Friday, July 18, 2008

Fighting Great Aunt Cuney: An Appreciation for Paule Marshall's "Praisesong For the Widow"

I have been warned in my life about huge disappointments (Ruth in Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun says "sometimes life can be a barrel of disappointments") and one of the things I have been told that really, really comforts me is the fact that sometimes, some people will fight and fight and fight against their heritage, their history, their truth. This is beautifully captured in the character of Avatara (Avey) Johnson in Paule Marshall's 1983 novel and masterpiece, Praisesong For the Widow. This novel is about one woman's journey, one woman's mission to learn about her history & heritage in the face of a decadent, tempting Western culture that seems to deny or belittle such history & heritage. When I got sad about the disappointments I was warned about, I think about how hard Avey Johnson fought her Great Aunt Cuney when visiting the town where she spent her summers as a child, Tatem, South Carolina. In the following excerpt of the novel, Marshall presents the conflict from which Avey suffers: a longing to respect her childhood past and the African past that her Great Aunt Cuney taught her and a longing to ascribe to upper middle class American values that essentially teaches her to shun her African heritage. This conflict manifests itself in a huge physical fist fight between Avey and her Great Aunt Cuney when Avey imagines her deceased Great Aunt while walking on the same Landing she spent her summers in Tatem. Thinking about this physical fight comforts me because it brings to mind the ways that all of us will fight to death the truth of the heritage that we cannot deny. It's comforting, sometimes funny, the way we can try and beat and beat and beat the truth in front of our faces, all to a futile end. In the following excerpt, Marshall writes about this conflict all people of African descent confront on this side of the Atlantic at some time:

Did she [Aunt Cuney] really expect her to go walking over to the landing dressed as she was? In the new spring suit she had just put on to wear to the annual luncheon at the Statler given by Jerome Johnson's lodge (He was outside the house this minute waiting for her in the car). With her hat and gloves on? And her fur draped over her arm? Avey Johnson could have laughed, the idea was so ridiculous. That obstacle course of scrub, rock and rough grass leading down from the cotton field would make quick work for her stockings, and the open toed patent-leather pumps she was wearing for the first time would never survive that mud flat which had once been a rice field...From a distance of perhaps thirty feet, the old woman [Aunt Cuney] continued to wave her forward, her gesture exhibiting a patience and restraint that was unlike her. And she was strangely silent, standing there framed by the moss-hung wood; her voice, unlike her body, had apparently not been able to outfox the grave [this "outfox the grave" is an expression that would appear twenty years after this novel was published Toni Morrison's Love]...A battle, she sensed, had been joined. They remained like this for the longest time, until finally, the old woman, glancing anxiously at the declining sun, abruptly changed her tactics. Her hand dropped and, reaching out with her arms, she began coaxing her foward, gently urging her, the way a mother would a one-eyar-old who hangs back from walking on its own...Moreover, in instilling the story of the Ibos in her child's mind, the old woman had entrusted her with a mission she couldn't even name yet had felt duty-bound to fulfill. It had taken her years to rid herself of the notion. Suddenly Avey Johnson drew herself up to her full height, which equaled that of the tall figure up the road. The whole ridiculous business had gone on long enough. She was leaving. Let the old woman think what she will! Reaching over, she straightened the fur stole on her left arm, took a deep defiant breath, and was about to turn and walk away when a sudden eruption of movement up ahead caused her to stop, confused, in her tracks. Before she could take in what was happening, or think to complete the turn and run, she saw her great-aunt charging toward her over the thirty feet between them like one of those August storms she remembered would whirl up without warning out of the marshes around Tatem to rampage out of the land. In seconds a hand with the feel of a manacle had closed around her wrist, and she found herself being dragged forward in the direction of the Landing...she was raising her free hand, the fist tightly clenched, and bringing it down with all her force on the old woman. Wildly she rained blows on her face, her neck, her shoulders, and her great fallen breasts--striking flesh that had been too awesome for her to even touch as a child. Her great-aunt did not hesitate to hit her back, and with the same if not greater force. While firmly holding her wrist with one hand, she began trading Avey Johnson blow for blow with the other. Moreover, as if the fallen stole had also triggered a kind of madness in her, she began tearing at the spring suit, the silk blouse, the gloves. The tug-of-war was suddenly a bruising fist fight, which Avey Johnson saw to her horror, glancing around, had brought her neighbors in North White Plains out on their lawns [here Marshall is beautifully dramatizing the conflict in Avey by having her imagine this fight is being seen by her neighbors, in order to justify even more fighting by Avey to shun her African heritage and give the appearance of "normalcy" or Western "civility." She must do this, she feels, in front of her neighbors by shunning her African past, manifested in her blows against her aunt Cuney]...Worse, among the black faces looking on scandalized, there could be seen the Archers with their blue-eyed, tow-headed children, and the Weinsteins. The only ones for blocks around who had not sold and fled. An uncharitable thought surfaced amid the shame flooding her. Could it be they had stayed on in the hope of one day being treated to a spectacle such as this: at any moment the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing...It was something Marion [Avey's upper class friend] was always quoting. The fight raged on...With the fur stole like her haard won life of the past thirty years being trampled into the dirt underfoot. And the clothes being torn from her body. The wood of cedar and oak rang with her inflamed cry. And the sound went on endlessly, ranging over Tatem and up and down her quiet streets at home. Until suddenly, jarring her, her cry was punctuated by the impatient blast of a car horn. The luncheon! The Statler! And this year they had been scheduled to sit on the dais, Jerome Johnson having been made a Master Mason. The thought of the ruined day brought her anger surging up anew, and ignoring the look of anguished love and disappointment in the old woman's gaze, spurning her voiceless plea, she began hammering away at her with renewed fury there on the road to the landing, with the whole of North White Plains looking on (Marshall, 40-45).

This experience of Avey will train her for the mission she undertakes when going on the Excursion, on a boat, where she basically re-lives the trauma of the middle passage experience. There is a scene in Morrison's Beloved, when Beloved is in the outhouse and calling for Sethe and Denver that is similar. Reading this really helped me deal with a lot of rejection in my life because it shows how no matter some people can reject you, they cannot deny the truth you are trying to bring. They can fight and fight and fight, but they still have to confront it, as Avey Johnson does in Praisesong For the Widow.

I had the pleasure of talking with (NYU Creative Writing) Professor Marshall in November of 2006 about this novel, when my master's committee member and huge mentor, Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix, was teaching this novel in her English course at the University of South Florida. Thank you, Dr. Toland-Dix, and thank you Professor Marshall for Praisesong For The Widow: a must read. -RF.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

review of Susan Neal Mayberry's "Can't I Love What I Criticize"

Greetings! I am most grateful for the writings of Toni Morrison in my life, and I was most appreciative of a new book of criticism of the masculine in all Morrison's first eight novels, written by Susan Neal Mayberry. Also see Carolyn Denard's edited work of Morrison entitled "What Moves at the Margin," released this year. Professor Morrison is expected to release a ninth novel by the end of this year. I wrote this review in April, and would appreciate any feedback. For publication reasons, this review is much shorter than I would have liked, and for that reason what I wanted say in addition to what is in this review, is italicized below. Take care. -RF.

Review by Rhone Fraser of Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison by Susan Neal Mayberry

Addison Gayle, Jr. wrote in the late sixties that works of art should be explicated in terms of the work’s contributions to the alleviation of problems like racism and sexism which have confronted humanity for too long a time. According to Gayle, “the Negro must demand that the Negro writer articulate the grievances of the Negro in morals terms” since the critic should be dedicated “to the proposition that literature is a moral force for change as well as an aesthetic creation” (Gayle, xiv-xv). In Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison, author and English professor Susan Neal Mayberry articulates Toni Morrison’s contributions to “the alleviation of those problems which have confronted humanity for too long a time” by providing an analysis of the male characters in all of Toni Morrison’s first eight novels. Unlike any other literary critic of Morrison heretofore, Mayberry does an outstanding job of piecing together Morrison’s non-linear narratives in order to provide a complete portrait of her male characters. Mayberry’s criticism exposes the ways that Morrison’s novels alleviate the societal problems of racism and sexism ultimately by suggesting that African Americans “confront their traumatic heritage in order to escape the cycle of violence that plagues their communities” (Mayberry, 305; Reed, 539). An adequate discussion of Morrison’s male characters should include some discussion of their traumatic heritage. Mayberry’s most poignant exposures of these societal problems were in the endnotes of this book when they should have been in the original text, suggesting an unnecessary division that Mayberry sees between literary and social criticism. For example, she writes in endnotes that The Bluest Eye implies alternative worldviews apart from those of the dominant white male, Western worldviews; and that schoolteacher’s “straight lines” in Beloved were fatal to black manhood. Both these points should have been included and elaborated upon in the original text since these realities govern the lived experiences of most of Morrison’s male characters. Morrison said that when she began writing, she “wanted to write about what it was like to be a subject of racism” (Dreifus, 74). In creating Pecola Breedlove, Morrison creates her father, who like Pecola and most other male characters in Morrison’s novels, are subjects of racism. Since Morrison is mainly concerned with black communities in the United States, most of her black male characters are subjects of racism. As such, how they view the world, as opposed to just being mere subjects, evolves in a much different way than those of the dominant white population. Thus, their worldviews need serious considerations that are not relegated to endnotes. This division between literary and social critique that Mayberry creates weakens Morrison’s own assertion as a novelist that art must critique society; that art “must be political.” Morrison writes that novelists provide in their stories “the people, habits, and customs that one should approve of” (Morrison, 1984; 344, 340). And even Mayberry writes that Morrison “intends no diminution of political activism—simply the opportunity to be more discriminating” (Mayberry, 136). Mayberry seemed overly discriminating in delegating very important social critiques to her endnotes section. What Mayberry also seems to miss is the trauma in the traumatic heritage of Milkman and the Morgan twins. This could have been done by an adequate consideration of J. Brooks Bouson’s look at Morrison in Quiet As It’s Kept.
In piecing together Morrison’s often fragmented novel forms, Mayberry functions like a quilt-maker, whose weaving together of scattered yet crucial information yields a tapestry that provides key information about how to alleviate the scourge of sexism and racism. Mayberry devotes each chapter of this book to each of Morrison’s eight novels thus far except her very first, where she provides an introductory review of masculine identity, and quotes Maurice Wallace’s important assertion about the need to “abandon all references to a singular black masculine identity for an increasingly nuanced plurality” (Wallace, 12). The title of this work comes from the character of Guitar who tells Milkman in Song of Solomon: “Can’t I Love What I Criticize?” Mayberry reveals that the subject of criticism in this quote is not black men, as the title suggests with its subtitle including “masculine,” but black women for their demanding love.
Mayberry calls The Bluest Eye a masculine manifesto because it connects Cholly Breedlove, Mr. Henry, and Soaphead Church who use sex as a vehicle of communication and turn it into “a weapon of mass destruction” (20). Mayberry singles out other Western-imposed weapons of mass destruction in The Bluest Eye by exposing the destructive effects of repressive sexuality seen in Soaphead Church; competitive ownership seen in Mr. Henry and Cholly Breedlove; physical beauty which plagues the novel’s protagonist in Pecola who seeks Soaphead Church; and romantic love in Pauline Breedlove who “indulges her ugliness, introduced to her by white male movie directors” (32). Perhaps Mayberry’s most striking observation about The Bluest Eye is her point and overwhelming evidence that Cholly “has no frame of reference in which to comprehend a parent-child relationship” (38). This constitutes ultimately for Mayberry a warning about “the destructiveness of certain white codes” (50). Confronting these white codes, according to Mayberry, helps alleviate the problem of racism. In Mayberry’s second chapter on Sula which she titles “The Beautiful Boys in Sula,” she adequately establishes three main masculine models: passive, adventuresome, and mad. The passive model is seen in Jude who Mayberry writes is “whiny”; the adventuresome is seen in Ajax and his departure from Sula which precipitates her affair with Jude; and the mad seen in Shadrack’s celebration of National Suicide Day. These models, Mayberry writes, “collapse preconceptions about gender” because they could each easily “be represented by its women—Nel [as passive], Sula [as adventuresome], and Ajax’s conjure mother [as mad] (70). This reaffirms Mayberry’s early point about all of Morrison’s characters: “to single out her men is not to negate the preeminence of her women. It means, rather, to recognize their interconnectedness along with the balance between them” (14). Mayberry proves this by providing Sula’s retort to Nel as evidence at this chapter’s end: “I’m a woman and colored. Ain’t that the same as being a man?” Mayberry’s analysis of male characters in this chapter proves that “most African Americans are not ready to assign a man’s freedom to a woman” (Mayberry, 51). Understanding this confrontation in Sula helps alleviate the problem of sexism. In Mayberry’s fourth chapter, “Flying without ever Leaving the Ground,” she provides a complete portrait of the implication that Morrison’s Milkman provides about ways to alleviate both sexism and racism. Mayberry writes that Milkman “needs two sets of information in order to become a complete man” (79). Milkman is a man who has a “feminine masculinity, connected to women, anchored by delicately balanced dualities, and based on flying without ever leaving the ground” (73). From Guitar, he learns the ABCs of urban male survival which he uses to defend himself when going to Shalimar, and from Pilate he learns he learns his ancestral heritage which helps him fly: “Milkman unites Guitar’s playing, rapping, hunting, fighting with the complex rhythms of the woman who has been teaching him her tunes all his life” (114). We are shown how to confront the traumatic heritage which helps, in this novel, alleviate the evil of both racism and sexism in Milkman’s choices at its end.
Mayberry’s fifth chapter on Tar Baby is perhaps most lacking in valid critique because of its omission of Son’s overall influence on Valerian Street’s household. Mayberry titles this chapter “Nigger in the Woodpile,” but fails to engage it fully by not elaborating on how and why Son’s presence was problematic, particularly in this novel’s sixth chapter when Son, who “had been silent” until this moment, calls Yardman by his real name, Gideon (Morrison, 1981; 201). A more complete analysis would also discuss the dynamics of Son’s relations with Sydney and Thérèse: Mayberry misses the complex relations between blacks from the United States and those from the Caribbean that are prominent in this novel; she also misses the implications Morrison makes on such relations by Son’s relations with Valerian and Margaret. Mayberry shows us how Jadine, limited by her racism, and Son, limited by his sexism are unable to remain a couple. In Son, we see a masculinity that prefers a “perpetual fraternity” more than a committed relationship. This fraternity is explored through Paul D in Mayberry’s sixth chapter. What Mayberry shows us in this sixth and most powerful chapter of the book about Beloved is a community of caring black male characters in Halle, Sixo, Paul D, and Stamp Paid, who rearrange masculinity in order to alleviate themselves and others from the scourge of slavery. If Halle at his core is so caring that he is broken after seeing his wife Sethe raped, Sixo fills the father role and becomes, according to Sethe, “the biggest help of anyone at Sweet Home” (Mayberry, 170). We get from Mayberry that Halle and Paul D have a more “feminine masculinity” that differs from Sixo’s which is more daring and willing to die for family freedom. Mayberry writes that Stamp Paid “incorporates the feminine masculinity like a griot…[being one who helped transport Sethe and Denver across the Ohio River], he observes human nature like Halle and like Sixo he communes with nature” (177). While Halle runs away, Sixo is burned, Paul D survives and is mentored by Stamp Paid, who each become stronger men by learning humility in their own way. Mayberry shows us that Morrison presents these characters to show how men can be humble even in one of the most racist and sexist institutions of human history.
In her seventh chapter on Jazz, Mayberry describes a kind of masculinity seen in Joe Trace as one that, like jazz music, will continually re-make oneself in order to survive: “Joe is an old cock made New Negro seven times to survive. If his female counterpart hits upon the one and final thing she had not been able to endure or repeat [seeing Joe in a parade, then] the black male changes ‘once too often’” (218). Her questions at the end of this chapter about whether African art or Greek influence came first beg a complete reading of George G. M. James’ Stolen Legacy. This chapter includes incisive analysis of Joe Trace, however like the novel and the jazz art form lacks formal structure and leaves Gayle’s “problems of humanity” unaddressed. The seventh chapter about Paradise is titled “Putting Parking Lots Out There” and is one where Mayberry necessarily compares “parking lots” to represent the rigid paternalism of the Ruby Men which precipitate their murder the women in the Convent. Mayberry deals impressively with the traumatic heritage of her male characters most in this chapter by her assertion that the sins of the father are “certainly visited on their sons,” especially in their tendency to “tie manhood to capital” (246, 312). We learned that Steward “[bolted] the house as though it were a bank too” (Morrison, 1998; 90). This issue of tying manhood to capital could have been more thoroughly explored in the original text and not in endnotes, especially since all other male Ruby characters besides Deacon and Steward Morgan are profoundly influenced by these twins in some way who have these financially based definitions of manhood. According to Lone, “Harper, Sargeant, and certainly Arnold wouldn’t lift a hand to these women if Deek and Steward had not authorized and manipulated them” (288). The character of Reverend Misner serves as an important foil to the Ruby men and according to Mayberry, manifests “griot androgyny, he embraces duality and allows disagreement, including that between spirit and science” (Mayberry, 258). Ultimately, to alleviate the problem of black male paternalism and sexism, Mayberry writes that Morrison suggests we affirm “the significance of language as agency and the importance of generations and genders listening carefully to one another” (248). In her final chapter on Morrison’s 2003 novel Love, Mayberry writes that in Morrison’s “obsession with love and its excesses,” she wrote this novel to widen this net to examine, literally and figuratively, love of (the) Man” (261). This “Man” is Bill Cosey who is obviously governed by a masculinity that is subject to Western codes yet powerful in its control of the female characters despite his scant presence: “never speaking directly but always talked about” (273). Mayberry analyzes this novel according to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and like traditional European literary criticism, makes too strong a division between literary and social criticism in this chapter when she refuses to call the names of “perverse white law Administrators” that Morrison critiques in her 1992 work. She also unnecessarily names a state home (Florida) of the Up Beach community when Morrison doesn’t (270). Her exposure of Morrison’s suggestion to alleviate problems of intergenerational conflict (as in Paradise), is “talk,then, respectful but serious” (287). Mayberry writes that alleviation of these problems is a two-way street between generations. The younger generation must “listen to the voice of his decent daddy [like Romen does, in order to] save his own life and sometimes that of others” (292). Overall, each chapter of this important book of literary criticism provides an important exposure of the problems of our society, some of which are related to a traumatic heritage that must be confronted to curtail cycles of violence. Mayberry shows us that Morrison’s novels are integral in alleviating these kinds of problems, however Mayberry may make an even stronger argument by stripping her artificial division between social and literary criticism.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet As It’s Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: SUNY, 2000.

Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,” The New York Times Magazine (September 11, 1984), p. 74.

Gayle, Jr. Addison, ed. Black Expression. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969.

Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia, 2007.

Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. New York: Random House, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor As Foundation,” in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Mari Evans, ed. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Morrison, Toni. Paradise. New York: Random House, 1998.

Reed, Andrew. “’As if word magic had anything to do with the courage it took to be a man’” Black Masculinity in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review 39.4 (2005): 527-40.

Wallace, Maurice O. Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775-1995. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2002.
What I wanted to add to this review was the problematic masculine identity of Bill Cosey in Morrison's Love as addressed by Mayberry. Like most of the book, Mayberry does a masterful job of exposing the ways that Morrison critiques the dominant Western norms. One of these ways is in her analysis of Cosey when she writes: "Indisputably a Good Man, Bill Cosey tries to be a decent daddy, but the scar left by the white Law of the Father just cuts too deep. So he becomes a Big Daddy instead" (278). Cosey's father amassed his family's fortune by basically bowing to white Law. Cosey's father was a police informant who worked against blacks that broke oppressive Jim Crow law. This is a serious plight of many black men today--the alienation one feels for not trying to be the Big Daddy, but also the lack of serious choices to work professionally in ways that do not advance white Law. In the novel of Love, L says: "the one police could count on to know where a certain colored boy was hiding, who sold liquor, who had an eye on what property, what was said at church meetings, who was agitating to vote, collective money for a school--all sorts of things Dixie law was interested in. Well paid, tipped off, and favored for fifty five years, Daniel Robert Cosey kept his evil gray eye on everybody" (68). Unfortunately, a lot of the wealth rich families enjoy today is "earned" off the backs of victims of Jim Crow. What is "success," to one person is oppression to another. This was the kind of critique that Brandon King and Jason Robinson made of HBCUs (at: The work to advance white Law is perhaps not worth the sense of self that some HBCUs can provide. I thought Mayberry's strongest point towards this limiting definition of the Big Daddy role for black men was her statement: "in essence, his people call on [Bill] Cosey to sell out to white law in a way merely different from that of his father [Daniel Robert]. The weak pressure [was on] Bill to play not Dark but a black Big Daddy" (272). And that pressure on Bill Cosey was very real. A friend told me that Cosey's name suggests Cosby, however the roles that these fictional and non-fictional black men play are fundamentally different. Cosey was a descendant of a police informant, breaking from the social norms, mores of his father in founding his resort, while Cosby was a descendant of a working class urban family that aims to teach [like Sandler] values to black men of younger generations like myself, who is most grateful for the images and values I learned while watching Fat Albert, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Little Bill, and many others. Ultimately, I just hoped Mayberry could have elaborated on the pressure on Bill Cosey to play this Southern Big Daddy role that Morrison obviously satirizes in his marriage to Heed, his granddaughter's playmate. His marriage and his inheritance are also products of his selling out to white Law and its aforementioned Western modes of oppression. Both are subject to the class struggle within the black community: the main struggle between Christine Cosey and Heed the Night Johnson that brings the Resort to a close. In being tied into this Big Daddy stereotype, Cosey is prey not only to Celestial, but also to the class struggle between semi-affluent blacks and less-than-affluent blacks who fight tooth and nail for what they prize: Cosey's inheritance. This fight really seems to be one of the main issues that arise as a result of integration. Morrison said this novel was meant to raise important questions about integration. More than educational opportunity, integration in some cases has provided opportunities for internecine class struggles within the black community that ultimately advance white Law. Both these women, Heed and Christine seemed to be reared prior to integration, not to take advantage of educational opportunity, but to take the heart of "Big Daddy." I firmly believe each of Morrison's novels is an important ministry. For those patient, quiet, and willing enough to listen. In Love, we get the importance of rejecting societal norms ascribed to black men. Mayberry aptly points this out.