Facets of Love in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

Toni Morrison’s trilogy—Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997)—comprises decades’ worth of collaboration between Morrison’s own interests and influences, as well as with Dante’s The Divine Comedy, from which Morrison extracted linguistic and thematic inspiration. Simultaneously scrupulous and emotionally-driven as a writer, Morrison crafted the characters of her “trilogy” as reflections of realistic and intricate human reactions, but also to act as representations of the ways in which emotional collaboration can both help and hinder interpersonal relationships. Morrison possesses an unparalleled ability to capture the unspoken ugliness within all people—their tendency to sin through violence, betrayal, ignorance and beyond—alongside the uniquely human capacity for all-encompassing emotional connection; the trilogy posits that the latter phenomenon most often causes the former—love producing hate. Reading Morrison’s novels has, therefore, made me think more deeply about the limits of emotional communication, but also about writing as a necessity. While I often opt for a text-driven approach to literary analysis, Morrison’s novels live and breathe as a result of her dedication to collaboration between both herself and the authors that inspire her. Drawing from her works themselves, those which they reference, and Morrison’s forewords and interviews which illuminate her exploratory writing process, I’ve gained insight into how fiction often makes for the most profound impression of reality.

In a New York Times interview conducted after the publication of Beloved, Morrison remarked of the writing process: “Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.” Ironically, in order to craft profound observations about the most intense emotions—lust, rage, grief, anguish, and joy alike—Morrison had to prevent her own emotions from mingling with those of her characters. True, too, is that effectively communicating often involves temporarily displacing your own emotions in order to understand those of someone else. But this phenomenon is not foolproof, and thwarting one’s own emotional experiences in favor of others’ can occur to a fault; Beloved’s central character, Sethe, focuses so much on the emotions of her loved ones that she fails to address her own hurt until the novel’s close, after already enduring a lifetime of violence and loss. Reflecting on her “rebellious brain”—her tendency to fall into emotional disarray, only to prematurely rip herself from it—Sethe thinks: “Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept” (Morrison 83)? She becomes swarmed in painful memories, only to force herself from these feelings to attend to more practical matters: “I don’t want to know or have to remember that. I have other things to do: worry, for example, about tomorrow, about Denver, about Beloved, about age and sickness not to speak of love” (Morrison 83). Ironically, Sethe does not recognize that the driving force for her distractions is actually an overgrowth of love.

Inversely, Joe Trace, one of the central characters of Jazz, allows his misguided love and lust to absorb him beyond preoccupation. Like Sethe, he commits an atrocity against a child out of excessive love. But Joe, unlike Sethe, did not do the “right” thing; in Morrison’s words: “‘It was absolutely the right thing to do, but [Sethe] had no right to do it.’” Joe murders Dorcas, his young lover whom he expresses an exorbitant amount of love for, but engages with her and ultimately kills her as a result of his inability to effectively communicate his emotional distress with his wife Violet, whom he once loved just as intensely. Joe’s perceived love for Dorcas is all-consuming, obsessive, and aggressive: “Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it… And I made up my mind to follow you too. That’s something I know how to do from way back. Maybe I didn’t tell you that part about me. My gift in the woods that even he looked up to and he was the best that ever was” (Morrison 135).

When Dante first enters his journey down, down, up, and around through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, he finds himself deep within the woods: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (Inferno I: 1-3). Although Dante is in his own “midlife,” both as the character of Dante the Pilgrim and at the time of writing The Divine Comedy, he indicates that his journey takes place within “our” life; the divergence from a path of righteousness as a result of intense emotion—a dark wood—is not only typical, but perhaps even necessary to a human life. Like Morrison, Dante understands the universality of sin, evidenced by the subtle empathy in this precise language of the epic poem’s very first lines. Dante is particularly sympathetic to love-driven sin. He declares lust as the least heinous sin, and the residents of this first circle only find themselves here because of the wrongdoings they commit as an extension of their lust, not because of the lust itself. To love to the extent of feeling intense lust is not sinful; to commit violent acts on account of lust and refuse to repent for them is. Morrison seems to be in agreement with this sentiment, although her characters’ paths to repentance are often less straightforward, driven by outward societal forces that demand characters such as Sethe or Paul D to prioritize their survival over their active repentance. Having faced years of loss—grieving her children, Beloved, Baby Suggs, and her own personhood after being unwittingly born into a system of violence, Sethe is tired: “She is thinking: No. This little place by a window is what I want. And rest. There’s nothing to rub now and no reason to. Nothing left to bathe, assuming he even knows how” (Morrison 321). Sethe’s inability to repent is not out of carelessness or even selfishness, but out of unwitting exhaustion.

Similarly, Joe Trace shovels his enormous grief upon Violet who, unbeknownst to him, suffers from quiet griefs of her own. Joe’s messy, lustful love for Dorcas emerges as a result of his expectations of what his wife should be, as all wives were expected to be at the turn of the century—obedient, ever-loving, and dependent. When Violet becomes silent, Joe loses his unending well of womanly love: “Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two… [she] is still as well as silent. Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him. He is married to a woman who speaks mainly to her birds. One of whom answers back: ‘I love you’” (Morrison 23-24). Joe’s extended reaction to his wife’s plight—his infidelity, murder, anger, and disillusion—amounts to a series of deplorable actions. He is not, however, a wholly deplorable person, nor is anyone. Indeed, Joe is the glaring image of forced repentance: “In the spring of 1926, on a rainy afternoon, anybody passing through the alley next to a certain apartment house on Lenox might have looked up and seen, not a child but a grown man’s face crying along with the glass pane” (Morrison 118). This performance is not yet sufficient to earn him a spot in “purgatory,” but it does demonstrate his open vulnerability as a consequence of his own sinful actions. And those actions, while extreme, are not entirely unreasonable; when Joe pursues and eventually betrays Dorcas, he does so out of loneliness: pitiful, unwavering, undoubtedly human loneliness. To cite Beloved: “[There] is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place” (Morrison 323). Just as love can breed hateful behaviors, so too can a lack of it.

Like Joe, the Convent women (Mavis, Gigi, Seneca, Pallas, and Connie) of Paradise are lonely. And like Sethe, they are lonely because the outside world damned them as such. Simultaneously excluded from the town of Ruby and persecuted by its men, the women’s “Paradise” is a forced one: “[Mavis] had been aware for months of the sourness between the Convent and the town and she might have anticipated the truckload of men prowling the mist. But she was thinking of other things: tattooed sailors and children bathing in emerald water” (Morrison 49). Paradise, similar to Paradiso, is the culmination of love-driven action; whereas the other two novels hinge largely upon the isolated actions of a few individuals (even if they act within a larger system), Paradise is a pelago of action and reaction. Each woman arrives and eventually remains at the Convent after fleeing from a troubled situation, and these situations are never black-and-white or right-and-wrong. Mavis, for example, leaves her children in a hot car, dazed after years of enduring an abusive relationship and the lofty expectations of wife and motherhood: “She searched the darkness for a sign, trying to feel, smell his mood in advance. But he was a blank, just the way he had been at supper the evening of the newspaper interview. The perfect meat loaf (not too loose, not too tight–two eggs made the difference) must have pleased him […] When he pulled her nightgown up, he threw it over her face, and she let that mercy be. She had misjudged. Again. He was going to do this first and then the rest” (Morrison 25-26).

Like Mavis, the actions of the other Convent women are often catalyzed by the lust, or the perceived “love,” of trusted men around them—Mavis later calls these sexual rituals “required torture” (Morrison 171). Connie’s decision-making, for example, is tethered to her desire to be desired: “She climbed in, and for some reason—a feminine desire to scold or annihilation twenty-four hours of desperation; to pretend, at least, that the suffering he had caused required an apology, an explanation to win her forgiveness—some instinct like that preserved her and she did not let her hand slip into his crotch as it wanted to” (Morrison 235). Ultimately, despite the ceaseless pain and isolation, the Convent women reach Paradise not by avoiding their own capacity to sin and be sinned against, but by accepting such grievances as a part of the human experience—one that begins with a painful thicket, and drifts into a pelago: “When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come… Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in Paradise” (Morrison 318). This language mirrors Dante’s: “And even as he, who, with distressful breath, / Forth issued from the sea upon the shore, / Turns to the water perilous and gazes; // So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward, / Turn itself back to re-behold the pass / Which never yet a living person left” (Inferno I: 22-27). Cliché as it may seem, Morrison’s work (including her allusions to Dante), suggest a dynamism (a “both/and,” if you will) to all of human life. In her vision, no person is solely evil, but they are never solely good, either. And, even upon crossing the threshold into forgiveness and thus freedom, one must always turn back to the water perilous and gaze.

Such an ability to portray the coinciding violence and emotional intensity present within all people surely did not come easily. In the foreword to Paradise, Morrison acknowledges the hurdles of not only her own writing process, but of accruing the multitude of skills required to first read, then to write, and then, with luck, to becoming a “good” writer. Speaking of her grandfather with the same keen empathy she offers to each and every one of her characters, she reflects: “Nevertheless, my grandfather’s sister was successful because against all odds, he did become literate. The next question was how would he use that skill? What was there for him to read? […] Reading and script writing were prized in my family not only for information and pleasure but also as a defiant political act since historically so much effort had been used to keep us from learning” (Morrison xii). Through this story, Morrison acknowledges the layers upon layers of skill involved in producing a successful sentence, let alone a successful book, and in being an occasional reader, let alone an active one. Like human relations, reading and writing are inherently political. Book bans still control what young people are allowed to read, based not on their personal interests or character, but on the places they happen to live in; the Writers’ Guild of America is currently on strike for receiving inhumane wages, despite having contributed to the country’s popular culture cornerstones and thus its very identity; according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, children who do not learn to read by the fourth grade are much more likely to end up in situations of incarceration or poverty. Given the seemingly doom-ridden state of all forms of literature and literacy, simply to read is to be defiant; to have empathy for others—both those on the page and those in our own lives—is to be defiant. I am admittedly uncertain of which shore I’d like to arrive on when I graduate in just over a year. But as someone who is no stranger to upsetting emotions and unfortunate circumstances, Morrison’s novels encourage acceptance, and encourage me to continue doing what I feel matters most. I cannot change what others have done to me; I cannot change what I have done to others. I can feel hurt, disappointed, frustrated, and everything in between, but I cannot change the past. What I do know is that I love to read and to write, in whatever capacity that may be. I know that if I continue to read empathetic works from writers both new and old, I will continue to change; if I continue to write about what matters to me and use my words with precision and care, I will make at least one other human being feel something, and I will become more equipped to understand other people’s complex feelings. In my view, love (cruel and messy as it may be) and the stories it inspires are beyond necessary, especially in the face of life’s unabating and unfair precarity. In the words of Dante, “I saw all things bound in a single book by love / of which creation is the scattered leaves: // how substance, accident, and their relation / were fused in such a way that what I now / describe is but a glimmer of that Light” (Paradise XXXIII: 86-90).

Morrison’s Hell House: Poetic Space in Beloved and Inferno

So far this semester, I’m thinkING about Hell as the physical manifestation of an emotional space. If Hell—both in the theological and personal sense—were real, what would it look like? What would it smell, feel, and taste like? Would it comprise specific rooms, or occupy a more nebulous, liminal space? Where Dante’s Inferno imbues stunning clarity to Hell itself, Morrison’s interpretation of the hellish experiences African-American slaves endured manifests in various places, namely 124 Bluestone Road. Morrison’s writing nearly 700 years after Dante’s Divine Comedy reached publication enabled her to make careful use of the famous poems, picking and choosing which aspects to bring into her own rendition of Hell, and which to leave behind.

To speak first of why 124 Bluestone Road holds distinct importance from the novel’s settings, most of these latter places exist only in Sethe, Denver, and Paul D’s memories; while Sweet Home, for example, does exist (as does its “shameless beauty,” that makes Sethe “wonder if hell was a pretty place too” (Morrison 7)), the novel’s current narration renders Sweet Home—its “lacy groves” and “‘headless brides’”—distant memories, painful as they may be. Sweet Home and the natural settings Sethe travels to before the novel’s current events are the equivalent of Dante’s Florence, harboring painful memories that precede the journey through Hell. By contrast, Morrison’s characters operate in orbit around 124 (until, in some cases, they don’t). The events that take place within its walls are not sweetened by the distance of memory, and it is, in my understanding, Morrison’s most clear version of Hell. Its confines are inherently tied to the characters’ ongoing grief regarding the circumstances of their lives and the morally dubious actions they have taken.
In The Poetics of Space, philosopher Gaston Bachelard designated the house as a source of complex intimacy, whose typical rooms (bedroom, kitchen, attic, basement, etc.) all harbor their own emotional breadth and function both singularly and in unity: “the house,” he writes, “is a privileged entity for a phenomenological study of the intimate values of inside space, provided, of course, that we take it in both its unity and its complexity, and […] integrate all the special values in one fundamental value” (Bachelard 3). I first encountered this analysis in a different class on poetry, and its contents seemed so attuned to Beloved that I felt I needed to do some more research to find if any scholars have already used this philosophical viewpoint to illuminate the novel’s integral setting. Sure enough, I found a few papers uniting Bachelard’s analysis with Morrison’s story, and drew my exploration most thoroughly from Andrew Hock Soon Ng’s “Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Space, Architecture, Trauma,” wherein Ng asserts that “it is important to consider 124 Bluestone not merely as a metaphor of a stubborn, destructive past, but as a literal place whose haunting has to do with how its inhabitants negotiate with lived space” (Ng 232). Ng’s analysis delves further into spatial theory, citing both philosophers on the topic as well as Morrison’s literary strategies for making 124 feel so alive and “spiteful” (Morrison 1). Morrison herself notes the ways in which emotions become tangled up in a place of dwelling, and that haunted houses are just houses with more acute “personality” traits: “Yet a house has, literally, a personality—which we call ‘haunted’ when that personality is blatant” (Morrison XVIII). Houses are more than just places in which we live—they are direct reflections of our emotions. As for my analysis—or rather, what I’m thinkING about—I’d like to dissect the ways in which Morrison divides 124 into her own spaces of Hell, akin to Dante’s nine circles populated with their own pockets of sin. I’ll also note some important thematic differences between Morrison’s subject matter of slavery as a living social, political, and emotional phenomenon; while Beloved and Inferno both rely on death as a driving force, I think it is pivotal to note the difference between Dante’s fictionalized Hell and Morrison’s, which, while rooted in elements of horror and speculative fiction, draw mostly from very real terrors.

Morrison’s Hell inhabits various living people, but it is also alive in and of itself. Employing careful personification and anthropomorphism, Morrison defies what a house should be—that is, a source of comfort and safety: “Together [Sethe and Denver] waged a perfunctory battle against the outrageous behavior of that place; against turned over slop jars, smacks on the behind, and gusts of sour air. For they understood the source of the outrage as well as they knew the source of light” (Morrison 4). 124, living and breathing out its “sour air,” operates under a similar code to Dante’s Hell; its residents are trapped within its confines for one sin or another, forced to reckon with their painful pasts as their habitation spits back at them. Like Inferno, 124 presents its horrors in ways that enable reflection. When Paul D first steps through its threshold, he is bathed in red light, which immediately disrupts the comfortable feeling of entering a home after years of travel: “Now the iron was back but the face, softened by hair, made him trust her enough to step inside her door smack into a pool of pulsing red light” (Morrison 11). These few steps are a journey of their own (“It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table”), and the emotional toll of that red light does not wane, even when Paul D successfully crosses the vestibule: “The red was gone but a kind of weeping clung to the air where it had been.” While this red light is not a “room” in Bachelard’s sense, it does signify that 124 is not any old house—it is haunted, hellish. Furthermore, light has the notable ability to pervade, unrestricted by any one confine, sticking to Paul D, Sethe, and Denver like a vicious sunburn.

Of 124’s many landmarks, the staircase, kitchen, bedroom, and Denver’s hideout operate under their own distinct rules. Like Dante’s travel through Hell, a tour of 124—with Dante’s singular perspective swapped for Sethe, Denver, Paul D and, later, Beloved—offers space to sin. The kitchen operates as a dwelling for lust, but also for vulnerability. It is the place where Sethe cries in front of Paul D, remembering feelings of betrayal and humiliation after her breast milk was stolen from her. This is a rare moment of comfort for Sethe, though her thoughts remained tinged with worry and regret:

“Would there be a little space, she wondered, a little time, some way to hold off
eventfulness, to push busyness into the corners of the room and just stand there for a
minute or two, naked from shoulder blade to waist, relieved of the weight of her breasts,
smelling the stolen milk again and the pleasure of baking bread” (Morrison 21)?

For both Morrison and Dante, nakedness is vulnerability. Unbeknownst to Sethe, these early moments in her renewed relationship with Paul D, wherein she longs for a space dedicated to comfort, are actually her first steps into the punishing journey through Hell. For Dante, these punishments amount to a slew of incomprehensible horrors, from maggots to boiling blood:
“These wretches, who had never truly lived, / went naked, and were stung and stung
again / by the hornets and the wasps that circled them // and made their faces run with
blood in streaks; / their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to / and disgusting maggots
collected in the pus” (Inferno III: 62-67)

Morrison’s hellish landscape involves moments of distinct, rather than ongoing violence, and their effects are far-reaching. Unlike Dante’s inhabitants, the characters of Beloved commit atrocious acts (namely Sethe’s act of infanticide) on account of their being a part of a system of violence and exploitation which drives them to make rash decisions. Slavery operates in Beloved as a sort of Hell within Hell; as mentioned, it exists for Sethe and Paul D largely within memory, but their painful experiences and the atrocities they committed still must be repented for, even if they were not always directly at fault for them: in Bachelard’s words, “[a]n entire past comes to dwell in a new house” (Bachelard 4). For Sethe, this journey starts with the kitchen, but extends further into the house’s hellish confines.
Preoccupied with the enormous emotions the kitchen presents, Sethe does not always take notice of the other significant spaces within the home that are suggestive of repentance and renewal. The staircase, for example, stands in sharp contrast to the house’s pervasive redness. Shortly after Paul D is smothered in pulsing red light, he notices the luminous stairs: “Out of the dimness of the room in which they sat, a white staircase climbed toward the blue-and-white wallpaper of the second floor […] The luminous white of the railing and steps kept him glancing toward it. Every sense he had told him the air above the stairwell was charmed and very thin” (Morrison 13). Denver implicitly recognizes the staircase’s capacity for contemplative renewal when she sits on the steps to eavesdrop on her mother and Paul D: “Denver sat down on the bottom step. There was nowhere else gracefully to go” (Morrison 15). This moment also foreshadows Denver’s role as the only primary character within the narrative to recognize that she must escape 124—thus, escape from Hell—in order to repent. Simultaneously, a last-resort and a source of hope, the staircase is a threshold in Morrison’s Hell.

When he enters Hell through a “dark wood,” Dante is simply a visitor. The inhabitants of 124 Bluestone Road are not mere visitors: Hell is their home. Where houses should be places of comfort and safety, 124 is, well, “spiteful.” It actively harms those who live within it, forcing them to move away as a means of reaching salvation, as with Denver and Sethe’s other children, or to stay put and accept its forceful journey. When Paul D, initially an outsider to 124, attempts to make it a home for himself after staying for dinner—moments after comforting Sethe in front of the stove—the house revolts: “It took him a while to realize that his legs were not shaking because of worry, but because the floorboards were and the grinding, shoving floor was only part of it. The house itself was pitching” (Morrison 21). Hell does not benefit from its inhabitants attempting salvation. Those who suffer within Dante’s Hell do not believe that they have done wrong, and they do not take any steps to amend their mistakes. What would happen if they fought Hell itself, the way Paul D did? Perhaps it would look something like the violent revulsion demonstrated by 124. Nonetheless, Sethe recognizes the peculiar situation of Hell being her home, compared to Dante’s inhabitants, who merely reside within it alongside strangers and significant participants of their sin, rather than a family: “This house he told her to leave as if a house was a little thing—a shirtwaist or a sewing basket you could walk off from or give away any old time” (Morrison 26-27). In Sethe’s view, leaving 124 would mean leaving behind the life she built for herself as a reaction to her enslavement and her subsequent sin. Ultimately, she must recognize its true role as a vehicle for punishment in order to achieve any degree of salvation.

124 Bluestone Road’s venom comes as a direct result of human atrocity. Its confines and the various spaces within them represent a cycle of violence, one that exists far beyond Sethe’s primary sin. Like those who are punished for hypocrisy, 124’s inhabitants are doomed to an eternity of cyclical violence lest they recognize their capacity for sin, tragic as this realization may be: “Below that point we found a painted people, / who moved about with lagging steps, in circles, / weeping, with features tired and defeated” (Inferno XXIII: 58-60). When Paul D enters 124, its weeping clings to him. Perhaps the most divine punishment of all comes from realizing that Hell is your very home.

The Risks and Rewards of Collaboration

I am peace, / and war has come because of me. – “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Nag Hammadi Library 

Collaboration. It is a process apparent in schools, family relationships, the workforce, and more. NACE even includes “Teamwork” as one of their core career readiness competencies that they believe all graduating college students should possess before entering the into ther workforce. As a special education major, I am accustomed to being asked to collaborate in group projects and being told of the importance of collaboration. Yet, when I first learned that three of the essays we would write in English 431: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy would be collaborative, I was simultaneously panicked and skeptical. I remember thinking: What is the point of writing an essay collaboratively? How will so many different people’s opinions and ideas be cohesive? I already had a negative outlook on group work coming into English 431, which explains my initial reaction. This view partially stemmed from past projects I had participated in where group members contributed in unequal amounts or did not communicate well with each other. A major reason reason why I was apprehensive about writing essays collaboratively is because it meant that I would need to relinquish full control over the assignment. While I would not characterize myself as an overly controlling person in most aspects of my life, I tend to want to have complete authority over my school work, arising from my at-times perfectionist attitude. I struggled to see the real benefits of collaboration coming into English 431. Why write an essay with other people when I can produce the same product by myself without the hassle?

As the semester progressed, I furthered my understanding about the process of collaboration by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise and working with my group on our collaborative essays. Morrison’s work and as well as our own has shown me that collaboration allows people to achieve something that the individuals could not attain on their own. In order for this to happen, however, the individuals involved must surrender some control, placing trust in those they are collaborating with.

Paul D’s escape from prison in Beloved, the first novel in Morrison’s trilogy that grapples with the aftermath of infanticide and enslavement, exhibits how, through working together and yielding control to each other and Hi Man, the prisoners are able to achieve what no one person in their situation could achieve on their own: freedom. After being left to die chained together in underground boxes during mudslide, the prisoners, following each other, pull each other’s chains to escape through the bars holding them. The prisoners collaborate, helping anyone who is going the wrong way, “for one lost, all lost.” They follow each other out, trusting that Hi Man, the leader who signals when to start working each day, will lead them out to freedom safely. If one person did not trust the others or follow Hi Man, no one would have made it out. In a similar example, Dante the Pilgrim must concede control to his guide, Virgil, in order for them both to leave Hell in Canto 34 of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which Morrison’s Beloved may be read as being in conversation with. Dante the Pilgrim and Virgil climb downwards by clinging to the hair on Satan’s body, when suddenly, to Dante the Pilgrim’s confusion, Virgil begins to climb upwards again, appearing to be heading back towards Hell. Despite his hesitation, Dante follows Virgil, trusting that he will lead them out. Dante the Pilgrim is able to escape from Hell, something he would likely not be able to do on his own, but only by surrendering to Virgil’s guidance. Jazz, Morrison’s second book in the trilogy, also presents an instance where, through speaking and working together, the characters are able to achieve something they would otherwise not be able to individually. Jazz tells the story of Joe, who murders Dorcas, the young girl that he is having an affair with, and the subsequent consequences his actions. Joe and his wife, Violet, continue to share an apartment after the incident, despite their marriage being deeply damaged. When Felice, Dorcas’s friend, visits the couple to get the ring Dorcas was wearing when she died back, she ends up telling the couple that Dorcas let herself die, which begins a process of healing between Joe and Violet and a sort of friendship between Felice and the couple. As the three spend more time together, Joe and Violet begin to reconcile their relationship, with Joe telling Felice that their reconciliation is happening faster after she spoke with them. Joe and Violet are able heal, something they likely would not have been able to do without speaking with Felice. The characters must trust one another – Joe and Violet trusting that what Felice says is true and then beginning to trust each other – in order for this to happen.

Like the collaborations in Beloved and Jazz, I too learned to relinquish control and trust my group members in order to create something that I could never create on my own with our collaborative essays. At first, it was difficult for me to go along with the writing process that my group followed. My writing process before participating in the collaborative essays was very rigid and involved a lot of planning and outlining before I even began writing. My process entailed starting with a thesis, and then, almost formulaically, I would write each paragraph to support that specific thesis. With my group, we started by writing a bunch of ideas down, not worrying about having our argument figured out at the start. While at first this stressed me out (again, I worried about how cohesive our essay would be with all of our different ideas), I began to enjoy the process once I realized that we were coming up with ideas together that I could have never produced on my own. Especially with writing as detailed as Morrison’s, there were many times that a group member would mention something that they noticed that I had never thought of before. I discussed this with a group member during our most recent collaboration, noting that I was so glad I got to experience Morrison’s writing for the first time with other people, or else I would have missed out on the various ways that her novels can be interpreted. Since participating in the collaborative essay writing exercises, I have begun to implement practices from the writing process my group used in my individual writing process. Now, before creating a thesis, I take the time to freely bullet any idea that pops into my head relating to the prompt. This helps me generate more innovative and insightful ideas. Additionally, I recognize now that an essay can have multiple, interconnected throughlines, so I don’t have to feel confined to only writing paragraphs that perfectly align with my original thesis. Through collaborating with my peers, I was able to learn something new and realize ideas I could not have come up with on my own. But only because I relinquished some control over the assignment and trusted my group members’ writing process.

Though in many of the collaborations represented in Morrison’s writing the characters achieve something positive that they would not have attained on their own, her writing also presents the potential damage that collaboration can do, when one surrenders too much to those around them without question. An example of this is in the third novel of Morrison’s trilogy, Paradise, which chronicles the decline of Ruby, an all-Black town, and the stories of the women residing at the nearby Convent. When issues increase in the town of Ruby, especially the dissonance between the more modern views of the younger generation and the traditional values of the older generation, rumors spread that the town’s problems are being caused by the women living in the Convent. After “more than a year” of these whispers, representatives from every church in town collaborate at the Oven, the town’s meeting place, deciding that nine men will go to the Convent and shoot the women, who, though eccentric, were once regarded as helpful or at least harmless among community members of Ruby. This situation demonstrates how sometimes in collaborating, people conform to other people’s opinions without question, which can result in harm. Perhaps if one of the nine men were to question the validity of the rumor that the Convent women were at fault, it would prevent or at least maybe delay the murders from occurring. In addition, like how collaboration allows people to reach positive results that they could not achieve on their own, it can also facilitate destruction. For instance, it is unlikely that any one person would decide and successfully carry out shooting the Convent women alone. But bolstered by a group, it is much easier for the men to commit these murders.

As evident by Paradise, when people yield to common ideas without question, there is a potential for destruction during collaboration. In my own collaborative writing experience this semester, I learned how to question the ideas of my group mates by using conversational moves to open up discussion rather than incorrectly (and rudely) assert that someone’s ideas are “wrong.” In one instance, I was confused by something that my group member had written. In an effort to not surrender complete control over the project but also to retain trust in my groupmate’s ideas, I framed my concern in the form of a question asking what the author meant by the statement. I found this method to be very beneficial since I was able to receive clarification and voice my thoughts without offending my groupmate or being too controlling over the essay.

Morrison’s depiction of the complexity of collaboration, showing that it can both empower individuals to attain something beneficial that they would likely not be able to achieve on their own and also empower individuals to commit immense acts of harm that they would like not be able to realize on their own, reminds me of the both/and nature of “The Thunder, Perfect Mind,” The Thunder, Perfect Mind” is a poem from the Nag Hammadi Library, an ancient collection of texts discovered in 1940, as Dr. McCoy states in her  class notes from February 24th. The language in “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” tells the reader that more than one thing can be true at once. Many sentences involve the narrator proclaiming to be two things that are antitheses of each other: “I am strength and I am fear / I am war and peace /. . . I am compassionate and I am cruel.” To me, these lines represent the duality of collaboration. Through collaborating, one can find strength and healing, but one can also generate fear and cruelty. Peace and reconciliation can be achieved, but war and violence can also arise.

As I graduate college in less than two weeks, I will take with me what I learned from English 431 about collaboration into my future classroom and other aspects of my life. I can confidently say that my attitude towards collaborative work has improved after witnessing how people’s different perspectives generate unique and insightful ideas that I wouldn’t be able to come up with myself. I feel less of a need to try to control every aspect of a project, knowing that only by surrendering some control and trusting my group members is what will enable the collaborative process to create that new idea that no one person could create themselves. I will, however, be sure to respectfully question my group member’s ideas to avoid producing damage through collaboration. It will be important to collaborate with parents and other school professionals in order to come up with the best possible solutions for issues and ideas for teaching. Maybe one day in my future classroom, I will have a student who does not know their letter sounds. It would be much more beneficial for me to reach out to others who are experts in certain aspects of the problem in order to generate the optimal solution for that child. For example, meeting with a speech pathologist, a therapist, and a special education teacher would offer me more information than trying to come up with the solution all by myself. Using the collaboration skills I developed and refined in English 431, I can ensure that when I collaborate with school professionals, I am not overly controlling in the collaboration process nor am I just going along with what everyone else says without adding my own thinking. Perhaps there is inherent risk in collaboration that cannot be avoided, but there are plentiful rewards that arise from working collaboratively as well. I choose to take the risk of collaboration, in the hopes that it will better both myself and those around me.

The Trouble with Dichotomies: Both Individualism and Collaboration

By Isabelle Covert

Morrison’s depictions of the struggle within individuality and solving problems in a collaborative, community-based manner shows us, as readers and as people, the importance of individualism, community, and collaboration in all that we do. Over-individuality and individualism, as it’s used here, is the belief that what one can do with others, one can do better themselves. In this, individuality can mean the presence of a strong self that can exist without others, but that can also be called simply a strong sense of self. The self is an important part of any person and it is just as damaging to attach one’s selfhood to others as it is to believe that selfhood means not relying on anyone else. Therefore, positive collaboration and community is one where each person still has a stand-alone self, with personal beliefs, ideas, and opinions, but that they understand that most often a collaborative community can be better for everyone involved than over-individuality.  It is dangerous to go too deep into collaboration – and lose yourself – but it’s also dangerous to not submit to collaboration at all – and lose your community. Throughout her Beloved trilogy, Morrison’s characters give a realistic depiction of what it’s like to go through trauma, grow, and heal from an excess and/or lack of community and individuality. Morrison’s focus on love, in this context, is very interesting in that she tends to focus on the effects of an excess of love of various types, which can often lead to excess or lack of collaboration or individuality.

In Beloved, we see Sethe lose her community after news gets out of what she did and tried to do to her children. This leads to a tough, bitter existence for Sethe and Denver, especially after Baby Suggs dies and Howard and Bugler leave. When Paul D shows up and they go to the carnival, there seems to be hope that maybe they can gain their community back while still being individuals, but then Beloved shows up. Beloved’s very existence seemed to be an extension of Sethe’s (or vice versa) and allowed no self at all in the house, an example of collaboration to the extreme – dissolution of the self and reliance on others for any semblance of that. This leads to the ruin of Paul D and Sethe’s relationship and almost killing Sethe in the process. This is an example of when collaboration goes too far – so far as it could be called the dissolution of the self in both Sethe and Beloved. This situation continues getting worse until Denver decided to get her selfhood back from Beloved and go searching in the community for a job, food, and help. The scene where Beloved disappears is most important in that it brings the community together for a common cause: to help out one of their own. “Sethe is running away from her, running, and she feels the emptiness in the hand Sethe had been holding. Now she is running into the faces of the people out there, joining them and leaving Beloved behind…. Then Denver, running too. Away from her to the pile of people out there.” Beloved represents collaboration to the most extreme, to the loss of self and the becoming of something else entirely, Denver represents community and collaboration within that, in the perfect amount to be able to strengthen and protect one another, and Sethe herself represents individuality maybe not to the extreme, but in such a way that she thought she couldn’t or maybe just wouldn’t reach out for help when she needed it.

In Jazz, we see the same spectrum of individuality to collaboration, but in a much different way. Violet lost herself in Joe, and Joe shut himself in until he met Dorcas. At the other end of the spectrum, Joe hides within himself and refuses to get attached or identified with another person. Violet seems to be unable to be an individual for most of the book – she defines herself by her husband, her parrot, and longs to be able to be defined by a child, going so far as to almost steal a baby. She trained her parrot to tell her he loved her, because she thought she wouldn’t be able to go on in a world where she wasn’t loved. Consistently until after Dorcas’s death, she refuses to be an individual and instead longs to be part of someone else. Violet reaching out to Alice after she tried to mutilate the face of Dorcas’s corpse at her funeral, without the intention of apologizing, was Violet’s first attempt at community at a nearly-healthy level that we see in Jazz. Joe, on the other hand, longs to be free, like the woman he thinks his mother is. Growing up and not knowing his mother and hearing rumors that he was born from the woman people called ‘Wild’ because of where and how she lived, he learned that he couldn’t get used to be identified by anyone else, and was so insistent upon this that he basically closed himself off to connection until he met Dorcas, to whom he (almost immediately) became overly attached. Dorcas was open to collaboration and knew herself individually as well – she was able to navigate this spectrum well, and because she collaborated so closely with those who weren’t able to maintain their individuality versus collaboration, she was punished for it. Therefore, it’s not just the level of collaboration that matters, but who you collaborate with.

In Paradise, we see a community held together by history and just for the sake of having a community. However, this community is lacking in collaboration and individuality. People identify themselves by their families, their ancestors, and their age more than by their actual opinions, ideas, or beliefs. There are the 8-rock families, and those who have been discarded for marrying undesirables. There are the men, and the women. They identify very strongly with these groups, but not for any real reason other than that’s the way it’s always been done. The community of Ruby is leaning heavily toward unhealthy levels of collaboration, but they are also so proud of their arbitrary identities that they think they’re the best and can receive no criticism, so they are also unhealthily individual. The women of the convent, on the other hand, initially lean so far into individuality that it’s hard to think they are even a community. Each of the women, taking her own hard path, end up at the Convent and resist the influence of the others, of the town, and of the rest of the world. However, as we can see as we get closer to the end of the story of the Convent, the women collaborate on their individuality and make an unhealthily attached community of over-individualistic people. This can be seen in K.D. Morgan, who has an affair with Gigi, one of the girls from the convent, despite the community’s expectations, but then still goes with the other Ruby men to attack and kill the convent women. The rituals or ceremonies the women participated in celebrated their over-individuality, but also dissolved them into a single consciousness. Thus, one person can be both overly individualistic and overly attached so much that your selfhood dissolves.

The things each book in the trilogy can teach us about collaboration and individualism are very important to keep in mind as we move forward in our lives, deciding who we’re going to be and how we’re going to live. Beloved teaches us that too much of a good thing is most definitely a bad thing – where both basic collaboration and community and a strong sense of self are good things, but in excess can be so damaging. Jazz shows us that the people we collaborate with or choose to be individual around can be just as important as making that decision as to the amount of individualism or collaboration to bring into our lives, because the effect that other people and their lives can have on ours is huge and sometimes pretty hard to spot until it’s too late, like poor Dorcas learned. Paradise shows us that not only can you be in excess of one or the other, individualism or collaboration, but you can have an excess of both at any point in time. This trilogy teaches about the dangers of love, but also the necessity of it, which is the same as how it is for both collaboration and individualism.

As we move on toward the end of college, we have to make decisions about what kind of life we want to live and how we’re going to achieve the life we want. I am the type of person that tends to value community and friendship and love over individualism and alone time and caring for myself. This has been cultivated by growing up in a large family, as the oldest sibling, I rarely got any time to myself but I learned to cherish it, and then I came to college where, between roommates, housemates, and classmates, it’s very easy to not have to be alone in spirit or physically. However, as I move into my senior year and have to begin to think about what happens after, I find myself terrified of not having this community that I’ve grown to love. Now at this point, I usually find myself trying to find solutions to that, ways that I can avoid being alone, but sometimes (I’ll admit, not very often) I find myself thinking about how I can grow as a person and learn to be okay by myself. I know it feels like an uphill battle right now, but I know that it’s so important for my own growth and healing to leave my comfort zone and do something different. And the way that Morrison’s characters have to go through the same kind of discomfort, and then they make it through at the conclusion of the novel – not to perfection, but to a place of solid growth and continued healing – it gives me hope and confidence that I can do the same. I want my life to be one where I have a community, but I don’t rely on them to the point where if I’m without it, I am stuck. As my friends look at graduate schools all over the country, and I look at possible jobs and master’s programs online so I can go back home, it’s easy to feel discouraged and premeditate that loneliness that I expect. However, with just a bit of positivity and effort, I am able to feel comforted in that I love what I’m going to be doing, I’ll be close to family, and I can finish figuring out the life I want to live. I will be able to find that balance between individualism and collaboration.

Collaboration in Review: Utilizing Trusted Communities for Growth

As a freshman economics major entering my spring semester, my collaboration experience was extremely limited because a majority of my classes, like most freshmen, took place in a lecture hall. In true lecture hall fashion, the endless, immovable rows didn’t particularly open themselves up for easy collaboration, and as such, most of my work was independent. However, after I set foot in Beth McCoy’s Risk and Rewards class, my idea of collaboration was changed and has continued to evolve — my most recent shift being credited to the texts from Toni Morrison. As the characters featured in Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz constantly moved from experiencing pain to healing, I have developed a nuanced perspective on collaboration, recognizing that healing and personal growth cannot be accomplished on my own, and as such requires collaboration, and trusted communities.  

In identifying my now nuanced perspective on collaboration, I wanted to explore where I began — as an eighteen-year-old freshman who published my final essay on May 14th, 2020. In my essay “The Pygmalion Effect,” I explored the importance of sharing diverse experiences, and discussed how my growth mindset had evolved over the course of the semester. I wrote, “No one else in this world has your experience. This is a powerful tool because when you use a creative space such as your writing to talk about your experience, you can be shaping someone else’s perspective on the world” At the time, my interpretation of collaboration was broader, I understood that we required multiple perspectives in order to find the best solutions. By my conclusion, I began to question how I might continue my personal growth without my peers: “But now, as my freshman year comes to a close, who is going to help me grow, who is going to challenge my perspective every Monday and Friday… As time goes on, I think that we should demand greatness from ourselves.” While I still agree that we should set growth goals for ourselves, through Morrison’s work, I now see that I also require trusted communities to aid in growth because they can challenge our status quo. 

One character we saw challenged throughout Morrison’s work was Violet from Jazz. Following her husband’s affair with Dorcas, and her subsequent murder, we saw Violet’s outward dislike towards Dorcas. She openly discussed her dislike for the deceased girl to clients and presented signs of unresolved anger towards her: “She’s my enemy. Then, when I didn’t know it, and now too.” (Morrison 85). Violet also spared no expense of attacking her looks such as her unclipped ends, and calling her ugly, “I thought she was going to be pretty… she wasn’t” (Morrison 109). Her unresolved anger towards Dorcas reached a peak when she tried to attack Dorcas’s face with a knife at her funeral: “Violet went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face…” (Morrison 1). Violet was angry at the infidelity, but as her husband Joe grieved the loss, she turned her anger towards someone who couldn’t defend themselves. However, as Violet became acquainted with Dorcas’ aunt, Alice, they began to develop a trusting, yet reluctant relationship. 

Once the pair started to trust each other, their healing began. During one of their visits, and after Alice burned some clothes while ironing it said, “Violet was the first to smile. Then Alice. In no time laughter was rocking them both… Violet learned then what she had forgotten until this moment: that laughter is serious…Violet thought about how she must have looked at the funeral, at what her mission was. The sight of herself trying to do something bluesy…fumbling the knife” (Morrison 113-114). For the first time, the audience was able to see Violet’s reflection of her previous missteps, and even appears to poke fun at herself for how dramatic she was being. What I find the most interesting here is the realization that Morrison makes for Violet on page 114, “She noticed, at the same moment as that Violet did, that it was spring. In the City.” The funeral attack took place in the winter, but Violet doesn’t even begin to question her choice until months later. This caused me to seek the catalyst for Violet’s growth, and that would be her friendship with Alice. Their trusting relationship sparked her growth as she worked towards lessening her resentment towards growth, reminding me of the vitality of trusted communities. 

After reading Jazz, I was able to connect the idea of trusted communities to my collaborations that took place outside the classroom. For the past four years, I have competed on Geneseo’s Mock Trial Team which heavily centers around collaboration. Our team works together from try-outs in September all the way through the end of each academic year. With try-outs held every year, we always have an influx of new people join, and like Alice and Violet, the first few weeks typically involve some hesitancy around each other. However, after multiple practices a week, and by our first competition in October, we felt incredibly comfortable with each other. The trust that our team had developed made it easy for me and Captain and as their President to offer feedback and to encourage their growth in the activity, such as giving notes after each round. As the team grew closer, I saw rapid improvement among the newcomers because they were able to trust our corrections. At the same time, it is harder for teams to blindly follow the advice of the random judges who score us for a particular round. The lawyers, and law students in the room don’t know us, there was no previously established trust. Therefore, any advice given was usually taken with a grain of salt. Similar to Violet, establishing trusted communities in the past year has been the catalyst for a multitude of growth for me. 

In addition to establishing rusted communities, Morrison reminds her readers through the characters in Beloved that sometimes we must endure pain as a means to move towards healing.  In both instances, they had to collaborate with other characters to move towards healing. Prior to the ghost of Beloved haunting House 124, Stamp Paid endured pain and collaborated with Grandma Suggs for the betterment of their community: “It was Stamp Paid who started it… He walked six miles to the riverbank; did a slide-run-slide down into a ravine made almost inaccessible by brush. He reached through brambles lined with blooddrawing thorns thick as knives that cut through his shirt sleeves and trousers.” (Morrison 160). Here the audience sees Stamp Paid going through consistent extremes in order to obtain the blueberries. Once he returned, Baby Suggs was immediately able to recognize his sacrifice: “She had decided to do something with the fruit worthy of the man’s labor and his love. That’s how it began.” (Morrison 160). She knew that his pain could not go in vain and should be used to better the community around them, and that’s exactly what she did. On page 161 it said, “From Denver’s two thrilled eyes it grew to a feast for ninety people. 124 shook with their voices far into the night.” Stamp Paid’s pain was transformed into an opportunity of joy and mass healing. I think we can all think of examples of people who have made sacrifices for our betterment, but for me specifically, my grandmother made a lot of sacrifices in order for my mom to pursue an education. As a result of her sacrifices, my mom became a first-generation college graduate, and alongside my dad is now able to provide my family with more opportunities than she had. Through Morrison’s work, I have recognized that people usually only make those sacrifices for those within their trusted communities. This further demonstrated that sacrifices within trusted communities are responsible for more than individual growth but can be attributed to the betterment of the entire group. 

Looking forward to life after college, as I begin to pursue a professional career, and eventually law school, I will forever keep in mind my nuanced perspective on collaboration. As a freshman, I thought I was solely responsible for my growth, but now I recognize that when you have established trust among a trusted community, they can propel your growth. The trusted communities that I have established here at Geneseo have been invaluable and there is no other place I would have rather created Holy Gossip ™ with. 

The Complexities of Collaboration

When discussing collaboration or in the midst of collaboration there is no and should be no sugar coating. Sugar coating anything during a collaboration delays the amount of progress being made or that can be made. In other words, what I have experienced as “sugar coating” is when someone will propose an idea and someone will say to save it for later on in whatever the task may be and then eventually cut it out, when it was clear that there was hesitancy in even proposing to hold on to the idea. This is not to say that the person’s idea wasn’t good, often times there are many good and great ideas being thrown out as food for thought, however, I personally feel as though there could be more assertion as to what should be used, based on what the prompt is and what direction our collaborative project is going in. That being said, there will be moments of frustration directed towards yourself as well as towards the group because you know more can be done; collaboration is both frustrating and rewarding. Collaboration is often a word that people will cringe at and be wary towards. The idea of collaboration often comes with associations of compromise, picking up the slack, surprisingly content with the outcome, etc. Throughout her works, Morrison clearly and realistically depicts the art of collaboration. Each work seems to represent the next “level” of collaboration; it gets increasingly difficult to do and confusing to decipher, yet it is still equally rewarding when accomplished. 

Understanding that collaboration is an art form is the first step to improving one’s skills. It is an art form because there needs to be consistent practice and it is not something that can be grasped easily. As students we are taught how to collaborate from the moment we start school, perhaps even before. Yet, no one genuinely enjoys working with others to complete a task unless they are drowning in work and have no choice but to ask for assistance. For me personally this is due to the fact that I would rather only disappoint myself than disappoint an entire group of people. Through this class and after reading Morrison’s works, it became clear that collaboration does indeed occur even in the smallest of instances. Furthermore, the idea of collaboration does not need to only be associated with larger tasks and projects especially since people collaborate with each other on a daily basis. For instance, simply going to get food from a restaurant is an example of collaboration; you are working with the person to complete a task. The server is doing their job and you are helping them do said job: they are helping to ensure you are fed. This is not to say that I now enjoy doing group work or group collaborations, however I can say that I have learned that the pressure we put on potential collaborations is unnecessary; collaboration is meant for each person to grow and learn and one can not grow or learn without discomfort. 

When reading Beloved it was clear how independent Sethe was and how she aimed to stay that way. There is absolutely nothing wrong with independence, however the only way to ensure that one’s independence stays strong and up to par is to know when to ask for help. Throughout the novel the reader is able to pinpoint several moments in which Sethe could have asked for help, and it’s clear that it was something that crossed her mind, however, in not asking for help sooner, when she finally did it was only because that was the last option. In fact, she still put up a fight but eventually let herself be helped by Paul D. I didn’t know it then, but the lesson of learning when to ask for help stuck with me. I guess I unconsciously stored that information and saved it for when I needed it. I too struggle with being overly independent and after reading Beloved it was like a slap in the face that forced me to slow down and learn the time and place to be independent. It is obviously an ongoing struggle because, again, collaboration is not mastered overnight, but progress is being made. 

While on the topic of progress, it is important to understand that progress is not linear. There will be moments of accomplishments and lots of productivity, and moments of seemingly no or very little productivity. This is still progress because it shows that you are understanding when to not overwork yourself and learning when to take time for yourself. That being said, collaboration follows the same structure. When there is a collaboration taking place, it will not always be forward movement; sometimes in order to move forward a little bit of time needs to be taken out to revisit past events/accomplishments. When reading Jazz it is very clear that the theme of going back and forth and learning how to come to terms with the reality of collaboration and progress is vital to the story. Jazz takes the idea of being overly independent and expands on it; now we as readers see the different consequences of how a lack of initiative for building on collaboration plays out. Violet and Joe consistently go back and forth with their own issues while in the same space, which contributes to that original issue and furthers their disconnect. I learned, especially because of the ending of the novel, that 1-again progress within collaboration and progress overall is not linear, 2- learning to prioritize yourself but not completely closing yourself off is extremely important, 3- although the end of the novel wasn’t exactly what the reader wanted that is not necessarily the end of the story. In other words, simply because you reach an “ending”, does not mean that is the end. Many things end so others can start or continue to flourish. 

The idea of progress not being linear is cemented in the reader when reading Paradise. This novel is probably one of the most convoluted novels I have ever read yet it is so beautifully written. There are still aspects I don’t completely understand but perhaps each time I re-read Paradise in the future, I will uncover more. That idea of feeling accomplished or finished with something, seeing as this was the final book in the trilogy, again does not mean you completely understand everything that was accomplished. In other words, an ending does not always mean that everything that was “supposed” to be learned has been learned. In addition, it does not mean that everything was done according to the original plan; you may learn things that were never intended or you may not realize what you learned until after some time you’ve reached an “ending”. That is perhaps the most important message; leave room and understanding for yourself and for others to flow with the daily events that come our way. Even if there is a plan, plans change no matter what the reason is, and there will always be a reason for plans to change. 

It wasn’t until I began thinking about the prompt for this paper that I realized what lessons I had learned from each novel. I also realized that I didn’t learn each lesson as soon as I finished each book, the lesson I learned from each book was made clear once I started the following book. So that being said, I didn’t realize the lesson I learned from Paradise until I started writing. I learned the importance of having a plan for whatever task or goal in mind, yet still being open to new collaborations that might lead to new accomplishments that were not even thought of. I personally feel as though I read each novel at the time and moments of my life when I needed it the most. Especially Paradise since it was the final novel and we are now in our final week of classes. The timing of reading the novels and timing of me learning the lessons were very serendipitous.  

Firmament-ation: The Trials and Tribulations of Learning to Live in the Both/And

With this prompt, there is a part of me that feels I have to neatly organize, rationalize, and conclude everything I have known and learned here; I know that this isn’t possible, but I think that’s one of the toughest emotional elements of graduation—that it feels both that the world is ending and just beginning, that there is both so much that I will miss and so much that I need to leave behind. I’m experiencing, in my personal life, the both/and of the growing pains of hurt and love. Both academically and personally, this class has taught me more about navigating through complications of all varieties, and how this influences avenues of connection and engagement with the broader world. This is one of the things that I will miss most about Geneseo—the way that our English department has the ability to genuinely change the lives of its students by cultivating a sense of the both/and in every regard. To have the opportunity to close my time at Geneseo not only with yet another English course that accomplishes the growth of these perspectives so enormously, but through exploring the both/and of Morrison’s writing and prose as a whole, has truly changed the way that I will move into post-grad life.

For this class specifically, I have been especially challenged in how I understand collaboration and communication. I did not have much confidence in my ability to engage in collaborative writing before taking this class, especially as a student who had not encountered collaboration as immersively as this class approached it prior to this semester. While I’ve been brought to consider collaboration and its many values and benefits in many English courses, not a lot of those thought experiments had been genuinely put into work or actions concretely as we have done in this course. Thus, having to face collaboration head-on felt a little strange and overwhelming to me—I was concerned with executing the ability to understand and write about the perspectives of nine people, much less attempt to coalesce nine different writing styles and approaches, when I’ve only ever been charged with one. Because of this, it took me a little while to get the hang of things; by the end of the first collaborative paper, however, I was starting to feel more confident about and secure in this opportunity to write papers in a way that I never had before. In our second collaborative paper, when I was put into a new group, I also started to realize some of the benefits of collaborative writing that benefitted me and my writing style, specifically—because we had lots of folks working on this assignment at once, I could afford to advocate for specific elements of the text that I felt were important to represent and work through my own thoughts and notes about it (with Jazz specifically, I was fascinated by the matching up of the maps of Purgatorio and Manhattan). However, in this specific example, when I inevitably found myself in the conspiracy theory woods off the thesis-driven path of the paper, poring over each reference of the number seven in some of the most infinitesimal details of Jazz, I had a group full of people to keep me on track. This collaborative writing, thus, became a both/and of me discovering and growing from my own personal pitfalls in academic writing, as well as recognizing my ability to offer fruitful thought and analysis to a group of people who are equally enthusiastic about a concept of shared curiosity and passion.

Another daunting element of collaborative writing that had originally put me off at the beginning of the course was the translation and intuitive communication that group collaboration requires. I know how to write papers by myself mostly because the ideas originate rather cohesively from inside my own brain; there is little effort required in understanding or formulating thoughts, just in how to write them down. With more collaborative writing, however, it becomes necessary to both understand and translate the thoughts that are in the head of someone who isn’t even me. This feat is one that requires a lot of skill, not just professionally, but personally—there is an essential empathy, a willingness to both engage with the people around oneself and care for their ideas. Obviously, this is important, both professionally and holistically; at this moment in time, I plan to pursue editing and publishing, either in journalism, literary fiction, or poetry, all of which require a great deal of this sort of collaboration.

That being said, I am able to recognize that the level of collaboration we have experienced in this course is definitely exaggerated to an extent that I am unlikely to encounter in the professional world—it’s improbable that I’ll find myself in a situation outside of college where I have to sit down and write a specific article or handle an assignment as collaboratively with as big a group. In editorial work, it’s likely that I will be trying to refine the work of one or a couple of people who are writing something specific to their own narrative, but even here, collaboration comes into play—I will need to understand the thought and reasoning behind the piece, but only after the writer(s) themselves have done the work of trying to communicate that. Editing and publishing, too, address the inevitable truth that each piece of writing must at some point face—that writing is subjective, and is, as we know so thoroughly from Morrison’s work, something that involves unprecipitated collaboration between the reader and writer even in the way that it is read. This collaboration and the empathy that it teaches might be considered a bit more relevant in the field of journalism. In this profession, I might be trying to communicate or represent more than one story or perspective; even then, however, even then it is likely that I will be the sole handler of these assignments, trying to process and translate those perspectives the way that I specifically think they ought to be represented. Thus, the experience of having written an essay with eight other people with eight other distinctive minds, perspectives, and experiences, is not irrelevant to the way that I will step into post-grad life; it might be more apt to say that the lessons and values derived from that experience will likely prove to be extremely beneficial down the road.

Morrison’s writing, of course, accomplishes this in its ability to resist convention and “easy reading,” inviting collaboration with ease and borderline necessity. I loved the quote from Anna Mulrine’s article, “This side of ‘Paradise’: Toni Morrison defends herself from criticism of her new novel Paradise,” where Morrison referenced the way she feels about how people interact with her work—“‘I have people tell me, ‘Your novel is on my bed stand.’ I don’t want books to be what people dip into before they go to sleep’” (qtd. in Mulrine). There is so much to be earned from this way of approaching literature. The reader of Beloved is not meant to pick a side or decide whether or not they think Sethe was “right” for killing Beloved, though our instinct is to do this—to make something clear in this winding prose and complex story that resists a simple conclusion or answer. Rather, we are brought to understand Sethe’s experience through the accessibility of the harsh and traumatizing conditions that Sethe reveals throughout the novel; this isn’t easy to read. Morrison reveals the intentionality of that in allusions to Sethe’s emotional experience:

Why was there nothing it refused? No misery, no regret, no hateful picture too rotten to accept? Like a greedy child it snatched up everything. Just once, could it say, No thank you? I just ate and can’t hold another bite? I am full God damn it of two boys with mossy teeth, one sucking on my breast the other holding me down, their book-reading teacher watching and writing it up. I am still full of that, God damn it, I can’t go back and add more. (Morrison 83)

In these passages and many more, there is a desperate need for a connection between the reader and Sethe’s character. Without this, the novel’s purposes fall flat, revealing, more often than not, a lack of willingness for the reader to fully immerse themselves in the many emotional trials and tribulations of engaging in Morrison’s work. However, if the reader is willing to engage with the novel with genuine care for understanding the experiences of Morrison’s characters and story, there is so much to take away. In Beloved specifically, we learn about the multiplicity of representing slavery narratives, as well as how and where healing is possible from intergenerational trauma and wounds relating to racism. These takeaways are vital lenses through which to view the world today, especially as racial violence and inequity continue to unfold in this country day after day.

It is also important to note, however, that the many conclusions I have felt able to draw from our time engaging with Morrison’s writing have been skillfully guided by the work and reflection of my peers in this course. Looking back on my class notes from this course, I can remember clearly the excitement that I felt on specific days of group discussion where I was brought to consider new connections that I had not made on my own. I remember a class period in early February where we discussed the importance of guides in both Beloved and Dante’s Inferno, which, though it was not an idea or theme that I had fully fleshed out in my independent reading and interpretation, became a major theme of the first collaborative essay that we completed in this class due to the extent to which it impacted both my and my group members’ understandings of the novel. At the beginning of our reading of Jazz, too, I recall a class discussion where we began drawing more explicit connections between the different novels of Morrison’s trilogy (specifically pertaining to Beloved at that point in the semester), between the writing of Dante and Morrison, and between different core concepts that we have focused on throughout this semester. These conclusions are not ones I would have come to independently; rather, it took me approaching each class period mindfully, prepared to engage with the ideas of others and present ideas of my own, for these connections, which elevated the reading and class experience of most (hopefully each) members of the class, to be drawn.

None of this experience could have been possible had I not trusted the value of the community that we have established in this class, as well as accepted the discomfort that, for me, came along with collaborative writing. As I step into this next period of my life, where that sort of academic community will be far less accessible, I am ever-grateful for the time that we have dedicated to multiplicity, collaboration, and complication—the both/and of everything in life—in this class, both through the manner of the course as a whole and the dedicated approach to Morrison’s writing. I feel confident in asserting that this sort of work could not have come about as fruitfully in studying any other writer, especially in examining the intersection between Dante and Morrison; however, having garnered these skills of observation and collaboration, I am feeling, too, more confident in how these skills will continue to ripple my life post-grad, professionally and personally. This course, in its collaboration and study of Morrison’s writing, have helped me make peace with the impossibility of any critical thinker, reader, or writer to “neatly organize, rationalize, and conclude”; more importantly, this course has led me to recognize the beauty and inherent meaning behind this impossibility. It has taken me three years of intensive English courses and challenging conversations with my professors and peers to embrace this, but I am leaving both Geneseo and this course more in love with the both/and of literature and life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage Classics, 2007.

Mulrine, Anna. “This side of ‘Paradise’: Toni Morrison defends herself from criticism of her new novel Paradise.US News & World Report, 19 Jan. 1998.

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.

Collaboration as Personal and Social Growth in Toni Morrison’s Trilogy and All of Our Lives.

            It is no secret that collaboration is a necessary part of life. It’s easy to see this when we look around our school, workplace, or community; all sorts of groups, clubs, and organizations collaborate to accomplish both the tasks we appreciate, like having a well-prepared professor in a classroom to lead a group of interested students in discussion, and those we may take for granted, like having the floors swept or the trash removed every evening. However, often as humans, our pride, or spirit of self-reliance can cause us individually to imagine that we do not need to rely on others, that we can figure things out for ourselves. The most unfortunate result of such an attitude is often that we miss out the richness life offers when we make meaningful connections with others and allow them to influence our thinking and actions. This refusal to let others in is at the heart of most of the suffering we find in the three Toni Morrison novels we read this semester. Whether it was Sethe’s withdrawal from society in Beloved, Joe’s emotional distance from Violet in Jazz, or the division caused by a difference in interpretation of the words on the oven’s lip in Paradise, the inability to collaborate effectively, even if one or both parties have what we might excuse as a “good reason,” is the cause of most chronic problems for the protagonists of each story. What all these works can help us to see is that the mental safety barriers we put up to protect ourselves from disappointment or rejection are often precisely that, barriers, but barriers that prevent the flow of love, good-faith, and healing in both directions and that these need to be overcome if we want to achieve self-actualization.

         While I don’t equate what I’ve had to go through in my life in any way with what a person in Sethe’s situation would have had to endure in terms of “depth of suffering” her character helped me to understand that at times in life, we are presented with an impossible choice that we must make regardless. For Sethe, this was to kill her children rather than to allow them to return to slavery. For me, it was to face shunning by my family and friends rather than live my life professing beliefs that I did not genuinely hold. By leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which my wife and I had spent the first thirty years of our lives as members of, we knew we would be abandoned by nearly everyone we loved. Like Sethe, in the years that followed that traumatic event we withdrew into ourselves, afraid of jugement from the world, not fitting in, or simply just being too broken to care.

         What Morrison seems to suggest, through the arrival of Paul D as a sort of turning point where a bit of light begins to shine again into Sethe’s life after years of darkness, is that we often need someone on the outside of our situation to step into our lives and figuratively pull us, often kicking and screaming, out of our seclusion. The beautiful thing that often ends up happening, as it does in Beloved, is that Paul D receives just as many benefits as the person he is there to help does. It’s also noteworthy that Paul D, does not arrive with any secret information or magical ability to save Sethe. He simply loves her, in all the complicated messiness that that entails. As noted, this does not flip a switch for Sethe and solve all her problems, but is, instead, the beginning of a long, slow, painful process where she decides that trusting others and being a member of a community is worth the risk.

         In my own life, I’ve had more Paul D’s than I can count. People who saw my pain and took the initiative and overcame the discomfort to sit and talk or listen to me scream or cry, not just once or twice, but week after week and month after month. I have two aunts in particular, my father’s sisters who never joined the JW’s, who became the ones who refused to let me give in to the darkness. Their love was at the core, but it was the fact that they took the time to call, send daily texts, take me out for lunch, spoil our kids, and just generally never forget about me that was a huge reason I was able to see that it was worth rebuilding a new life, even if the pain of abandonment would always be there. Like Sethe, I couldn’t change the past, but I could choose to accept what had happened and move forward.

We don’t get a truly happy ending in Beloved, but what we are left with is hope. Hope that Sethe, Paul D. and by extension Denver now have a chance at finding some happiness in a world that, for much of their lives, they could not imagine that happening in. They will always be damaged people with deep, permanent scars, as the tree on Sethe’s back symbolizes, but they have each begun to let the light in. 

Being out of what I call “the cult” for eight years now, I can happily report that this crack of light, for me, has turned into a blinding ray that has illuminated my life in ways I never imagined possible. What Morrison’s work has helped me to recognize is that this is almost entirely the result of allowing new, different, and yet equally or exceedingly beautiful people into my life who have changed the way I think, feel, and interact with the world. Outside of my family, the students and professors at SUNY Geneseo have probably had the largest positive impact on me of anyone along this journey. From the agonizing discomfort I felt as the ONLY near forty-year-old at orientation day, two short years ago, to the elation of sitting in our small group, laughing hysterically with an accepting group of found friends as we worked on our collaborative essays for this class, I have felt, on the deepest level, the value of overcoming fear and choosing collaboration over isolation.

While Beloved, at least for me, seems to focus on the personal side of how collaboration can be healing, in Paradise, Morrison seems more interested in exploring how collaboration within the larger structures of society play a role in either promoting or disrupting harmony at a cultural level. We focused heavily on the disagreement between two groups, cut roughly along generational lines, over what the original inscription on the lip of the was; either “Beware the Furrow of His Brow” or “Be the Furrow of His Brow.” What struck me in this rift, was how each side was certain that their interpretation was correct, but it just so happened that that interpretation aligned with the values that group espoused. The older generation of Ruby residents weren’t convinced by any irrefutable evidence that “Beware the Furrow…” was correct, it was just that such a reading aligned with their more traditional religious values and the importance they attached to living in the fear of God. The younger generation had just as little proof that their reading was correct and instead were motivated by the agnosticism and individualism that pervaded their worldview. In each case, their inability to collaborate or reach a consensus was not motivated by facts, but by a refusal to accept that being right was not as important as maintaining a unified society.

Today, we live in a country where divisions run bone deep as the result of an inability to agree on the interpretation of our nation’s constitution and what its founders intended as the proper way to live in their experimental democracy. Just like the residents of Ruby, we can find ourselves sliding into divisive factions that are often motivated, not by a search for truth, but by the values their members have come to acquire over the course of their lives. Often, the result of such divisions is that organizations that attempt to transcend such discord, accepting everyone despite their differences, are targeted in much the same way that the convent is in Paradise, since they pose a threat to a traditional way of life that opposing groups cannot imagine living without. Some of the recent hateful attacks on LGBTQ+ spaces on campus come to mind where we see the harmful effects of people too afraid of others with different ways of seeing themselves or the world to allow them to exist, even peacefully. In Paradise, Morrison doesn’t offer any simple solutions, but she does provide a warning about what happens when, instead of trying to understand each other, we seek to eliminate those we don’t understand. The gang of men who attack the convent do not walk away triumphant but are as broken and confused by their own actions as the women they assaulted. Though they attempt to wrap themselves in religious authority and imagine they are doing God’s work, freeing their community from idolatry, once their crimes are committed, that lofty purpose rings hollow before the reality of the atrocities they have committed.

The question Morrison leaves us to ponder is how collaboration could have prevented this intolerance that led to such regrettable violence. For me, personally, I have felt the power of collaboration at work and seen its results in my own thinking and outlook. Coming from rural NY, working closely with the agricultural community, which is predominantly conservative, republican, white men, the attitudes they held toward the younger generation of “kids these days” had a powerful effect on my thinking. I was skeptical of many of their views on race, gender, climate change and myriad other political issues. However, after spending two years here at Geneseo I have come to a much more accurate understanding of the truly beautiful foundations of these values. Young people are not clueless, but neither is the older conservative generation evil, as at times the most vocal on each side might lead one to believe. What each side is pushing for comes from a desire for shockingly similar outcomes. Both sides want freedom to unapologetically be themselves, access to safe and vibrant communities, good jobs, and to be surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Where things get complicated is in how each side believes we can accomplish this collaboratively. What I take from this going forward, is a personal refusal to see either side as evil and to remain willing to have my preconceived ideas about people or groups almost always changed for the better the more time I spend around them. Good-faith conversations may not be a magical solution, but I see them as the best chance we have to overcome our differences and build the world we want to live in.

Morrison herself reached across centuries to collaborate with the works of Dante when she wrote the trilogy that we have spent the semester in conversation with. The richness that has resulted from making such an effort is evidenced by the countless papers like this that have been, are being, and will be written by students here at Geneseo and throughout the world, where we can pull new insights from Dante, Morrison, and perhaps most importantly, from the conversation that takes place between these two authors that we get to join in. Often the financial value of an English education gets called into question since we English majors pay the same tuition as many other students being trained for specific skills designed to earn them money. However, speaking from personal experience again, I can say that it is impossible to put a value on an experience that changes the way you see the world, from one that is small and afraid, to one that is wide-open, accepting, and always open to attribute to others the best of intentions rather than the worst. That is the work I believe I was “created to do down here in Paradise” and that is my aim moving forward (Morrison, 318).  

Entering the Firmament: Education and Social-Emotional Learning through the Lens of Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

At the beginning of the semester, I worked with a ninth-grade student during a practicum field visit in Rochester who frequently missed school due to chronic illness. We were neck-deep in their research unit, and at this point the kids were writing their final essays; but the one I was working with had fallen behind, and in the middle of March had pulled an all-nighter scrambling to find a topic, sources, take notes, and outline their paper. They were failing, hovering around 30% for the quarter, and the pressure to raise that grade was etched in their face: usually well-groomed hair flew in all directions; plum-colored bags bloomed under their eyes from the lack of sleep; their blood-orange hydro flask with Brooklyn Nine-Nine stickers smothering every free space was exchanged for a can of Monster, the black-etched logo glowering from the snow-white surface of the can. I read their work, and they were more than ready to begin the paper; but it was due tomorrow at midnight, and I imagined another restless night ahead of them, another day in school with blood-shot eyes and heavy eyelids, another day in school fighting to stay awake, fighting to claw ahead of the stacking assignments.

I spoke with the head teacher I was working with. We gave them another week; I met with the student to tell them we were going to extend the deadline for their paper, and what they had so far was great work and worthy of granting her a passing grade for the quarter out of good faith that they would turn in their essay after a week. Their tense shoulders relaxed; they breathed a little deeper and took off their glasses: “I can’t remember the last time someone said I’ve done a good thing.”

I felt upset at what they told me. How could anyone see a student trying this hard, digging themselves out of a hole they never wanted to be in in the first place, saw the effort and growth and resilience, and deny them the praise, the chance to rest, a little mercy. At the very least, a compliment. It is frustrating, as someone who wants to be a teacher, to see these flashes of exhaustion from students; but at the end of the course on “Toni Morrison’s Trilogy,” I can see more clearly why it is vital to grant our students these spaces for rest, these opportunities for both learning and safety. Morrison’s writing positions the perplexing and collaborative nature of the both/and as an act of engagement, an act of care; it is through this dynamic that we can experience learning, foster educational spaces of comfort and safety, and generate educational outcomes that go beyond content.

An underrated, or perhaps unspoken, facet of learning lies in the internal journey behind self-definition and self-love. Morrison infuses Beloved with this tension, for she reveals both the danger and tenderness of care, and it almost assaults us with the forcefulness of Sethe’s feelings; and yet, as a character, she feels deficient, and through this we can see the uncomfortable position learning can cause us to experience. Sethe’s excessive love for Beloved caused her to feel deficient, to feel the full weight of her trauma; but Paul D elicits, or guides her towards the self-realization that she is worthy of love. Sethe asserts that Beloved “was [her] best thing.” Paul D, however, in seeing how Beloved has leeched the life out of Sethe—and seeing Sethe open herself to this—both acknowledges their past trauma and motivates them to move forward; “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Sethe responds: “Me? Me?” (Beloved 347-348). Morrison forces us to look at the both/and of care, at both the violence of its excessiveness and the tenderness—the panacea—of the support and comfort another person can extend. She has withered away as a result of her love for Beloved, until Paul D gives her the space to realize that she can love herself, that she must love herself. At the heart of this dynamic lies a profound act of learning; Paul D works with her to make her see, to teach her, how to love herself.

For educators, this learning is essential for engaging our learners, for allowing learning to occur, for going beyond curriculum to motivate students on their terms. We teach more than curriculum; we teach how to care for the self, how to empower learners, how to support them and give them the space to find that energy within themselves. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher elaborate on this point, writing that “We listen and learn from the students we are currently teaching and design instruction that will move them. We start with contagious enthusiasm for both reading and writing. Joy is an intentional stance” (Gallagher and Kittle 5). We do more than teach curriculum and social-emotional benchmarks as separate entities; they are an entangled perspective, an entangled pedagogy. Providing students with spaces to rest, spaces of comfort, spaces where they can exhale the tension from their shoulders, spaces where we can tell them they have done great work and mean it, drives instruction, drives learning. We meet students where they are, and motivate them toward what they can be.

The simple act of praise—something that, to me, was a throwaway form of encouragement and support from a struggling student—meant more than anything to the student I was working with, who saw within themselves both a chance to rest and a beacon of achievement, of pride, that they can latch on to. In that moment, they realized—even briefly—that they were “their best thing.” However, in order to uplift our students, we as educators cannot view our students as wholly other. Yes, we are the more knowledgeable figure in the room from a curricular standpoint, and yes, we are the authoritative and managerial presence in the classroom; but teachers and learners are deeply entangled in a collaborative act of empowerment.

Morrison’s Jazz positions us as the reader specifically within the context of a learner, as we participate in the novel’s progression as both reader and character, entangled with the text as deeply as Joe and Violet are at the book’s conclusion. The novel’s conclusion demands readers to consider the participatory entanglement between reader and text, to refuse the division between the person and object, allowing us to collaborate with the book as it teaches us, educates us, on the lives and loves of its characters. The narrator launches from Joe and Violet’s rekindled acts of care to acknowledge their own needs and desires, reaching out to the reader as a participant in this journey. Morrison—from the narrator’s perspective—writes, “I can’t tell anyone that I have been waiting for this all my life and that being chosen to wait is the reason I can. If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (Jazz 224-229). This confrontation shocked me when I read it for the first time; Morrison designed a text that speaks for itself, with a voice of its own—the book claims it desires, rather than relies on language to recreate those feelings. It demands to be seen, to be looked at, to be cared for. We look at the book, and it looks back, and because of our engagement with a text, we then free it through our touch, through our interpretation. Text and reader are no longer separate, but entangled agents as we learn from them and they—perhaps in their own way—learn from us as the language embodies new meaning through interpretation.

This practice of guidance, self-discovery, empowerment, and collaboration allows learners to work on their terms, while the teacher facilitates that learning, creates a space of care and engagement, to allow the student to flourish. We must both set high expectations and give them students space to learn, rather than demand the knowledge be immediately built into their schemas. Student choice, then, becomes an act of care and collaboration, where we work with the student to build their critical thinking and literacy by working through their own thinking. Doing so ensures that the work is “real, [is] passionate, [is] chosen…the questions remains whether or not we are harnessing this energy—these interests—in our classrooms (Roberts 123-124). Just as we are both looking at a text and being looked at, just as interpretation is fluid within the reader and within the language, student-centered pedagogy stems from the acknowledgement that students and teachers have distinct roles in the classroom, and yet, are entangled in the process of learning. I can acknowledge a student’s needs and a student’s choices and design my instruction that relinquishes some authority to drive that student’s learning; in return, the student—like the narrator in Jazz—is allowed to be free.

We are both collaborating, coexisting, learning. I meet my student where they are, giving them the space to breath and rest so that they may take back control of their learning, that they may work on their terms in a way that supports them. It is both my classroom and theirs; they are free to learn, and I am free to measure that learning, even if the measurement occurs a week later, for I know the outcome will be better with the student driving the experience. With this collaborative entanglement, we can see deeply the dangers exclusion poses in our classrooms, and the role the teacher has in their unique power to create safe spaces from which the student’s full potential can bloom.

In Paradise, Morrison entrenches us in the dangerous position of refusing to learn, refusing to collaborate; but the Convent as a single entity composed of individual characters—both singular and multiple—ushers us towards noticing the acts of care that go into uplifting and accepting the other and the learning that propagates from that comfort. In the novel, community is both harmful and healing, as Ruby commits acts of collaborative violence, and the Convent dedicates itself to rest and healing. At the center of the Convent’s evocation of paradise, however, lies Connie’s paradoxical stance of both power and submission; Morrison writes, “[w]ith the aristocratic gaze of the blind she sweeps the women’s faces and says, ‘I call myself Consolata Sosa. If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for.’” As a result, with “Consolata in charge, like a new and revised Reverend Mother, feeding them bloodless food and water alone to quench their thirst, they altered. They had to be reminded of the moving bodies they wear” (Paradise 262-263). Connie embodies the role the teacher takes as an authoritative figure, a role model, by creating the space and conditions conducive to learning, the space that catalyzes self-discovery and self-definition. By being a facilitator of the women’s ability to find their desires and self-love—to find what they yearn and hunger for, find the power within their own moving bodies—Consolata shapes the Convent into Paradise as it blossoms into a safe space conducive to this discovery, a space defined by both the community and the singular individual as one.

In this sense, then, the learner and educator do not inhabit completely hierarchical positions; our goal is to use the authority we hold to elicit deep and careful acts of learning, to create environments where learning can be nurtured. A topical example of this lies in the festering damages to American education seen in book bans; Ashley Hope Perez writes that “when adults attack books that center people with LGBTQ+ or non-white or non-dominant identities, they broadcast the message that stories about “these people” are not fit for school” (Perez). This example displays both the harms of exclusion and the necessity of inclusion. Censorship drives students into shadowy margins, drives them to feel alone, to feel unvalued, to feel unsafe. As educators, we must—like Connie—uplift our students, that they may feel at home in an environment where they can flourish, where they can grow. We may have authority, but that power does not necessitate conformity or complacency; rather, we can mobilize our position to shape spaces of safety and comfort, spaces conducive to learning.

As a result, through Morrison’s trilogy, I have seen the ways in which educators can meet students where they are to offer responsive praise and empowerment, the ways in which the collaborative entanglement between the student and teacher creates learning, the ways in which the necessity of safe spaces that bloom from the authority educators hold, can change a classroom’s culture, redefine the education we design.

A student should not wither away in the performance of their work. A student should not feel so neglected that we forget to give them praise, forget to uplift them. A student should not feel so marginalized, so separated and excluded from their learning, that they feel unvalued. The student I was working with was at this point of collapse, this point where—like Sethe—they could either continue to bear the pressure of their learning or engage in some form of rest, some form of encouragement, some form of healing. In that moment, I wanted to give the student their space, show the student the self-worth within them, show the student that we are working together in their learning and that they can drive their education, that in my classroom they can find comfort in a space conducive to their learning. The alternative was to leave them behind, to let another sleepless night build and build until they snapped, until learning was no longer enriching and mindful, but instead violent and harmful. It is through the collaborative both/and lens of Morrison’s trilogy and the social-emotional designs of educative spaces that we can achieve this empowerment, and shape a pedagogy that uplifts and facilitates learning.

Works Cited

Gallagher, Kelly and Penny Kittle. 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. Heinemann, 2018.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 1987.

—. Jazz. Vintage, 1992.

—. Paradise. Vintage, 1997.

Perez, Ashley Hope. “DEFEATING THE CENSOR WITHIN: How to Hold Your Stand for Youth Access to Literature in the Face of School Book Bans.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 50, no. 5, 2022, p. 34–.

Roberts, Nora. A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student Centered Learning, and Choice. Heinemann, 2018.