I am to enact Baby Doll, one of the three characters in The Unsatisfactory Supper by Tennessee Williams. It is one of several plays being produced that preceded A Streetcar Named Desire containing a Sketch of Blanche Dubois. For weeks we talk about Tennessee Williams, read not only his early plays but also see film excerpts, read his poems and his essays. We’re reading these earlier plays and looking at prototypes that become the quintessential Blanche Dubois.
Williams explores and exposes the family. He writes, to my reading, not to shock or titillate, though both can result from reading his work. His work is seeking an understanding of relationships and the substance that binds one to one’s self or to another and the lack of glue that allows freedom or disintegration of relationship. The lack of some adhesive in the family can cause individuals, mainly women, to literally become unglued as many do in Williams’ plays. The characters become insane and are taken to mental institutions; they walk into death as alternative to other no exit situations or they wax in slow grimness. Freedom is generally ambiguous but it usually involves the sacrifice of another, i.e. Blanche for Stella; Tom for Laura in The Glass Menagerie; Aunt Rose for Baby Doll; the entire family for first Big Daddy, then Brick in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.
Williams doesn’t set the characters up as bad or ugly but if you spend any time in someone else’s house (or your own) you see the bad and the ugly, whether they see it as such or not. Williams peers beyond polite company behavior so we see that brother may be sexually intimate with sister, we see that mommy is competing for sexual favors, we see daddy too drunk to notice much, we see sister in another world. We also hear yearning that accompanies repressive families and societies – the freedom to think, the freedom to explore sexually, the freedom to be homosexual, the freedom to leave the family. We see the constraints in effect with the rich and the poor. Poverty, material deprivation is an additional constraint and always somewhere, often front and center, in Williams’ work.
Most of Williams’ plays are set in the South. Williams was from Mississippi; part of his fame is bringing aspects of southern life to the Broadway stage. Nigger is ubiquitous in America, casually and often unashamedly so in the South. For him to have omitted the word would have lent, regardless of his personal usage or lack thereof, dishonesty to his work. To me it would have placed a large question mark about the veracity of his entire depiction. No nigger no truth.
When we reproduce an author’s work, some changes (some might think any changes) significantly change the work. Words are easy to change. Now with computers using Photoshop and other such tools we can do to photos, pictures and painting what we can so easily do to words. Should we do any of it? If so what can we change and why can we do it? Would we recolor a Picasso? Or, take the growling, teeth baring dog being used by a white sheriff to attack a black demonstrator out of the picture? When is the new production merely derivative?
In The Unsatisfactory Supper Baby Doll in response to her husband Archie Lee’s suggestion that she keep the old lady [her aunt] out of the kitchen replies, “You get me a nigger and I’ll keep her out of the kitchen.”
The white director of the production wants nigger replaced with maid.* Human being, African American/ black/Negro/Colored/negra/nigger me enacting Baby Doll and being in that moment Baby Doll wants it to remain nigger because, that is what I says and it’s who I am until I learn something different. Stepping out to speak in aside she might say, I’m not a bad person. I live with my husband. I do the best I can. I haven’t been comfortable on this mountain for a long time. This ugly fat takes care of me but I can’t run through the mountains any more. It’s also padding between me and Archie Lee on top of me. I love Aunt Rose but Archie Lee pays the bills. Maybe I do lack courage. Maybe it was taken away by brother or father or mother. I’m uncomfortably dark myself, not odd here in Mississippi but uncomfortable never the less. I’m goin back to my porch now, wait for somthin to change.
“Nigger” is still ever present in America and now we have exported it around the world. Some blacks have owned “nigger” so thoroughly some other blacks, i.e. the Diaspora of colored folks, and some whites, have appropriated it as culture. What is a “nigger?” For Baby Doll it was someone to be better than. The one someone whose worse life, and believe me it, for Baby Doll, had to be a worse life to make hers tolerable. However horrible her life, she could thank God she wasn’t a “nigger.” This is one of the ways Family and Society get us to shut up, it could be worse. “Nigger” was all she had. A maid gets paid. A maid can change jobs. A “nigger” stays a “nigger.”
In reading the Williams’ plays my first encounter with the casual use of “nigger” is jarring. When I’m reading them in character I have to remember I’m in character. Theater is the enactment of roles. I Carletta in becoming whomever I’m enacting stop being me. I act the other so well that I Carletta am lost before the audience’s eyes and ears. I don’t want a maid, “you get me a nigger” is not jarring.
As I Carletta know Baby Doll, somewhere, now Baby Doll knows me. In this intimacy lies the seed to address the word “nigger” and more importantly the concept of “nigger.” Tennessee Williams has provided the material for the exploring and exposing of this family society to continue. I Carletta Joy Walker am thankful.
*Note: As a courtesy I shared this essay with the director before it was to be aired on a weekly radio program I produced. In addition to leaving the word “nigger” in the play, he included this essay as part of the program.
England: Border Crossing Customs
With the 2017 scent of USA xenophobic nationalism in the air, I finally renewed my passport. This providing me with the possibility to leave the country, with the full awareness that I can’t run from attitudes which can exist everywhere; and in truth, I don’t want to run. I do always want, hope for, and work toward community where we see the beauty of all we are when we look at each other. My hope is for all of us to see that we share our one planet, and need act from a mindset of kindness and understanding. For me this helps each of us maintain our wholeness and our decency.
I went to England spring 1990, the year my mother died; a physical demise was occurring, was evident when I left. I was invited to participate in facilitating a workshop. I had my journal, other writings, spiritual reading—the Daily Word, I think also Louise L. Hay. My skin color, the nature of my hair, my state of minimal economics alarmed the people at immigration: I was flagged. A white male had me follow him. I was passed to an Asian male. He opened and started to go through my carefully folded shirts, socks, panties. I watched his fingers touch me; a chill of violation creeps through me. I said nothing. This Asian man, originated in some country that allowed a British Empire to exist and boast that the sun never set on it looked into me, said, “I’m only doing my job.” Looking at his regret, sadness, I reply, “I’m only having my feelings.” I neither smiled or raged; I hurt.
Finished, the Asian man replaced my things; the white man returned, took my journal, another book of writings, some things I’d brought to read, and left me to sit in a lounge. My books were filled with love and affirmation. I read my Daily Word, which was a perfect word for the day and moment: Friday April 6, 1990, the word for the day, “Relax.” The title introducing the day’s thoughts was “Because My Trust Is In God, I Am Relaxed And At Peace.” The reading began, “If the events of my life seem to be unfolding in ways that are not for my highest good, I do not get upset or anxious. Instead, I quiet myself, relax, and turn to the presence of God within me in complete trust.” I read on smiling that I was so provided for and tickled at the subversive passages on love and the power of transformation that were throughout my journal, my novel, and other writings.
The white man returned; he offered reasons for their search, was as conciliatory as, I suppose, a man with empire legacy could be. An apology seemed an impossibility for him, would cause a rent in his life that would be beyond repair. I thought about the Asian man, forgave him, hoped he didn’t commit suicide. I search through my journals, looking for that April 6 day many years past. I’d written, “I’m glad I didn’t trivialize what I felt.” In response to their taking the words that surrounded me I wrote, “There is only beauty & hope & me in them. What are you looking for? I don’t make sense in your world. I do understand what is happening. My left knee is paining me as I write, a bit of pain in my left hip, my left ovary. The Asian man does not like what he did. Fortunately his discomfort did not turn outward, did not make him brutal toward me.”
My Celestial Guide 1990, week at a glance calendar has a picture of my godchild. He’s not quite one; he’s looking upward with bright eyes, his smile is radiant—there are only the beginnings of teeth.
Did they look at him? What did they see? I’d forgotten the Black woman. She was at the beginning of this process, the initial yea or nay. Brief, her part was brief. What did she see: skin color—her skin color, not her skin color; hair—her hair, not her hair? I don’t remember her and I resist the image that comes to me now. She did stop me, and we did not look into each other’s eyes and declare our love.
I am finally released back to the beginning port of entry; as I walk through, a white Woman flags me. Is it my skin color, the nature of my hair, does she want to experience my aura? The Asian man is there; he stops her quickly, completely. I enter Gatwick. I’m in England, for the second time in my life.
HT, Sweetness and Arletti: Bike Adventures is a story of three friends bicycle ride through their neighborhood to the horse stables in the park, where they visit their horse friends–Buckeye, Pony Express and Jezebel.
Fossie Bear Plays Saxophone is a story loosely based on the life of composer, jazz soloist—baritone, alto, soprano saxes, clarinet, flute, vocalist—and band leader Fostina Dixon. It came to me after a concert. I remembered the electric energy that flowed through Fostina the first time I heard her play. A vision of a little girl, filled with electric energy, and her discovery of music came to me.
In celebration of Toni Morrison’s first birthday as an ancestor, I am posting my conference proposal to the 10th National Black Writers Conference: “An examination of the representation of history and memory in the works of Toni Morrison”, and the accepted Panel Presentation— “Giving Flesh and Bone To The Spirit of Truth.”
The memory of seeing Toni Morrison being honored and celebrated is a delightful one.
Conference Proposal: An examination of the representation of history and memory in the works of Toni Morrison
“Giving Flesh and Bone to the Spirit of Truth”
The fiction works of Toni Morrison serve as means by which she approaches, expresses and, in my view, heals history and memory. Morrison uses historical periods as setting for kernels of memory truth to explore and provide depth to what has become the history of a period. Beginning with The Bluest Eye, set in the mid (1941) 20th century, proceeding through Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise and Love, to A Mercy—her most recent novel—set in the late (1680’s) 17th century, history and memory together are the story. In her works everyone and everything can have memory; the animate and inanimate carry and transfer the spirit story. The Bluest Eye’s story unfolds and is given with the understanding the reader comes to about the memory of a lack of Marigolds. What is and what was, as well as what is thought, provides information about how and why life events unfolds as they do.
Morrison uses memory to create literature that is an additive and sometimes oft times also a corrective to history. Her literature can function as embrace and building blocks for a new foundation. The literary representation becomes something on which one can build a more all encompassing history. The works of Morrison can heal history and memory. Morrison’s story places truth between the meeting palms of compassion and wisdom creating whole understandings. Without imposing judgment, her works distill fact and memory such that wisdom is nurtured and compassion broadened. A Mercy, ends with “Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe”, a three sentence paragraph that concludes the section calling for hearing and remembering. “I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you:….·” The synthesis of historical, emotional/ physical and spiritual fact and memory that is the end of the path and defines the path.
I will examine Morrison’s representation of history and memory in Beloved and A Mercy, two works which immerse the reader in the American slave experience. White and Black inextricably entwined in the American story, with the slave experience joining, forming and informing the mind-heart understanding of and quest for humanity and freedom in the finite context of a material world. Central to Beloved is a mother’s killing and attempted killing of her children rather than have them grow into adult life as slave. Central to A Mercy is the “selling” of a daughter to create the possibility of a more humane enslavement. I will look at these two of Morrison’s literary pieces to illuminate her use of literature to provide history and memory that offer sight, sound, sensory understanding into the how could you do something like this—questions posed or implied—in reaction to heinous acts in both Beloved and A Mercy.
Morrison, Toni. A Mercy. Vintage International, 2009
Panel Presentation for 10th National Black Writers Conference Medgar Evers College: Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Honorary Chair March 25, 2010
Introductory remarks to panel paper presentation:
In 1993 I was contemplating the meaning and significance of the Middle Passage, thinking about how one survives. I wanted to define it in a way that honored the enormity of the journey and the event of captured—bought and sold—Africans coming to the Americas, and to also empower it as concise concept. The following is definition, which was published in 1994 in the magazine And Then (vol. 6), is my result.
middlepassage (mid’l-pas’j)n. also middl-passage, middle passage. 1. The point in a journey that begins no return and no advance. 2. A present that has been uprooted from the past and contains no seeable future. 3. Middlepassagen. The experience of Africans captured and entombed on ships at sea in the Atlantic on the way to becoming enslaved Africans in the Americas. 4. A place, a moment where one has to create and decide on a future.
Toni Morrison in Beloved and A Mercy using history and memory writes of moments—continuing moments of creations and decisions related to and resulting from the middlepassage and the Middlepassage.
“An Examination of the representation of history and memory in the works of Toni Morrison: Giving Flesh and Bone To The Spirit of Truth”
By Carletta Joy Walker
Central to Beloved is a mother’s killing and attempted killing of her children rather than have them grow into adult life as slave. Central to A Mercy is the “selling” of a daughter to create the possibility of a more humane enslavement. Minha mae and her nursing son are selected/pointed to as compensation for money debt owed to Jacob Vaark, a trader/money lender, by Senhor D’Ortega. The mother sees that his eyes see her daughter as a playful child; Senhor’s eyes are reaching, preparing to take and rape. In neither of these decisive moments can the children understand beyond the rejection of their lives.
Today I will share my reading of these two Morrison literary pieces with a focus on the core incidents in order to illuminate her use of literature to provide history and memory that offer sight, sound and sensory understanding into the, how could you do something like this—questions posed or implied—in reaction to heinous acts in both Beloved and A Mercy.
The Literature of Toni Morrison provides and adds layers and intricacies of humanity to the historical Margaret Garner—and to all of us—by affording the fullness of story. Margaret Garner killed one of her children and tried to kill the others. (She was put on trial for being a fugitive slave.) Toni Morrison puts all of Sethe’s (the fictional character) and therefore Margaret Garner’s characteristics on the human side of the divide between human and animal by allowing her reflection and the reactions and discussions her actions, in an effort to prevent her children from being enslaved, require—it is a given that escaping slavery is not a crime.
Toni Morrison in subtle and more direct ways “discusses” what it means to be human. Schoolteacher’s bifurcation of Sethe’s characteristics into human and animal and his ability to do so are part of the answer to the question of how she, Sethe (someone, anyone) could do something like this, murder her children. To wholly answer the how could she question, all the questions must be asked: How does one put a bit in another’s mouth? How does one put a bit into the mouth of one that looks like oneself? How does one dig a hole for a box to house a man or a hole to house a belly containing what one considers ones property so one can beat the mother and still protect the property? How does one repeatedly discard the issue from ones seed and womb? The Literary lens is upon the entirety – upon those who took Sethe’s milk—raped her breast—and womb; who opened her back with a whip for daring to speak their behavior and would debate and assign her less than human status.
The legal arguments surrounding the actual incident at this novel’s core continued the objectification of Margaret Garner. They did not address the spirit, consequence and reality of her action for herself and her surviving family. The novel does this. The legal strategy and approach may have been important and necessary macroscopically for changing, eliminating the institution of American slavery. —This was the eve of the Civil War.— It did in many, if not most ways leave out the totality of Margaret Garner as a thinking, breathing, human being with insight and awareness of her own feelings, thinking and action. Consequently, a significant kernel of information for the healing and restructuring of the slavery relationships was not included in the post Civil War period and post slave institution and mentality. Not for the white and black inextricably entwined in the American story or for the relationships of black to white and the relationship of each black and each white to selves born of the nascent necessity being in the Americas involved and evolved.
The literary lens focused on the period of American history that A Mercy is set in also looks at the individuals and communities in their entirety. Toni Morrison writes with full appreciation of the humanity of natives, Europes, Africs, blacks, whites, Protestants, Catholics and others in all the shades of free and unfree. In my view, she does this without resentment. There is sweet, there is bitter, better and worst: because there is. Toni Morrison writes as contribution to making a world, the world Scully, the midwife, saw aching to form from the dark matter.
“They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guess. One thing was certain, courage alone would not be enough. Minus bloodlines, he saw nothing yet on the horizon to unite them. Nevertheless, remembering how the curate described what existed before Creation, Scully saw dark matter out there, thick, unknowable, aching to be made into a world.” – Scully, A Mercy pg 183
In both Beloved, and A Mercy, Toni Morrison gives literary creation based on history and historical fact with the addition of memory and the spirit of truth. Spirit sees and carries truth no matter what we see, say, or do.
Therefore in Beloved the literary lens is also upon Sethe. It is no simple act to kill; weapons of ever increasing ability to create a mass of destruction could allow one to think so, but killing is not cost free. Sethe lives this truth and lives in the fog of understanding as she tries to do it without memory. It is not possible to do without memory. Paul D. arrives, uniting Sweet Home memories and begins a completion of understanding. The mind-heart understanding of a material world, one located in a reality where the unthinkable has been done, ultimately requires this remembering. Morrison’s story places truth between the meeting palms of compassion and wisdom creating whole understandings. This truth, this unity is humanity and freedom. The essence is one, the true stories are many.
Toni Morrison in Beloved reveals the bone, the cost/price of putting flesh on bone. The novel Beloved does this systematically, in the style of a chorus, call and response. Caller sings the line that brings or follows another set of verses; each verse, each word filled with sensory information that frees truth. One can judge what one is seeing and hearing and even feeling, but ultimately, I believe the point is to understand. The Judgment—where it exists—is not what creates healing change. It is with understanding spirit, truth understanding, that healing change comes. Healing change eliminates the possibility of repetition of acts that violate life, violate humanity—acts that would have us betray ourselves and truth. We no longer kill our children or sell them or give them away; we no longer subjugate or attempt to subjugate. The scars, the identification marks begin to fade without fester because the present become distinguishable from the past. Memory no longer runs the present; whatever Beloved is she is gone. The existence, the going…, “It was not a story to pass on.” The story is Paul D’s words to Sethe, “‘You your best thing, Sethe. You are.'” “His holding finger are holding hers.”
In A Mercy, Toni Morrison provides a sketch, a portrait, a full glimpse of what you can know based on evidence and facts provided and again by memory and spirit about each of the people integral to this novel’s telling. So we see into Lina, Sorrow, Rebekka and Florens and also Jacob, D’Ortega, Willard, Scully, the Blacksmith which give sense—or nonsense—to their actions beyond moralizing.
A Mercy, ends with the words “Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe,” a three sentence paragraph that concludes the section calling for hearing and remembering—the synthesis of historical, emotional, physical and spiritual fact and memory that is the end of the path and defines the path. What Florens must understand is that, “There is no protection but there is difference. You stood there in those shoes and the tall man laughed and said he would take me to close the debt. I knew Senhor would not allow it. I said you [Florens]. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight.”
“It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”
“Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mãe [your mother].”
The hand of compassion is understanding come with stillness. The hand of wisdom is knowing come with stillness. Life is these moments becoming our stories. My palms meet in appreciation of Toni Morrison’s telling these stories which provide me with breath, and support me in being my best thing. Toni Morrison I thank you.
Sapphire: She live in full-spectrum truth-light*poet*novelist*performance poet*dancer*teacher— “I have brought into the public gaze women who have been marginalized by sexual abuse, poverty, and their blackness. Through art I have sought to center them in the world.”—her first novel, Push continues to focus public gaze, as does her subsequent novel The Kid.
Interview first aired on Joy Journal Program – WBAI, Pacifica radio
Ntozake Shange: She live in music-light & love innovating poet*spoken-word artist*dancer*novelist* playwright* mother*very known for gift— “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,”—that keeps giving*born October 18, 1948 Trenton, NJ,—died October 27, 2018 Bowie, MD
Interview first aired on Joy Journal Program – WBAI, Pacifica radio