Toni Morrison’s Trilogy and its Sociological Implications

Time is relative, and for me, it has therefore always been elusive. This semester has raced past me, a brief moment in my life already composed of so many brief moments. In the coming years, I am aware that I may lose some recollection of the names of my classmates, what seat I took every day, or even which room I was seated in, but hopefully, time cannot rob me of what I took away from the course in our brief time in Bailey 204. When I was entering the course, I was nervous about what the class would bring. When Professor McCoy sent us that first announcement stating that the goal by the end of the semester was for her to be “becoming irrelevant and invisible,” I worried, because that comment was so out of the realm of what I had come to expect from a college professor. My fears were unfounded. What I did find was an environment outside of my comfort zone, that prompted me to expand my idea of what a collaboration would bring, and what I was capable of bringing to a collaboration. Toni Morrison’s work demonstrates the importance of collaboration, of the mutual aid that human beings give to each other. The characters of Beloved, who feared and resented and loved each other, and reached out a hand to hurt and to heal; the characters of Jazz as they leaned on each other, away from the cloud of hurt, death, and suffering they had spent their lives under; finally, the women of Paradise as they sequestered together, and found comfort and companionship in the life they built for themselves in the Convent, and later, the collaboration the town created when it is their turn to move on from the harm and suffering that they have caused. Reading these novels and interacting with the class has given me a fuller appreciation for art, for the benefits of collaboration, and the way literature reflects our understanding of the world and rings true even after decades and centuries of time has passed since their conception. 

As a sociology major, in other classes I have taken, discussion surrounding how the aftermath of slavery leaves its marks on real people to this day is a regular talking point, and is therefore important, even when discussing these fictionalized events, because fiction is one way for human beings to conceptualize and empathize with the circumstances of people who live different lives from us. Empathy, in turn, is the first step in collaboration, particularly as the events that Paul D. and the rest of the characters face are fictionalized events mirroring the experiences of real people. Paul D. is affected heavily by his trauma throughout the rest of the novel, a trauma response that resonates with real people. Paul D. can never settle down, and he questions his manhood throughout the novel. “Was that it? Is that where the manhood lay? In the naming done by a whiteman who was supposed to know?” (Morrison 198) According to the traditional model of masculinity according to the Westernized (white) perspective, men are self-sufficient, they are providers for the family, they have power and authority, and they are independent. Often throughout history, as exemplified by Paul D. in the novel, manhood and masculinity are defined under a white framework, which excludes black men. The effects of these traumas are not easily solved, and collaboration of people is not always enough on its own to solve systemic problems, particularly those that echo through time, but like with Paul D., collaboration may be just what is needed to take those first steps toward something better. In Morrison’s novel, Beloved, one of the most poignant examples of collaboration occurs with Paul D., and the rest of the imprisoned men who are chained alongside him. “It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. One by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the mud under the bars, blind, groping…Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost… they all came up… they trusted… Hi Man and each other.” (Morrison 180) All the imprisoned men, as demonstrated in this quote, were forced by necessity to collaborate in order to escape their imprisonment, and though they are virtually complete strangers, Paul D. and the rest of the men are able to escape because of the trust they put in each other, and the ties that bind them, literally and figuratively. For me, reading this part of the text reinforced ideas I had accumulated outside of this class, and underpins to me not only how the trauma of slavery left after effects that resonate to the modern day, as they resonate with the characters of Beloved throughout the course of the novel, but also how the benefits of collaboration can be a saving grace. We can be stronger, kinder, and more resilient as a collective than we ever could be as lone individuals, and recognizing this within the novel can push us to recognize this in our real lives. 

As Morrison plainly demonstrates in her novels, the trauma of slavery has long lasting effects on those who survived it, and those who came after. Unlike the supernatural elements of Morrison’s work, those aftereffects ring true in real, living people. In viewing the novel through a sociological perspective, the audience can come to better understand the context in which these fictionalized people move through the world, in a similar way to how real people react in response to these factors, which have roots in the history of the United States. In the novel Jazz, Violet and Alice, Joe’s wife and the aunt of the young mistress he murdered out of jealousy, respectively, do not press charges against Joe for the murder of Dorcas. Instead, the novel states that, “she 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 29) As stated here, Joe was spared facing legal trial because of the remorse he had for his actions, and at first I was flabbergasted at this response. In my eyes, Dorcas was a teenager, a year older than my own sister, and she was dating a man who was over twice her age who killed her, and that was a sin worth punishing. However, the novel challenges this idea, pushing forth the inequities that would make a courtroom untenable and unduly harsh on people of color, including in the depiction of Dorcas’ death. After Dorcas was shot, she refused treatment, but despite this her best friend Felice called the police, who did not arrive until the morning, when it was too late to save Dorcas from bleeding out. The novel explicitly blames the delay in aid on racism in this quote: “The ice, they said, but really it was because it was colored people calling.” (Morrison 281) Dorcas died, in part, because she did not receive help. She denied treatment, true, but she was a child and the novel states that everyone was too afraid to go to the police. The police were not a trusted authority, because police officers were more likely to cause harm than to help the situation, as an institution built on the biases of a nation which historically uplifted whiteness and degraded and discriminated against people of color, which, devastatingly, continues to this day. Courtrooms are no longer allowed to legally and explicitly discriminate based on race, but when searching for juries often create barriers to entry based on stereotypes, and are more likely to remove black and other minority jurors for minor infractions.  In an environment so fraught after the loss of Alice’s niece, after she had lost Dorcas’ parents in the East St. Louis riots, which was a real event that killed between 39-150 black Americans, it was unlikely that the court system, built and upheld by white America, would give her the justice she and her niece deserved. Dorcas, as a character, hangs over the novel as a phantom figure, a girl who could have become a woman but never got the chance, and she is the driving force between the characters of the novel coming together, and ultimately repairing the relationship between Joe and Violet.  The justice system was irrelevant to the novel, because it was terrifying for them, a world that did not represent them, but by collaborating with each other to remember Dorcas, the characters formed a bond that helped each of the characters reach some kind of peace. I do not believe Joe deserved to face as few repercussions for his crime as he did, but I do believe that in a justice system that supports people being judged by a jury of peers, Joe deserved to be tried by those peers, rather than in a courtroom that would first and only see him by the color of his skin. The collaboration and connection these characters underwent meant that they could come to a conclusion they felt was most just, and by coming to understand the factors at play that inclined the characters to move away from the justice system, the audience can understand why the characters might make that decision, and why in real life, to the modern day justice system, people of color may be wary to incline themselves to a justice system that has been historically oppressive rather than upholding the very thing it proclaims itself to be, a system promoting justice.

Paradise, as a novel, provides interesting insight within a secluded town that upholds its status as a haven for black Americans, but still manages to uphold a culture of white supremacy by elevating lighter-skinned people against darker-skinned people. This phenomenon is referred to as colorism, wherein light skin is treated as superior to darker skin, often within the same racial or ethnic group as a response to the pervasive culture across the world, in part inspired by the history of colonialism and slavery, that believes whiteness is superior. Similar to the aphorism, “hurt people hurt people”, cycles of trauma from slavery and colonialism can be felt globally in the real world, in the novel and in a microcosm of the fictional town of Ruby. “Usually, but not always, white against black. Now they saw a new separation: light-skinned against black. Oh they knew there was a difference in the minds of whites, but it had not struck them before that it was of consequence, serious consequence… Serious enough that their daughters would be shunned as brides; their sons chosen last; that colored men would be embarrassed to be seen socially with their sisters. The sign of racial purity they had taken for granted had become a stain.” (Morrison 327) The novel explicitly states that there is a culture of colorism within the novel, and that while the town originated as a place to escape the horrors of slavery, racism, and discrimination, the town was still upholding the tradition of white supremacy as a result of the traumas brought on by slavery, racism, and systemic discrimination. For the women of the Convent, who live outside of the town, they have separated themselves from the ideas of exclusion, and the novel establishes this by not labeling the women of the Convent by race or ethnicity. The novel goes out of its way to conceal this information to present to the audience the characters as who they are as people first, by the experiences they have undergone, the love and loss that has brought them to the Convent, and for these characters, they find peace in their collaboration with each other, “But if a friend came by, her initial alarm at the sight of the young women might be muted by their adult manner; how calmly they seemed… the Convent women were no longer haunted” (Morrison 439). The women of the novel, despite their identities, backgrounds, and experiences all coexist together and are able to find some level of peace. Unfortunately, the peace does not last, as the outside world comes for them in the form of the men of Ruby who kill the women for perceived crimes, which comes down to the fact that the women of the Convent did not subscribe to Ruby’s same ideals. This is a lesson I think is important in our consideration of race and labels. Often, there is an argument that the best thing to do when it comes to race is to ignore it, the idea that one “does not see color,” but like the women of the Convent discovered, it is not that simple. In the real modern day, ignoring labels and ignoring race where we are not will only deny the systemic factors that harm people of color, but are also levied by those in power in an attempt to keep people silent and obedient. The women of the Convent found some peace in their collaboration, they found a place in the world, and while it wasn’t enough alone to fix the world, collaboration gave them some piece of it. By understanding systemic factors, and by working together to fix them, progress may be slow, it will be difficult, but progress can, has, and should be made, because it is a worthy fight to undertake. 

Over the course of this class, I have felt that I have been given the opportunity to be in control of my own learning, to be allowed to grasp what I have learned with my own hands and apply it to what I have learned both in the course and outside of it cohesively and comprehensively. I have learned the importance of collaboration within a group environment, and I have learned both how important it is to work within a group to improve upon my own craft and the craft of others. Most importantly, I have learned the ways in which fiction and reality can be so intertwined, how literatures reflection of real life can give a voice to people whose voices are so often underrepresented, and how our understanding of the message literature can give us can push forward our understanding of people, in all their complexities rather than as a monolith or as a stereotype. From where the threshold of this class took me, to today sitting here on the last day of classes, I have grown and learned on the journey we underwent over the past 17 weeks, and as time is apt to do, it slipped by me in a moment, and now we move on, ever reaching toward the next threshold of our lives.

Thresholds, Empathy, and Morrison

Bailey 204 is a vestibule. A room we will inhabit for the present moment that will lead us into our future selves. As current and future writers, graduates, and productive citizens, this room and its inhabitants stand on a threshold of understanding. These first few weeks of class, we have had valuable conversations in class, that makes me feel confident that, as a group, we will come to a fuller understanding of the texts we engage with, the symbolic implications of that text, and the practical skills that will come from comprehending that text and applying our self-evaluative skills as well as our writing abilities. Of the text as we begin our journey into Morrison’s work and engage with “Beloved,” I have found the text to be profoundly insightful and empathetic to the plight of its characters. The text is heavy, as discussions of slavery are due to the horrors enacted under it. Still, beyond that, I believe the text provides a deep understanding of human flaws and how they exist due to how a person’s circumstances shape them and how they respond to the individual traumas levied at them. At the beginning of this class, the threshold I stand in will take me toward empathy, skill, and comprehension, both as a lesson from the pieces and from the practical application as I foray into our self-evaluative and communal discussions.

At my first ingress into Morrison’s work, I noted the article concerning the historical inspiration for “Beloved” as extremely valuable to my experience, particularly as it gave context for the novel’s events alongside the actual events which touched real people in history. The article “Margaret Garner and the Complexities of Slavery and Gender” by Jessica Parr details another author who wrote about Margaret Garner, Niki M. Taylor, and Taylor’s impressions of Garner’s story, considering the legal facts of the trial as well as the response she was given by the public, and the reaction to the trauma of slavery which caused Garner to take action. Parr wrote, “As a society, we are not generally conditioned to feel sorry for a woman who kills her child.” This quote stuck with me because it accurately depicts how the dominant culture behaves; we often ignore the reasons behind an action in favor of the direct moral dilemma in front of us. In this instance, in particular, Margaret Garner’s act was reprehensible. Still, as I discussed earlier, this preconceived notion concerns the threshold to empathy and understanding. Margaret Garner was operating under impossible circumstances, one that was, and should not have been, coopted by racist ideology. Her actions came from a place of love and fear that her children would have to experience the slavery she had fought to protect them from. Works like Morrisons give a symbolic voice to those oppressed and vilified and implore its readers to understand the reasons behind the actions and how the pressures of circumstance may incline someone to undertake heinous acts.

Parr’s article, as paired with the piece “Toni Morrison, In Her New Novel, Defends Women” by Mervyn Rothstein, gave me, as a reader, an insight into the historical context and writing process that I would not have otherwise had. Rothstein details Morrison’s writing process in this quote: “The novel is not, she said, about slavery. ‘Slavery is very predictable,’ she said. ‘There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it, or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.’” Morrison’s depiction of slavery is striking and upsetting, but the piece is not about slavery; as she stated above, slavery is the conduit of trauma that shaped how the players in the novel operated and how they lived their lives. This was valuable to me at the outset because of how often slavery is mentioned in the piece, how the horrors of slavery become their own setting, their own presence in the novel, and this early reading showed me that despite the heavy presence looming overhead, that fundamentally, slavery had been a trauma, one that affected the characters, and real people to this day; however, slavery did not permanently take away the agency of the enslaved people who operated under it, and at the core, enslaved people were always first and foremost people, with their own faults and traumas and hopes and dreams, which Morrison aims to highlight in this piece.

Reading the novel has been an exceptional experience, as it is a profound exploration of its characters, its history, and the masterful way Morrison writes and creates an environment that simultaneously marks the flaws of its characters while providing an explanation for why they behave in the way that they do as individuals and socially. Reading the novel, I was caught off guard by the sensitive topics depicted in the novel, as they are difficult to imagine and harder still to know these atrocities impacted real people, but I think Morrison’s handling of the topic was essential in allowing her readers to understand her characters, the trauma they experienced, and their rationale for the actions they took throughout the novel, even if- and indeed when, those actions exceeded the bounds of decency.

The idea of sins in the novel was interesting because the characters often exemplify the 7 deadly sins in their behaviors. Sethe, for example, is a highly prideful character. She does not ask for help or sympathy and feels justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect the things she is proudest of- her children. Paul D. is lustful, having a sexual relationship with the woman his partner sees as a daughter. Denver is slothful; she always stays home and does not work. Beloved is greedy, particularly for attention, especially from Sethe, and she is also envious of Paul D. and drives him out for it. These sins are all explained by the individual’s past and how the events that have occurred previously have triggered a response in those committing the sin. Sethe couldn’t be proud because of the effects of enslavement, so she clung to her pride the moment she was allowed to have it, even to her detriment. Paul D. spent years unable to marry because he was constricted by enslavement.
Denver is slothful because she fears her mother and waits for her father, ““All the time, I’m afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again… Whatever it is, it comes from outside this house, outside the yard, and it can come right on in the yard if it wants to. So I never leave this house, and I watch over the yard, so it can’t happen again, and my mother won’t have to kill me too.” (Morrison 306) Beloved is greedy because she was taken from her mother multiple times, craves that affection (while also resenting Sethe for the abandonment), and is envious because she wants to be noticed by the mother she was separated from. These reasons do not excuse the sin but demonstrate why the sins happened in the first place. This character complexity is a brilliant part of Morrison’s work, and I think it reflects the way we should approach people in good faith by not necessarily excusing the sin but understanding why the sinner sinned in the first place and having empathy for the traumas that they experienced.

One of the things I thought was notable from our class discussion on Wednesday was the idea of possession around Beloved, Denver, and Sethe, which is demonstrated in the quote, ““You are my sister/ You are my daughter/ You are my face; you are me/ I have found you again; you have come back to me/ You are my beloved/ You are mine/ You are mine/ You are mine” (Morrison 322). The possession in the way that Beloved, Denver, and Sethe talk about each other really resonates because, from the perspective that Beloved was a young child when she died, she was still physically in a development state where she needed her mother, to the point of identifying herself and her mother as one person. Still, more than that, when there is a home full of people who have never been able to love fully, completely, and without reserve, it follows that at the first opportunity, they want to exert all of the closeness they had been closed off from. Sethe had never been able to experience such intimacy because of her enslavement, where she could have lost anyone or anything at any time; Beloved had only one love in her mother, which she could not experience fully because of her separation from her mother (in escape and in her death); Denver could only love her mother from a distance because of her fear of her that if Sethe could kill one child, she could kill another. Unfortunately, this love is not healthy, as demonstrated by the similarities to Satan (three heads on one body), as discussed in class, and how this possession of each other allows them to lose their individuality.

In this class, I am excited to continue exploring the material and its meaning, especially as I find our discussions in class to be thought-provoking and productive. Exercises such as this essay, the writing of which was a challenging experience without a direct point to make or prove, feels like an exercise that will allow me to grow as a writer and better understand my limits and goals. This threshold into the semester has been exceptional, and I look forward to pushing forward further into the material and the semester.