One day I’d love to write a book just about all the authors I have met or know: who, when, where, why and what it was like to see them in person or what it meant to me at the times. … Continue reading
The Butler is the culmination of what blacks in Hollywood, from its Golden Age unto its present, expected our contested involvement in the movies could, should and would be. And it is the reason why not only African-American people, but all people, will … Continue reading
**Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012) was the son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. He was a junior at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School and lived with his mother and older brother in Miami … Continue reading
I am so excited and overwhelmed with the fabulous things Black American people are doing in the arts now. Everywhere I turn, there’s something new to be proud of. A picture can be worth a thousand words. Not sure if I … Continue reading
Professor, Writer and Director Haile Gerima’s 1975 student thesis film Bush Mama premiered on the independent and student film circuit one year before I was born. I was born in the small-town Midwest: Kankakee, Illinois, a town most people have … Continue reading
The Snowtown Murders, a 2011 film directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant under Warp Films Australia, is an interesting and unusual study. It bears specific affinity to me as a former student who debated the merits of … Continue reading
It is startlingly appropriate that I was introduced to my first gray hair this past evening, at about a quarter to 7 p.m. in the basement of the Logan Center for the Arts on the University of Chicago campus right around the corner from my home. I came out of a bathroom stall to wash my hands and there it was visible in one of the lavatory’s mirrors, uncooperative with my repeated attempts to rub it into what I thought was a dab too much of white coconut oil. I believe there may be another one at the very center part of my head, but I am too nervous to confirm. I am unsure when I conceived the one strand I can not deny, but it delivered itself to me at my left temple right in the area where I am at ironically at risk for a receding hairline; maybe I will have good luck, and my lone gray hair’s siblings will cluster in an area that is expected to evaporate a little bit anyway. Or, maybe this is a silver lining. There’s always hope.
Most comforting about the particular setting and timing of discovery tonight is the obvious: I could have just gone right back home. For what, I am not sure: to have a tantrum, to hold the public bathroom mirror’s verdict up to the scrutiny of my private bathroom mirror’s trustworthiness, to Instagram a photodocumentary no one but I would care to revisit, to wail and moan and get the Holy Ghost, to call my best friends and family with a long-awaited announcement (of the unusual sort)? Thankfully, I stayed where I was. The event in waiting, a film screening of the film My Brother’s Wedding with director Charles Burnett present and introduced by my mentor Jacqueline Stewart, was a grateful distraction to this new fact of my life. The former I love in spirit and the latter I love in person; if I would love the movie or not remained to be seen, but I would never know if I did not stay and follow the hunch that I would.
Therefore, that alternate person inside me who noticed the gray was forced to come and go, with little to trigger or say. The work of a great artist awaited. I was expecting to see friends. And, most basically, I was at the movies for the first time in a long time. I could not spend time to create analogies with my gray hair and the oddly loose lower half of my stomach, or the expansion in the back of my arms, or the fading glory of my teeth, or my missing big house with a white picket fence and family dog. I can not imagine if I had been home with nothing at all to do upon such a discovery, this new dimension to what a woman might call her little “friend.” With so much else to think of in the moment of discovery, my existential crisis could not linger. I told my friends there about the gray hair. And so she was formally born, just as inconsequential as a few extra pounds but nothing close to losing a virginity.
At present, I am 36-years old and this lone gray hair may be the only thing to remind others of it. Even worse, I need the reminder more than others may. I do not have pre-teens blowing up my Smart Phone with their catastrophes or loan requests to me, “Mom.” I do not have babies younger. I have yet to breastfeed. I do not have a mortgage in good standing or foreclosure, nor a husband with his own companion gray head of hair to clue others into how long we have been married–thus how old I could really be. For most of the people who know me, I remain fixated in a perpetual fountain of youth…most known for my dimples, bright smile, funny jokes and abilities to be there at the last minute with no extenuating circumstances to prevent such.
For the last 5 years, I have asked no one in particular to bring me my gray hairs. When I have been the only person at a table of fine food to be carded for my usual order of house Merlot, I have remarked: “I’ll be glad when I get my gray.” When I have walked down the streets dressed casually for the day or a bit more polished for work, but approached lewdly by men young and old either way, I have asked for gray hairs; surely, no one irritates my aunts or grandmothers on their ways about town. When I have walked into a community center or artistic venue seeking information or tickets, and had the blase attendant ask me my age after alerting me that I must come with my parents, I have almost pulled out my hair. When I have been in a high-end store or dropped more than an allowance on a necessary adult expenditure, my handlers in these moments have surveyed me less as an adult customer to respect and more as a little Black girl to suspect. I have wished for gray hairs, in hopes I may have been treated a little better.
In the self-deprecating and sad rages that followed the last most gross example of these occurrences, I have come to near tears and butterflies wishing for gray hairs I felt they would certify and dignify me at last: like a girl waiting for her period to get back at bossy adults, or an adolescent scorning the tooth fairy for her dollar under the pillow when one last baby tooth lost will reward so much more payment than that, or a Black woman sat-in at the counter of Woolworth’s to declare that she can not be slighted based upon how she looked. For, it seemed that a scalp of commanding gray hairs would assist me in exercising my full rights as an equal adult worthy of proper comportment and approach by other adults; that such thin and fine miracles could be my silent partners to shed any and all’s presumptions that I was young therefore subordinate, youthful therefore deferred, cute therefore “Seriously?”
And, so now, here they are.
6-month old Jonylah Watkins, shot to death 5 times in Chicago, March 11, 2013 My mind hadn’t really caught up, yet. If not for my new early evening coffee habit, I might not–still–know that the 6-month old child who was … Continue reading
In 2002, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus ended her documentary of the last three months of Oklahoman Wanda Jean Allen, a twice-convicted murderer who was the sixth woman in the United States to be put to death after the 1977 … Continue reading
My self-preservationist tendency is to spurn online social media as much as humanly possible for my generation. It seems that Facebook is the new way to pass the kids’ school pictures around…you know, those goofy and darling snapshots stuck on little squares with jaggedly scissored edges? I miss those. Now, I must log in and look for “updates” if I want to know what children I saw home from the hospitals look like today. Mortifyingly, I have learned of dear and turbulating friends’ recent family losses and life struggles from Twitter or Facebook, well behind all the distant acquaintances and disdained former co-workers who instantly “shout-out” condolences onto tiny, 2-second rectangular boxes of comment. My phone calls or paper cards in the mail arrived weeks after the divorces, chemo and burials I could only apologize for by then. From Pinterest, it has become apparent that confidantes are engaged (or married). Shucks! I can no longer pluck my gifted disposable camera from a fluffly lace bucket on my tipsy tumble out of the reception if I want to have pictures later. I can just pin as many as I am inclined to, although there is something raggedy about doing this after the news or festivities I missed have taken place.
Much of this tardy ignorance is the peril of being a sometimes published author but full-time bookworm and introverted writer who is not so readily on the Smart Phone gossip trail. But even from my withdrawed psychic bubble, I can not ignore the dangerous pedestal that digital communication sits upon in our lives and world. There is no way that words on a screen can substitute for the sound of a person’s voice. And- to the point of this writing here- I hope I never live to see the day that this pitifully easy display of words on a screen becomes the subsitute for a decent book in my hands.
In this age of communication that is evaporated at worst and shorthand at best, I must get in on the action if I want to continue to be apart of the world I guess. I must commit to memory nearly a dozen usernames and passwords I attempt to overlap if the websites’ varying quality control requirements so permit. I am hesitant to “stumble upon” too much new, but I have to admit that Goodreads just may be the online feeding ground that sticks with me longer than Myspace is attempting to do.
My publisher had already set up a page for me. There was a dainty icon listed on my Author’s Page. Once I saw that other writers had neat profiles with their pictures, personal control and even structured ways to visit with readers, I sent off my author application to gain control of the page with my books upon them. Truth be told, the primary function of the online platform Goodreads is to subtlely shift good readers back to real books–not just reading them, but also buying them. This is not the place to come if you do not read, nor it is the place to learn. It is the online break for the people who will take off from their latest mundane cyber exhibition (their latest couscous recipe, or fly hairdo), and instead direct that spare time and energy into an intellectual community of those who yearn to read. For any venturer who wanders in its direction quickly learns that he or she is not the truly anonymous star seeking fans in the form of “Likes” and “Follows.” And I would rather see parents ignore reading to their children in order to show the children they are reading, than parents ignore their children because they missed their chance to be pop stars then but are trying to make up for it in the cyberworld now.
Goodreads may be part of the answer to a fledgling, dislocated education industry’s prayers. It has the enormous promise to become a way for teachers and professors across this universe to snatch students in laptop classrooms out of the haze of sneaking onto social media while pretending to type notes. I have been at the head of that class, and even behind it. Neither grown adults nor urban youth cared that I knew they were all entranced in socialization online while I talked to myself to explain what I already knew but they did not. Inevitably, it is always the teachers’ faults when the masses routinely miss homework instructions and fail to hear key points that arrive back into their faces on accredidation or standards exams. With learners hypnotized into a passing of time they can no longer ascertain and coddled for owning the attention spans of flies, it appears to all others that teachers must really be so negligent. “Well, if you insist…” should be the prelude of countless opening lectures and first day of class speeches, when those in charge insist Goodreads must be apart of the grading package. And I do believe all students would grow to love it.
I once remember children most dreamed to win immortality through a baseball bat, basketball, choir solo-worthy voice, ballet slippers, or the academic prowess of future doctors. Now, to simulate the human instinct towards extraordinariness, which once drove Michael Jordan to do layups for 20 hours straight or Tyler Perry to exhaust himself writing and producing plays for an insomniatic decade, today’s sedentary children (and inexusable adults) just power up and chase strangers in the middle of classes or the night. Nothing special required. Just a mediocre personality or message to pronounce.
Goodreads eliminates that hazardous, life-wasting wish. There is hierarchy and structure, but of an appropriate and welcome nature. It is a home with a purpose that is apparent, respected and tenderizing in a certain way. How often do I get online to be whisked back to the days I first held The Chronicles of Narnia in my hands, or found out what happened to Daisy, or learned why there were none? To see book covers and their authors come across the screen is the equivalent of my self-amusing tendency to post my baby pictures online, as opposed to current ones of me that really only show my life is no constant adventure after all. This mandatory humility is progress for any online social media community as popular as Goodreads. These are the days of feverish SEO marketing gurus who promise fame and fortune to any would-be star or tycoon willing to pay to learn how to master Google page rank with keywords. That there should be many other feverish actions behind the words is something this trend overlooks. But, the action of words is the only reason to post, review, share or comment on Goodreads. Fittingly, the demonstrations and camaraderie of all good readers who are reading will quickly shame anyone who is not.
At Goodreads, masses of participants willingly take on the title of “Fan” before running to gather them. Given the wholesome and progressive ratings system Goodreads offers for books (it can’t get any lower than a simply simple “didn’t like it”), the site moves away from the sad regression of the Internet into the primary medium on Earth where grouches and haters are able to safely trash others from afar. It give writers, thinkers, intellectuals and authors a safe haven free from competition with Rihanna, Adele, Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Kate Middleton and Jennifer Lawrence. I must thank Goodreads for breaking my habit of zoning out within the latest breaking news on these women, all of whom I love. But they and those of their manufactured statures are too immediately in my face whenever I just want to check MSN or Yahoo! for the weather or local movie times. And, given Hilary Mantel’s recent witch hunt for a complicatingly benevolent lecture and Patricia Cornwell’s incomprehensible past extortions, one would assume hard-toiling writers may only claim that digital stature if there is scandal, misfortune or daggers around them. That’s not fair. There is no other chance for even the most adored and accoladed of authors to compete with the media machines behind that devastating imbalance in society’s values. But on Goodreads, authors are not even forced to try.
Goodreads is not a random community that one is so often forced to contend with online: everyone squished together like crabs in a barrel, any remotely connected opportunity to show face seized- even if the face being shown doesn’t know what they are talking about, or isn’t talking about anything really. And there is no danger of being unwillingly assaulted with a Girls Gone Wild scene, child pornography, mediocre street rap, angry political rant, broadcast schoolyard fight, or even orchestrated and filmed driveby. You do not need side boob, a red carpet or a DUI arrest to own your own corner of cyberspace, but only passion for the first mass-marketed form of entertainment there ever was: printed books. I hope Goodreads maintains its modesty and guards the limitations of its user-driven content to stay as simple, precise and relevant as it is. There are only user gravatars, book ratings, book shelves, book reviews, book groups…and then there are the books. Any place in this new Internet planet we rely on that puts the books in my face that I will never forget reading, needed to read, still want to read and finally will be encouraged to read is good in my book.
About Hadiya Pendleton: Hadiya Pendelton (1997-2013) was a 15-year old King College Prep High School sophomore. She was a band majorette and popular honors student. She is survived by her mother Cleopatra Crowley, her father Nate “Anthony” Pendleton, and her little brother Nathaniel Pendleton. She had no arrest history or gang affiliation. Ms. Pendleton’s dreams included attending Northwestern University to become a pharmacist and journalist.
When I grew up in the small town Midwest, if not for the park, then my hardworking blue-collar parents may not have been able to trick me to believe we were, somehow, rich. Near our home, there was the poignantly and appropriately-named “Bird’s Park”—where the inhabitants of our rural Illinois farming and factory town could take their children to enjoy paddle boat rides that brought our fingertips within a hair’s reach of squawking ducks. There was a semblance of a quarry that I raked and burned many a backside sliding down to the bottom of, to sully my feet in the warm, wet sand created by the Kankakee River and to chew stalks of wild sweet grass with my sisters.
My parents stayed above us, preferring the shade while absorbed in friendly chess games. At night, the lightning bugs appeared along with the thirsty mosquitoes, but we always delayed packing up to go home. There were other parks, closer to our side of town where the residents were primarily Black. Each year, annual festivals were held with imported pony rides, basketball tournaments and an official soundstage to show off the best of the town’s talent and community programs. It was one of the few times that my elder relatives ventured out, with coolers for beer and picnic blankets. But, these serene rituals ended.
In the mid-nineties, shortly before I left for college, a killing spree commenced in our town due to heightened gang activity that had its origins in the Chicago and national drug trade. Suddenly, a town that had only been mentioned on the news for its weather became a frequent subject in terms of peculiar violence. Any suggestion of going to a local festival or park barbecue was following by jokes that ceased to be funny: “Well, don’t get shot,” or “Put your bullet-proof vest on under your dress.” I was sixteen, and unafraid. In my mind, I was not going to let people I did not know and some I did inhibit my adventures. The world was mine, and I was going to change it.
This is the mentality our communities’ daughters inherit by nature of knowing us. Only now, as two decades have passed, a new generation of young women can not afford the brazen attitude we were allowed—and nowhere is this more apparent than in the city of Chicago, which was once a tourist mecca selected to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair). Now, it is a warzone. On January 29, 2013, less than 10 days after she had been a beaming majorette in service and homage to our first Black President’s second Inauguration in Washington, D.C., local Chicago high school student Hadiya Pendleton was dead.
The events, well-known locally and nationally, do not read like a horror story but more like an apocalyptic fable. King College Prep High School was dismissed for the day. A group of friends rambled home. A rainstorm began. They laughed to the nearest shelter—a park house cover in Vivian G. Harsh park (the park is named for Chicago’s first Black librarian and Black publishing archivist). A man appeared out of nowhere. He jumped the fence to the park. He had a gun. He shot into their group. He ran away. A young Black boy lay bleeding from a gunshot to the leg. Ms. Pendleton was critically wounded in her back. She died an hour later at a local hospital. She was 15. She was an honors student. The shooter remains at large. Her parents live in shock. Her school is in silent mourning. Residents of Chicago are outraged. A nation is not. Unlike Trayvon Martin before her, when talking heads and bloggers could run rampant about race and profiling in a race for Google hits, Ms. Pendleton is not even granted a Wikipedia page.
I, too, was like Hadiya Pendleton. When I was near her age, I journeyed to New York City to speak of the combusting race relations in our school district. It was nationally televised, and even a few dear friends from the Klu Klux Klan appeared as surprise guests to discount the effects of White supremacy on low black achievement. I returned to my swarm of friends with the mind that I had found my calling—to speak on race through writing and voice, to go live in New York City one day, to maybe attend Columbia University, and to stretch my wings beyond my neighborhood block that appeared microscopic now compared to how it had looked when I had departed for my first plane ride. I had many friends. Our gatherings after school in safe hoards threatened our after-school curfews. They were our displays of burgeoning independence, self-selection and virgin freedom. What kind of world do we live in now that my simple fraternity with youth my own age could have been my death sentence 20 years ago, so that I would not be at a computer now typing these words that scream for peace?
A $40,000 reward remains for information that leads to apprehension of Hadiya’s shooter. It is unclaimed. Today, $40,000 (a comfortable yearly salary) is a high cost to pay for the rest of one’s life if there is retaliation to the informants. Speculation utters that the shooting may have been apart of a gang initiation; new members are required to kill an innocent person to prove their street “cred” and calloused spirit that will murder in an instant if necessary. Speculation hints that the shooter may have mistaken the crowd for a gang due to its number and location on an inconspicuous gang territory, the same misinterpreted societal profiling that led to the assassination of Trayvon Martin one year ago. But since there is no one to answer for this crime, there is no one to give a motive.
If not for our playgrounds, parks, high school stadiums, local community centers, where are we supposed to cultivate the youth who will be our caretakers in the future through their tax dollars and their innovations? What ground do we stake out for them to enjoy the horizon with thoughts that race forward to how they will spend their long lives, as opposed to anxieties that come from behind and tell them to watch their backs? How do we reclaim the once-vibrant psyches of a generation of youngsters now forced into morbid considerations and fears that typically resemble those of the elderly?
There is a vegetable garden in my neighborhood, cultivated by the local homeowners committed to nutrition and fresh produce. A few blocks away, there is a park that sits oddly abandoned most days—until young men who are rumored to harass and rob passerby collect when school lets out or early in the night. When I babysat for a toddler near there, the mother warned me against going to that park and instead directed me to one a near half-mile away within a university campus. Although there is both a public elementary and middle school within walking distance of the garden, the home owners are all involved in hectic lotteries, interviews, waiting lists and tuition payments to insure that their children never enter them. The young children of the neighborhood already compete like graduate students for the select few spots in regional private schools. Their parents are that afraid of what might happen to their children at school.
Once, this land was Black Americans’ new garden to overturn soil bloodied at our expenses, to fertilize it anew with the lives, fulfilled dreams and replenished hopes of new generations. Now, we succumb to shipping children to schools far from where they live and leaving the Internet to report our latest slaughters. We have grown just as numb and callous as the shooters who take down innocent children everyday. If we do not pick up signs to march or pens to write, then we may as well pick up guns to shoot too.
**Since the time of this writing, two young men have come forward in relation to Ms. Pendleton’s murder, and criminal proceedings are currently underway in Chicago. After First Lady Michelle Obama attended the young teen’s funeral, Ms. Pendleton’s story came to prominent national attention. Her surviving parents are currently at the forefront of the national debate for gun regulation.
I saw Lincoln. It was my first film of the New Year. I love Sallie Field. I was happy to see Gloria Reuben and S. Epatha Merkerson again, too. And for some reason, that might have to do with him reminding me of one of my best friends’ moms (even though she is a redhead with finer features), I just think Tommy Lee Jones is so cute and real. And Spielberg has widened and brightened my world since JAWS, ET and, of course, The Color Purple. Schindler’s List remains a finger on my hands when I am asked to account for my favorite movies.
However, I am unsure how much to celebrate of a film that took nearly 3 hours to depict our 16th U.S. President from my very own state of Illinois fighting for a world-altering decision to grant equal consideration under the law to Negro Americans- but there is scarcely a Negro in the film. As a matter of fact, in The Lincoln Institute’s online classroom for educators and classrooms, no Black Americans appear on the character or actors credits list which precede the educational content for the film. So essentially, a new generation of Americans will approach and study this film to see and learn how much White Americans actually did love us. Awww…. There will not be time in the classrooms, just as there was not time in the 3-hour film, to show just how much White and free Black abolitionists had to coddle Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) to budge on what the wiser consider to have been an aloof approach to federal involvement in slavery and its eradication. Here, even Frederick Douglass could not muscle his way to a significant part. I could be missing an artistic point. Or, I could be being honest: after so much has been done, Black Americans just may never satisfied with anything done about it.
As a Black American woman with many White friends and indeed friends of all races, I was supremely touched to see a cinematic dilation of an amendment that had always just been a mere fact in our history books and shared national conscience. I brought a print-out of Tony Kushner’s script to the theater, offered on Roger Ebert’s website, to trace how the final scenes mapped onto a text where the House debates read as smoothly yet playfully as Shakespeare; Lincoln’s most famous lines could very well become the dozens played and “signifying” typically associated with Black working-class and hip-hop cultures.
Lincoln validates my life choice to forbid my American origins in slavery, segregation and discrimination from defining and restricting my relationships by and to only those who share these origins. It was a relief to see that White men and people who held the most power were also varied in how they wanted to define and restrict their lives–without a monolithic commitment to dehumanizing my people, but instead wide variance in their feelings about this humiliating historical period for their people. And maybe that was the entire point of the film, beyond showing Lincoln’s distressing and nearly-debilitating conundrums: to move our nation closer to face values, understanding, acceptance, peace and healing by giving a diversified portrait to the scores of White men who were not “like that” back then.
It is a necessary and admirable point. But I still missed seeing firsthand just whom these unequal Black American people were, from Abraham Lincoln’s weary and haunted eyes. Mrs. Lincoln’s Black assistant and seamstress (Reuben) figures prominently at her side throughout and stays a dutiful object around which the Lincolns’ Negro sentiments pivot. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), the primary covert operative in the Republican playbook to outlaw slavery, has an interesting relationship with his housekeeper (Merkerson) as well. A mute bundle of Blacks appears in the balcony at the final voting to pass the 13th Amendment that changed history for Black people across the world; in essence, the climax of the film is this January 31, 1865, Congressional voting day that decided Black Americans would no longer be vulnerable to sudden kidnapping from our native homelands to serve as unpaid, tortured workers on American soil.
Despite Spielberg’s heavy hand in filming nearly palpable visions of human barbarity inflicted upon Jews in Schindler’s List, soldiers in Saving Private Ryan and African Middle Passage travelers in Amistad, Lincoln can hardly be considered gruesome; it is quite gentle given its Civil War setting. Its merits of realism lie strictly in its eerily-evocative ambience of Civil War America, almost as if the actors and crew had journeyed through a time capsule back to mid-nineteenth century America to show us how we may have seen it then if we had gone too. About as flinching as it gets is a numbing scene where blood drains from a creaking wheelbarrow before the severed and mangled body parts of amputee soldiers are dumped into their ready-made collective burial plot; I can not remember if two or three Black men push the wheelbarrow, but more or less would not change my point.
Spielberg omits a grand finale showing Abraham Lincoln’s April 14, 1865, assassination at the Ford Theater (that I remember being mercilessly quizzed on as early as 5th grade). Instead, a character just announces it. The grand finale he wished to leave with us, the last frame in our picture of Abraham Lincoln, is a calmed man hoping for happiness after the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to outlaw slavery in the whole of the United States of America and change the whole world as a result. John Wilkes Booth, who ended Lincoln’s life, is not even a character in the film. So I have to hope Spielberg gave similar pause and aesthetic judgment to the omission of Black Americans in a movie where Black Americans are the primary characters discussed.
“Now,” Eva looked up across from her wagon at her daughter. “Give me that again. Flat out to fit my head.”
“I mean, did you? You know. When we was little.”
“No. I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin’.”
“Oh, well. I was just wonderin’.” Hanna appeared to be through with the subject.
“An evil wondering’ if I ever heard one.” Eva was not through.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, Mamma.”
“What you mean you didn’t mean nothing by it? How you gone not mean something by it?”
“Awww, Mamma? Awww, Mamma? You settin’ here with you healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.”
“I didn’t mean that, Mamma. I know you fed us and all. I was talkin’ bout something else. Like. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?”
“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ‘cause you got it good now you think it was always this good?”
And here, a mother and daughter in Ohio, America, circa-Depression, discuss their “relationship”—why exactly they live in the same home unto that moment, why they are two grown women shelling peas together, what they have to show for it and each other.
In Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, published by Alfred Knopf at a time when “Black Power” commingled with Blaxploitation and Black revolution, three generations of impoverished Black whores—the third generation being educated, city-dwelling and experienced with “White men”—confront each other and their interior mysteries within their grand pre and post-Depression Ohio mansion. How is the home still standing? Who has passed through it? Who dies off within it? Who returns to claim it? Why are all levels occupied by vestiges of characters we would love to know better but almost hate to know at all—three alien and adopted toddler mulatto brothers who appear oddly the same and who finally wind up with the same name as a result (The “Deweys”), a cracked-out original son and brother torched in sacrifice when he will not rehabilitate (“Plum”), a good girl-bad girl-good girl come home who will preserve herself before she practices the good old African-American commitment and sentiment of never putting the family elderly into a nursing home (“Sula”). Not only does Sula finally throw the one-legged matriarch Eva into a nursing home and go on about what will be a shorter life than she can admit she had hoped, but she also departs from her best friend she has grown up with and formed herself with—a willowy, flexible and malleable character named Nel, that type of best friend who would forgive a friend for condescending her, patronizing her, losing touch with her and sleeping with her husband.
Sula, in many ways, is an ugly novel. I was introduced to it as a junior and wandering English student at the University of Chicago, in a course entitled Fiction of Three Americas, by a psychoanalytic, Americanist and Joyce-loving professor who was a novelist as well; this book is what finally anchored me into a reason to study English. That he would choose Sula, above all other of Morrison’s works, was a tribute to the awesome illusion of poetry as prose with the purpose of exposing the “put-down” Black American mind like never before. Thankfully, my mind was not put down in the course. I held a wonder in my hands each day that I carried a work to class and could speak freely on it; Sula proved to be the most wondrous of them all.
The final progeny in this slim trilogy of 3 generations, Sula, provides the title character and turning moments of the novel. Sula has learned, and seen, and experienced beyond the village, township, subdivision, rural area or neighborhood where her home of the “Bottom” is situated. It is Sula, 10 years beyond her departure from the town and her sincere questioning of where her life might be headed near the provincial, “Man-loving” life is not nearly as limited to it as she once thought it was but that ultimately it may be grandly limited to this place—for here is the only place where she may remain a Queen Bee, a Diva who controls things, a woman large and in charge, an influence and not just a participant. In the space of ten years that Morrison questionably leaves absent from the novel, betwixt when Sula leaves her residence of “The Bottom” and how she returns, a bildungsroman of girlhood gone good, the best it could have been, a discovery of a self and a return to the place that made that self.
There are not many things to love about Sula, but there is everything to love if these are your generations, these are your stories and you know these women in some way or fashion. Morrison discusses the constipation of the tertiary matriarch’s son, Eva’ Plum, nearly 20 years before that matriarch discovers that Plum has a severe drinking and drug problem in the basement of her home. Eva “gallops” down her staircases and burns Plum up as a result. Yet, when Eva’s eldest daughter Hannah is burning to death due to an accident and oversight in the home, it is Eva who hurls herself outside of a high story window to rescue Hannah. And in the novel, it was Hannah who first brought up and discussed “love.” Aphrodite would balk. This “love” is not what one would expect.
Hannah’s crime, committed during a conversation with her mother Eva and over the ritual of shelling peas, was to, simply, ask about “love.” Among these rooms, these doors, this house, these women, these men, and these generations of sisters one minute and mothers to daughters next, there is no room for love. There is only room for getting by, surviving, one day at a time, and “Hi, how ya doin’?” to the people or things that one might think matters. Anything beyond that is open to chance, to luck and to impossibility in this world of pre and post-Depression era working class Blacks that Toni Morrison so beautifully captures—for their honesty, loyalties, realities, gumption and strong, high heads.