The Both/And of Collaboration Through the Eyes of Toni Morrison

The practice of collaboration is one that far exceeds the classroom setting. Whether it is coming together to solve a workplace problem or simply sharing the load of a particularly difficult task, collaboration is a technique that will be with us far past the Bailey classroom that holds English 431. In class, collaboration focuses around the in-class essays that groups would equally work on, consulting one another and contributing ideas. In a perfect world, the share of the work would be equally distributed. Toni Morrison’s trilogy, BelovedJazz, and Paradise, were the primary focus of each essay. With such a heavy focus on Morrison’s work, it makes sense to look towards the wise author for an analysis on the both/and of collaboration. 

            It is important to first look at the collaboration process itself and the expectations surrounding working on a reflective essay in a group before dissecting how such a collaboration could be seen in a both/and context. In the guide, Reflective Writing, authors Kate Williams, Mary Woolliams, and Jane Spiro discuss the importance of finding your voice in reflective writing; they state: “since the focus of reflective writing is you, your thoughts and development, your readers want to hear your ‘voice’” (Williams, Woolliams, and Spiro, 27). I originally believed that working in a collaborative environment would make it difficult for me to share my voice and ideas to the extent that I wanted to. I believed my voice would be hidden in an essay with six to seven other writers. I am the type of writer that likes to sit down and allow all my words to flow out, sometimes in one big rush, and other times in slow spurts here and there. Since elementary school, I was taught that writing was individual. I became comfortable writing alone, sometimes consulting a professor for edits, but besides that, only trusting myself in finding what I wanted to say. In my mind, if there were multiple voices, my voice would be nonexistent. However, I was shocked by how once we reached the third collaborative essay, our voices began to flow and I felt heard and empowered by my group members. We discovered that it worked better to divide up paragraphs. We remained in discussion with each other in the process, making sure one paragraph would flow into the next. I felt heard and in sync with my peers. However, this is not exempt from the both/and way of looking at this process. While I felt heard, and believed that my other peers were working in good faith, the workload did not feel equally distributed among everyone. Members frequently missed group meetings and while I was nervous about hearing my voice in the paper, they did not seem to attempt to share their voice. I did not want to feel as if my voice was being pushed to the side and ignored, but I also did not want to only hear my voice in discussion with two or three peers. In a collaborative essay, all of our voices should have come together in harmony, at equal volumes, to create a work of art instead of being too concentrated by some. While this was frustrating, the majority of my group members contributed so many wonderful ideas and paragraphs, that we created an essay that was a product of multiple voices distributed evenly among those who wished to contribute. There is no right way or wrong way of collaboration. There is no good and bad. These ideas are evident in Toni Morrison’s work which highlights that not everything can be black or white, that there is no correct way to do one thing, and that minds are meant to be changed.

Each of Morrison’s works in her trilogy work to reveal that no one incident can be seen as truly good or truly bad and that sometimes the acts that we view as inherently evil, may not result in the justice we see fit. There is no one correct way that justice can be enacted either, as everyone has a different definition of what justice is. Toni Morrison’s stance of the idea of both/and is truly highlighted in her The New York Times discussion of her novel, Beloved, in which she states that Sethe’s murder of her infant daughter “‘was absolutely the right thing to do,… but she had no right to do it’” (Rothstein). While Sethe performed a heinous act, as a mother, she believed it was the only way to protect her child from a bleak, painful future that Sethe herself had. A murder as an act of selfless love on paper sounds like a contradiction, but Morrison shapes the character of Sethe without judgment, and traces this one act, and its consequences, across the entirety of Beloved. This act can both be terrible, cruel, and incomprehensible, and at the same time, be an act of love that puts Beloved’s life into consideration. In Sethe’s own words, speaking on the act of killing Beloved, Sethe reflects: “She had to be safe and I put her where she would be. But my love was tough and she back now” (Morrison 236). In Sethe’s mind, there was only one way to keep Beloved safe, and while it is an act that is traditionally unforgivable, it did not stem from aggression or violence. Sethe had experienced years of trauma inflicted by Schoolteacher and was put through pain and torture. In her mind, the death of Beloved was an act of love in order to protect her child from the torture she herself had to endure. Sethe’s actions cannot be judged out of context. She is not simply a mother who killed her baby girl. Sethe performed what she believed was a selfless act out of love. This scenario is Toni Morrison’s most significant case of both/and. Yes, Sethe is a murderer, but she is also a protector. She killed and she saved. Sethe is not a good mother or a bad mother, she is simply a mother.

Death seems to act as a quiet throughline through Morrison’s trilogy. In Jazz, a focal point of the novel is the murder of a young girl, Dorcas, by her older lover. At first glance, it is easy to assume that the lover, Joe, is deserving of a justice that entails imprisonment, suffering, any sort of pain that could equate to the loss of a young life and the effects of that act on her family. Somehow though, at the end of the novel, Joe living a happy life with his wife, Violet, seems deserved. Morrison artfully crafts Joe to also be seen as the victim of his love affair that had such an unfortunate, painful end. In the first few lines introducing Joe, Morrison explains how Dorcas’ aunt “found out that the man who killed her niece cried all day and for him and for Violet that is as bad as jail” (Morrison 4). Dorcas’ aunt is able to consider Joe’s suffering as punishment enough for the death of her niece. While Joe was the one who inflicted the pain upon Dorcas’ family, he was also caused to suffer. Joe’s impulse to kill Dorcas was rooted in his own pain, his own jealousy that Dorcas was no longer interested in him. Morrison does not make excuses for Joe, but she does give enough explanation of his background and his feelings to make the reader second guess their initial hatred and judgment towards the character. While it is easy to hate Joe for his actions, it becomes easier to also understand his motives and sympathize with his pain as well. Joe is not evil, but he is also not innocent. Morrison allows these two claims to live in harmony as she constructs Joe, not as a good man, but not as a bad one either. Through artfully crafting the character of Joe, as she did Sethe in Beloved, Morrison continues to show readers that not everything is black and white.

Collaboration is another practice that leaves no place for quick assumptions or judgment, as it offers an environment that allows for open discussion and the practice of good faith efforts. This analysis of the both/and of the collaboration process can be transferable to collaboration in the future in life outside of Geneseo. Working with others is unavoidable, but also allows for personal growth and is something that should be embraced, not shied away from. Collaboration was the overarching theme of this class and guided the workings of forming some of the most important thoughts of the Morrison novels. It was in discussion with peers that I was able to form a deeper understanding of the novels and foster my own ideas and opinions on the writing. As I now approach graduation, my work in this class has equipped me with the tools of working with others and has shown me the wonders of group work. When I look back at my years in college, I do not know if I will remember the words of Dante or the exact scenes crafted by Morrion, but I will remember coming together with my classmates in English 431, working together to create something beautiful that I could be proud of. 

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