Toni Morrison’s most recent work of fiction, God Help the Child, begins and ends with an actual hue and cry. A light-skinned mother takes one look at her newborn daughter, and: “She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. Tar is the closest I can think of, yet her hair don’t go with the skin.” In a whitewashed world where skin tone decides who gets hired first and fired last, the baby’s freak complexion not only seals her fate, but also breaks her parents’ marriage to pieces. Her own mother prophesies that colour will be the cross that she will always carry. And so yet another young spine caves in even before it has had a chance to stand up straight. Morrison is talking about a new generation of African-Americans, of course, but how sordidly, instantly recognisable it all is for a reader several thousand miles across the globe, where euphemisms such as “wheatish” and “dusky” still hover like giant Rorschach blots over us Indians.
Time passes and soon the little midnight-black girl grows up and grows out of her mother’s martinet shadow. By now, she has also grown a thick skin, fortified by the many acts of thoughtlessness by schoolmates and strangers alike: “So I let the name-calling, the bullying travel like poison, like lethal viruses through my veins with no antibiotics available. Which, actually, was a good thing now I think of it because I built up immunity so tough that not being a ‘nigger girl’ was all I needed to win. I became a deep dark beauty who doesn’t need Botox for kissable lips or tanning spas to hide a deathlike pallor. And I don’t need silicon in my butt. I sold my elegant blackness to all those childhood ghosts and now they pay me for it. I have to say, forcing those tormentors-the real ones and others like them-to drool with envy when they see me is more than payback. It’s glory.”
With the resolve of the hard-bitten, she finds herself a job in a cosmetics line (that most skin-deep of trades!), learns to slough off her natural diffidence and get comfortable in her own liquorice skin. Armed with a brand-new name and a wardrobe that stocks every conceivable shade of white (“ivory, oyster, alabaster, paper white, snow, cream, ecru, Champagne, ghost, bone”), she finds that she is just the right pigment for an industry where “black is the new black”. She discovers poise, confidence and more than one shade of love-casual flings that have nothing to do with commitment (“sort of like Diet Coke-deceptively sweet minus nutrition”) and then an intimate, all-consuming passion in one six-month-long draught.
Just when you think the planets have aligned and poetic justice is close at hand, a sentence of six words hits harder than a fist and becomes her undoing, all too literally. The self-assured corporate woman begins to come undone in a surreal unspooling of spirit and body, a regression that puts you in mind of Benjamin Button. Shorn of any sense of self-worth, she sheds the markers of her femininity one by one like so much snakeskin (sans pudenda, sans pierced earlobes, sans breasts, sans everything, with apologies to the Bard). It seems she will soon be back to square one: back to being the scared, scarred little eight-year-old who will do just about anything for a murmur of approval from the person who once expressly told her “Don’t call me mamma”. And then the plot thickens.
The narrative of God Help the Child is held together by a robust chorus of women who make a patchwork quilt of perspectives, storytelling, confessing, remembering and reinventing in turns. There’s Sweetness, who delivers fervent guilt-edged mom-ologues aplenty, insisting that her too-strict upbringing of her only daughter was “All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do. I really do. I think she understands now. I think so.” There’s Bride, the tar baby-turned-black swan, who decides to milk her stunning skin tone to maximum effect by wearing only white; it seems at one point that she is fated not only to be a bride in eternal white but also a bride in eternal wait. There’s Brooklyn the “white girl with blond dreadlocks”, Bride’s colleague and confidante, with her own complicated baggage of strife and struggle. There’s Sofia Huxley who moves seamlessly from a Christian background steeped in penitence to serving a life sentence in a penitentiary. And there’s precocious, green-eyed Rain who has been through far too much heartache far too early in life; yet she’s the kind of tough cookie who can say with impunity: “Evelyn is trying to teach me. She calls it home-schooling. I call it home-drooling and home-fooling.”
Brooding darkly in the wings is Booker Starbern, the one man Bride has bared her soul to: “I spilled my heart to him; he told me nothing about himself. I talked; he listened. Then he split, left without a word.” There’s a touch of delectable irony in the fact that Booker is a trumpet player, and yet the last one to blow the trumpet on his own long-held secrets. Until a couple of stark truths masquerading as white lies emerge explosively in the dÃ©nouement.
In God Help the Child, every thought, word and deed of a parent gets imprinted for life in the hot wax of the child’s psyche. Private hells are toted around in long-suffering silence for years, sometimes decades, and moments of wisdom arrive almost always only in hindsight. At first glance, the stories of Sweetness, Bride, Brooklyn, Sofia et al appear to offer neither solace nor solution; instead, rhetorical questions crisscross the storyline at every turn: Why are some people fated to fumble their way through life unhappily ever after? What on earth makes some parents root for discipline as a stand-in for good old unconditional love? Why do they pick at the scabs of past failings, only to unerringly open fresh wounds for their children? Just how far can a child go to earn the attention, and approval, of a clueless parent? And why does love of any size, shape or form come saddled with that little asterisk that always screams “conditions apply”?
Slim enough to pass off as a novella yet packed with the intensity of a screenplay, God Help the Child is as lucid as it is lyrical, and as much a triumph of Toni Morrison’s ventriloquism as it is a testament to the true colours of most equal opportunity societies, even today.
Abhirami Sriram is a Chennai-based writer and translator