Toni Morrison’s Paradise deals with African American class privilege and some associated questions of skin colour and authenticity. The narrative is set in 1970s, an all-black town of Oklahoma and African American identity there. The novel is complex and layered, moving into times with flashbacks. It paints a picture of the "Old Fathers," who had first established the town of Haven, and the "New Fathers," their children, who established Ruby in an effort to escape what they perceive as the ills of society. They seek to isolate themselves in a kind of new Garden of Eden and thus the novel uncovers various ways that the new perfect society destroys itself. Seeing the Convent outside its borders as a threat to its existence, the townsmen of Ruby destroy it.
The novel shows a rift growing between comparatively well-off ‘elite’ African American and the impoverished section. The question the novelist raises is of black racial loyalty, an essentially intra-racial question. The novel is, on the other hand, a commentary on White American exceptionalism and the puritan roots of American republic. We can associate it with “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” by Franz Fanon, in which he shows that the newly emerging middle class intermediaries are more dangerous and self-destructive for the nation than the colonisers.
The novel starts with the sentence: “They shoot the white girl first” (Morrison, 2014). The white girl here is one of the five women living in an abandoned mansion called “the Convent”, because it was once run by Catholic Nuns. These are considered to be a threat to the stability of Ruby and the nine leaders of Ruby go to eliminate that threat. Ruby is an all-black town and the convent is racially integrated by at least one white girl. Black patriarchy is seen overlapping the interrogation of a form of nationalism obsessed with racial exclusion. Ruby was established in 1949 from the remnants of another Oklahoma town called Haven, founded by nine black families in 1890. The leaders are symbolic of that hereditary. These families were like wanderers, who were denied entry in many towns and finally they were denied in another town called ‘Fairly’. Fairly is peopled by light-skinned middle class blacks- 8-rock skin colour, a deep deep level in coal mines. They were blue-black people, tall and graceful. These people have a blood rule, i.e. 8-rocks marry only other 8-rocks rather than introduce any white or part-white genes into their families.
Pat Best is the self-appointed historian of Ruby, son of Roger Best, who marries out of his cast, a hazel-eyed girl called Delia. Delia’s death in childbirth is interpreted as a punishment for persuading Roger to violate the blood-rule. Her death is used in political purpose, to keep their community so called ‘pure’. This incident becomes instance of inter-racial oppression, which was earlier a history of black woman’s sexual exploitation and now it is in reverse. Their proximity to whites gives them the license to exploit and abuse:
They were proud that none of their women had ever worked in a white man’s kitchen or nursed a white child. Although field labour was harder and carried no status, they believed the rape of women who worked in white kitchens was if not a certainty a distinct possibility- neither of which they could bear to contemplate. So they exchanged that danger for the relative safety of the brutal work (Morrison, 2014).
- C.M. Jenkins (2006). Pure Black: Class, Color and Intraracial Politics in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. Modern Fiction Studies 52(2): pp.270-296
- K. Dalsgard (2001). The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison's Paradise. African American Review, 35(2): p.233.
- R. Davidson (2001). Racial Stock and 8-Rocks: Communal Historiography in Toni Morrison's "Paradise". Twentieth Century Literature 47(3): pp.355-373
- T. Morrison. Paradise. New York: Vintage International, 2014.