February 18, 2020
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.
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. Middlepassage n. 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 theses two of Morrison’s 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.