathy is enough.

Kathe Kollwitz, Kopf eines Kindes in den Händen der Mutter