Toni Morrison is not interested in writing one-dimensional stories or one-dimensional characters. She said as much in a 1987 interview about her novel Beloved when she claimed that the novel was not about slavery; “Slavery is very predictable. There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it, or you don’t. It [the novel] can’t be driven by slavery.” Instead, she focused on the deeply intimate lives of her characters, the lives of whom were all affected by slavery and racism, but also so much more. This reminder that peoples’ lives cannot and should not be reduced to one aspect is a useful reminder in many ways, not the least of which is how it reminds us that when we collaborate with each other, it is beneficial to remember that those who we collaborate with are whole people with much deeper lives than they often let on. Morrison consistently and expertly depicts this complexity in her characters; almost all of the characters in her novels exhibit some form of contradiction or multi-dimensionality that influences their actions and provides a lesson on how to meaningfully collaborate in a multitude of circumstances. Given that real people are at least as complicated as Morrison’s characters, an understanding of our own multi-dimensionality and that of others is a critical component of a successful and equitable collaboration.
Jazz, the second installment in Morrison’s trilogy, follows the healing journey of Joe Trace as he reckons with the lasting negative impacts of a difficult childhood and a failing marriage. From the outset of the novel, it is obvious that Joe is in need of emotional release. He acknowledges that there are things in his life, notably his affair with Dorcas and the state of his marriage, that he feels he cannot talk to anyone about, even his closest friends; “It’s not a thing you tell except maybe to a tight friend… but even if I had the chance I don’t believe I could have told him [Victory] and if I couldn’t tell Victory it was because I couldn’t tell myself…” (121). This admission and his affair with Dorcas are what start Joe’s ascension into Paradise out of his healing stages in Purgatory, represented by the seven changes that Joe claims he has made throughout his life (123). This presents the reader with a striking contradiction; it is hard to deny Joe the right to emotional healing, but it is also impossible to ignore the damage and violence that his healing journey causes to the women in his life. Violet is trapped in a marriage with a man who treats her like “a piece of furniture you favor although it needed something every day to keep it steady and upright” (123), and Dorcas is murdered at the end of the novel because Joe cannot accept that she has moved on with another man closer to her age. This ultimately results in a kind of collaboration, one in which Violet and Dorcas each play their roles in Joe’s healing journey, that is successful but not equitable or beneficial for most of the group. This inequity arises because Joe does not know what to do with this contradiction that has been sitting with him for so long, and instead of deal with it in a healthy and fair manner he follows his baser instincts to benefit only himself. Had Joe been able to tell Violet how he felt about their marriage, it is possible that Violet and Joe could have had a much different and much healthier collaboration and settled their feelings in a more equitable way. This acceptance of our own contradictions and the understanding of how to deal with them in a healthy and equitable manner is a critical aspect of collaboration, and one that extends far beyond an academic collaboration where the stakes are much lower than those seen in the end of Jazz.
Similar contradictions and their consequences arise in the other novels in Morrison’s trilogy. The Morgan twins in Paradise truly have the best interests of the town at heart, but they cannot reconcile their differences with the younger generation of Ruby residents or the women of the convent who they see as a corrupting force. What results from this contradiction is a violent, inequitable decision to kill five women who had committed no crime and who’s deaths will ultimately harm the town as a whole by removing a valuable source of support that several residents of the town had been utilizing. The actions of the Morgan twins can be viewed as a complete lack of collaboration, since they unilaterally decide that the women of the convent must die instead of working out a solution with them. Sethe’s actions in Beloved provide the most contradiction of any character in Morrison’s novels. The murder of her child, an action that was, according to Morrison, “absolutely the right thing to do… but she had no right to do it,” presents the reader with a contradiction that they and Sethe must endure without any real resolution. Later in the novel after the appearance of Beloved, Sethe’s inability to reconcile her actions and her emotions with her conscious leads her into an unequal and parasitic relationship with a girl whom she believes is her dead child reincarnated. These contradictions, in the same way as Joe’s contradictions in Jazz, all result in collaborations that are one-sided, inequitable, often violent, and which never benefit the participants as much as they could have.
The result of all of the failed collaboration in Morrison’s novels is a teaching moment; readers that pay attention to where and how these collaborations go wrong can take away valuable lessons about how to reach meaningful results in any kind of collaborative situation. This semester, I have had the good fortune to be able to take part in the kind of successful collaboration constantly throughout this class, and these collaborations provide a foil for the events of Morrison’s novels. The group work that I have taken part in this semester has started from a place of good faith and a genuine aspiration to reach a conclusion that is best for everyone involved, not just one person. This good faith is what so many of Morrison’s characters are missing; the Morgan twins have no real care for the opinions of others, Beloved has no regard for the harm she causes to Sethe, and Joe experiences emotional healing at the direct cost of Dorcas’ life and Violet’s happiness. The result of this genuine care for others has been clear; time and time again I have found myself heaping praise on my classmates that I have worked with for creating something more beautiful than what we each could have accomplished individually. During one of our collaborative essays, one of my group mates remarked that she had never been in a class that laughed so often. I think about that a lot.
The lessons I’ve taken away from this class and Morrison’s novels are valuable beyond essay writing and academia, and it is important that we as readers integrate these ideas into every aspect of our lives. Good faith and genuine care can create an excellent essay, but I think a much more valuable outcome is the affect that the same care can have on other’s lives. Morrison’s novels are collaborative in so many ways; they are conversations with Dante, they are congregations of years of history and Black experience, and they are roadmaps for how to treat other people. Approaching every situation, not just academic ones, with good intentions can avoid the kind of harmful and violent events that Morrison’s characters endure. This is often easier said than done; Morrison’s characters are so often affected by things outside of their control like slavery, poverty, and pervasive racism, and the pain caused by this strain on their lives creates tension and anger. There will always be events in our lives that cause negative emotions that lead to anger and lashing out at others. Part of Morrison’s incredible intricacy is how she writes characters that are painfully human. They have flaws, they sin, and they make mistakes. Choosing to extend grace and good faith does not erase those parts of us, but it can help us to forgive ourselves and others for the inevitable mistakes that everyone will make at some point in our lives. It is important to note that Morrison’s characters survive and endure the events and hardships of their novels. With grace, kindness, and the lessons we take from Morrison, we too can endure the events of our own novels.