Nobel Laureate Dr. Toni Morrison: Her New Novel, “God Help The Child”, 2015, Chapter “Sweetness”.
The Pulitzer Prize 1988— The American Book Award 1988— The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993— The Presidential Medal of Freedom 2012— “100 Greatest Writers of All Time”— Author and Professor Dr. Toni Morrison is the first and only African-American woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Dr. Toni Morrison autographing her books after her discussion at the New York Public Library (NYPL), moderated by Junot Diaz, New York, December 13, 2013. Photograph by Lisa Pacino.
Nobel Laureate Dr. Toni Morrison doesn’t need to write another book. She’s published ten celebrated fiction novels, among other extensive and comprehensive bodies of work; and she won every award there is to win as an author. Her 11th novel, entitled God Help the Child, has been announced for its official release date, April 21, 2015; this novel reveals she has written the best book of 2015.
“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” —Dr. Toni Morrison
Photograph and Article by Celebrity Photojournalist Lisa Pacino of Under The Duvet Productions, NY. All Rights Reserved.
Sweetness a Chapter from God Help the Child, 2015, the New Novel by Nobel Laureate Dr. Toni Morrison
It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father. Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color. Tar is the closest I can think of, yet her hair don’t go with the skin. It’s different—straight but curly, like the hair on those naked tribes in Australia. You might think she’s a throwback, but a throwback to what? You should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white, married a white man, and never said another word to any one of her children. Any letter she got from my mother or my aunts she sent right back, unopened. Finally they got the message of no message and let her be. Almost all mulatto types and quadroons did that back in the day—if they had the right kind of hair, that is. Can you imagine how many white folks have Negro blood hiding in their veins? Guess. Twenty per cent, I heard. My own mother, Lula Mae, could have passed easy, but she chose not to. She told me the price she paid for that decision. When she and my father went to the courthouse to get married, there were two Bibles, and they had to put their hands on the one reserved for Negroes. The other one was for white people’s hands. The Bible! Can you beat it? My mother was a housekeeper for a rich white couple. They ate every meal she cooked and insisted she scrub their backs while they sat in the tub, and God knows what other intimate things they made her do, but no touching of the same Bible.
Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can we avoid being spit on in a drugstore, elbowed at the bus stop, having to walk in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, being charged a nickel at the grocer’s for a paper bag that’s free to white shoppers? Let alone all the name-calling. I heard about all of that and much, much more. But because of my mother’s skin color she wasn’t stopped from trying on hats or using the ladies’ room in the department stores. And my father could try on shoes in the front part of the shoe store, not in a back room. Neither one of them would let themselves drink from a “Colored Only” fountain, even if they were dying of thirst.
I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward the baby, Lula Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale like all babies’, even African ones, but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute, because—just for a few seconds—I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn’t do that, no matter how much I wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible color. I even thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace. But I was scared to be one of those mothers who leave their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could explain. Twins, I believe—one white, one colored. But I don’t know if it’s true. All I know is that, for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home.
My husband, Louis, is a porter, and when he got back off the rails he looked at me like I really was crazy and looked at the baby like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn’t a cussing man, so when he said, “God damn! What the hell is this?” I knew we were in trouble. That was what did it—what caused the fights between me and him. It broke our marriage to pieces. We had three good years together, but when she was born he blamed me and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger—more than that, an enemy. He never touched her.
I never did convince him that I ain’t never, ever fooled around with another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him her blackness had to be from his own family—not mine. That was when it got worse, so bad he just up and left and I had to look for another, cheaper place to live. I did the best I could. I knew enough not to take her with me when I applied to landlords, so I left her with a teen-age cousin to babysit. I didn’t take her outside much, anyway, because, when I pushed her in the baby carriage, people would lean down and peek in to say something nice and then give a start or jump back before frowning. That hurt. I could have been the babysitter if our skin colors were reversed. It was hard enough just being a colored woman—even a high-yellow one—trying to rent in a decent part of the city. Back in the nineties, when Lula Ann was born, the law was against discriminating in who you could rent to, but not many landlords paid attention to it. They made up reasons to keep you out. But I got lucky with Mr. Leigh, though I know he upped the rent seven dollars from what he’d advertised, and he had a fit if you were a minute late with the money.
I told her to call me “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” or “Mama.” It was safer. Her being that black and having what I think are too thick lips and calling me “Mama” would’ve confused people. Besides, she has funny-colored eyes, crow black with a blue tint—something witchy about them, too.
So it was just us two for a long while, and I don’t have to tell you how hard it is being an abandoned wife. I guess Louis felt a little bit bad after leaving us like that, because a few months later on he found out where I’d moved to and started sending me money once a month, though I never asked him to and didn’t go to court to get it. His fifty-dollar money orders and my night job at the hospital got me and Lula Ann off welfare. Which was a good thing. I wish they would stop calling it welfare and go back to the word they used when my mother was a girl. Then it was called “relief.” Sounds much better, like it’s just a short-term breather while you get yourself together. Besides, those welfare clerks are mean as spit. When finally I got work and didn’t need them anymore, I was making more money than they ever did. I guess meanness filled out their skimpy paychecks, which was why they treated us like beggars. Especially when they looked at Lula Ann and then back at me—like I was trying to cheat or something. Things got better but I still had to be careful. Very careful in how I raised her. I had to be strict, very strict. Lula Ann needed to learn how to behave, how to keep her head down and not to make trouble. I don’t care how many times she changes her name. Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.
Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I treated Lula Ann when she was little. But you have to understand: I had to protect her. She didn’t know the world. With that skin, there was no point in being tough or sassy, even when you were right. Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired. She didn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh and try to trick her. I once saw a girl nowhere near as dark as Lula Ann who couldn’t have been more than ten years old tripped by one of a group of white boys and when she tried to scramble up another one put his foot on her behind and knocked her flat again. Those boys held their stomachs and bent over with laughter. Long after she got away, they were still giggling, so proud of themselves. If I hadn’t been watching through the bus window I would have helped her, pulled her away from that white trash. See, if I hadn’t trained Lula Ann properly she wouldn’t have known to always cross the street and avoid white boys. But the lessons I taught her paid off, and in the end she made me proud as a peacock.
I wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. 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.
Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of bold and confident. Each time she came to see me, I forgot just how black she really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes.
Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters. And they might never forget. As soon as she could, she left me all alone in that awful apartment. She got as far away from me as she could: dolled herself up and got a big-time job in California. She don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long.
I prefer this place—Winston House—to those big, expensive nursing homes outside the city. Mine is small, homey, cheaper, with twenty-four-hour nurses and a doctor who comes twice a week. I’m only sixty-three—too young for pasture—but I came down with some creeping bone disease, so good care is vital. The boredom is worse than the weakness or the pain, but the nurses are lovely. One just kissed me on the cheek when I told her I was going to be a grandmother. Her smile and her compliments were fit for someone about to be crowned. I showed her the note on blue paper that I got from Lula Ann—well, she signed it “Bride,” but I never pay that any attention. Her words sounded giddy. “Guess what, S. I am so, so happy to pass along this news. I am going to have a baby. I’m too, too thrilled and hope you are, too.” I reckon the thrill is about the baby, not its father, because she doesn’t mention him at all. I wonder if he is as black as she is. If so, she needn’t worry like I did. Things have changed a mite from when I was young. Blue-blacks are all over TV, in fashion magazines, commercials, even starring in movies.
There is no return address on the envelope. So I guess I’m still the bad parent being punished forever till the day I die for the well-intended and, in fact, necessary way I brought her up. I know she hates me. Our relationship is down to her sending me money. I have to say I’m grateful for the cash, because I don’t have to beg for extras, like some of the other patients. If I want my own fresh deck of cards for solitaire, I can get it and not need to play with the dirty, worn one in the lounge. And I can buy my special face cream. But I’m not fooled. I know the money she sends is a way to stay away and quiet down the little bit of conscience she’s got left.
If I sound irritable, ungrateful, part of it is because underneath is regret. All the little things I didn’t do or did wrong. I remember when she had her first period and how I reacted. Or the times I shouted when she stumbled or dropped something. True. I was really upset, even repelled by her black skin when she was born and at first I thought of . . . No. I have to push those memories away—fast. No point. I know I did the best for her under the circumstances. When my husband ran out on us, Lula Ann was a burden. A heavy one, but I bore it well.
Yes, I was tough on her. You bet I was. By the time she turned twelve going on thirteen, I had to be even tougher. She was talking back, refusing to eat what I cooked, primping her hair. When I braided it, she’d go to school and unbraid it. I couldn’t let her go bad. I slammed the lid and warned her about the names she’d be called. Still, some of my schooling must have rubbed off. See how she turned out? A rich career girl. Can you beat it?
Now she’s pregnant. Good move, Lula Ann. If you think mothering is all cooing, booties, and diapers you’re in for a big shock. Big. You and your nameless boyfriend, husband, pickup—whoever—imagine, Oooh! A baby! Kitchee kitchee koo! Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works, and how it changes when you are a parent.
Good luck, and God help the child.
—Dr. Toni Morrison, God Help the Child, 2015
Dr. Toni Morrison, God Help the Child; official release date, April 21, 2015.
Sweetness a Chapter from God Help the Child, 2015, the New Novel by Dr. Toni Morrison as appeared in The New Yorker, February 9, 2015