Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Toni Morrison

I've read just two books of Toni Morrison's, Sula and Jazz, but I call myself a fan of the author. I read Jazz first. I don't remember much about the content. I just have this recollection that reading the book was like taking a deep breath, holding the breath for a long time, then letting the breath, as well as a life's worth of emotion, out over the lines of an epic poem.

Sula I remember as a book that reinforced an important life principle. There are mores and expectations by which most of us are expected to live. How well we fit into those expectations has a lot to do with how we will be judged and remembered. Sula, I believe, goes beyond the mores and expectations to uncover what is human, and asks the reader to make judgments based not on what a community expects but based upon how closely an individual follows his or her beliefs and desires, not the principles of others.

Years ago, soon after I read Jazz, I picked up Song of Solomon, hoping for a similar book in style. But the style was much different. So much different that I couldn't continue reading the book. I recently started the book for the second time. This time, probably because I am not judging the book against Jazz, I have continued reading Song of Solomon and will probably finish it. In my opinion, what is best about Morrison is her female characters. The best female characters in Morrison's books squeeze life beyond the expectations and rules of others. Their experiences may be far removed from mine or those of other readers, but they win the sympathy of readers because they live according to what they believe in and treat others, not according to the codes developed by the communities in which they live, but according to how they would treat themselves. The problem with Song of Solomon is that Morrison focuses too much on male characters. Some of them are strong characters and sympathetic, but Morrison fails to give them the same life as her strongest leads in Jazz and Sula. They fail to become human, remaining characters on a page.

The best part of Song of Solomon is a character named Pilate, who I wish showed up more often in the book. Pilate's umbilical cord slips off as an infant, taking her belly button with it. This physical fact, that she has no belly button, shapes how other characters think of Pilate and treat her more than any other characteristic. She would grow close to people, or take a lover. But as soon as others learned she had no belly button, it was as though she lost her humanity. At one point in a passage that cover Pilate, the author writes --

It occurred to her that although men fucked armless women, one-legged women, hunchbacks and blind women, drunken women, razor-toting women, midgets, small children, convicts, boys, sheep, dogs, goats, liver, each other, and even certain specifies of plants, they were terrified of fucking her -- a woman with no navel, (p. 148-149).

In the early 1990's, in college, I wrote a paper titled "The role of height in literature and popular culture." If I had read Song of Solomon at the time, I probably would have said something about the passage quoted above. Today, though I often think and talk about specific language in the context of people of short stature, it's not use of the word midget that bothers me. It's the fact that people of short stature are a part of this long list of sexual taboos. As if there is something wrong with having a sexual relationship with a person of short stature.

It's disappointing to find a passage like that above in a story by Toni Morrison, an author I like and an author who has used art to highlight characters and lives who are members of a race that historically has been marginalized, segregated, discriminated against, and murdered because of physical difference. But I should keep in mind three things. First, the third person narrator was reflecting the sympathies of the early 1960's in the United States. And second, little people were not alone in the passage above. The sentence also included ableism and homophobia. Third, we are all human. Humans aren't perfect.

In a way, this reminds me of an idea my friend and Little People of America collegue Bill Bradford has suggested on more than one occasion, "It's a sign of progress that we are fair game, just like everyone else."

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