CELEBRATION OF BLACKNESS IN TONI MORRISON’S PARADISE

By Uttam Boruah


Novel, as a resuscitation of ‘epic’ genre, gives a vivid picture of the society of the time it talks about. Toni Morrison is one of the greatest living writers in the world’s literary scene. She, in her novels gives various issues of the society she is in. Here, in this paper our sole objective will be to discuss Blackness as a major issue in African American fiction with special reference to her Paradise.

Toni Morrison is well-known for her concern about feminist issues. But, being a black writer she mostly writes about the Black people and their plight in the modern era in a society, in which these people are victimised under chain gangs. This is one kind of ‘othering’ in Foucault’s words- a device primarily used for muting resistant voices which leads these people to madness. Memory plays a vital role in the novels of Morrison: both individual and collective. Collective memory of plight and mass-suffering gives her novels a new dimension. Like Unoka says in Things Fall Apart, failure is “more difficult and bitter when one fails alone”. The failure in protesting and sufferings which are shown in her novels are mostly collective. These sufferings and pain are “too deep for tears”, as depicted in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Like Ellison, using humour to portray the black man’s plight, Toni Morrison uses this novel (Paradise) to celebrate Blackness not as something lacking, but a symbol of inner power, which no one can predict of. The blacks start looking at themselves as Black, but not Non-white.

The novel tells the story of the tension between the men of Ruby, Oklahoma, a Black town founded in 1950 and a group of women who lived in a former convent seventeen miles away from the town. The opening chapter is "Ruby" which is named after the town. The other chapters are named after some of the female characters, but they are not simply about the women. Each chapter includes flashbacks to crucial events from the town's history in addition to the backstory of the titular character. The women in the Convent are Connie (Consolata), Mavis, Gigi (Grace), Seneca, and Pallas (Divine). All these women are given a chapter. The townswomen who receive chapters are Pat (Patricia), Lone, and Save-Marie. The focus on the women characters highlights the ways through which the novel justifies the gender differences between the patriarchal rigidity of the townsmen and the clandestine connections between the townswomen and the women at the Convent. The narration serves as an alternative voice to the actions in which the townsmen provide. Though the novel has chapters named after specific women, it focuses on the people in the town and different hardships they have faced. The story also shows a division between the younger generation and the older, about the change and the refusal to understand for the sake of the past.

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).

Delia’s light skin becomes symbol of sexual exploitation, in later generations it becomes the symbol for sexual degeneracy. Later Menus Jury brings home a redbone girl, who is described as “like a fast woman than a bride”. Patricia Best's daughter, Billie Delia, is first referenced in the novel; she is described as "the fastest girl in town…” (Morrison, 2014). Billie Delia is actually a virgin, while her 8-rock best friend Arnette has sex at fourteen and becomes pregnant out of wedlock. Yet because "skin color trumps morality every time in Ruby"—indeed, because skin color concretizes morality in the town—Billie Delia's sexual depravity is assumed. The novel is a comment on white American history. “Ruby’s citizens have created a neat reversal of the western colour hierarchy that privileges whiteness and derides blackness and ranks those in between according to how they fall on the phenotypic spectrum”(Jenkins, 2006).

Outside Ruby, these people have to suffer. But in Ruby, they cultivate the same colour norms due to which they suffer outside. Therefore, 8-rocks Soane Morgan believes her sons to be safer in Vietnam than in any city of the US. 8-rocks have little power outside the confines of their tiny little hamlet.

Deacon and Steward are undisputed leaders of Ruby, who lead the assault on the convent in 1976. As boys, they accompanied their father, uncles and brothers on the Second Grand Tour.

In one of the prosperous [towns] he [Deacon] and Steward watched nineteen Negro ladies arrange themselves on the steps of the town hall. They wore summer dresses of material the lightness, the delicacy of which neither of them had ever seen. . . . Their waists were not much bigger than their necks. Laughing and teasing, they preened for a photographer lifting his head from beneath a black cloth only to hide under it again. Following a successful pose, the ladies broke apart in small groups, bending their tiny waists and rippling with laughter, walking arm in arm. . . . Slender feet turned and tipped in thin leather shoes. Their skin, creamy and luminous in the afternoon sun, took away his breath. . . . Even now the verbena scent was clear; even now the summer dresses, the creamy, sunlit skin excited him (Morrison, 2014).

This incident can be related to Delia’s death. If we take the topic of Delia's "sunlight" skin and compare it to that surrounding the nineteen Negro ladies. Delia was a woman of "no last name," a woman "without people". In contrast, the nineteen Negro ladies bear the markers of wealth that elevate their status as members of a social aristocracy. They are described as ladies, not women and that clearly mark them as the property of wealthy men. Since they are the wives, mothers or daughters to wealthy men, they contrast with Delia. Oklahoma is Indians, Negroes and God mixed. All the rest is fodder. While whites and certain miscegenated blacks are dismissed by the 8-rocks as "fodder," the founding fathers of Ruby seem to find nothing disturbing in the mixture of Indian and Negro. But for the 8-rocks families, this is against racial purity and Native American ancestry. One of the important characters of the novel, Consolata, was adopted by a Catholic nun when she was nine, snatched from the "shit-strewn paths" of a city in Brazil. This nun brings the girl with her for her next assignment, the school for Indian girls in Oklahoma which will be known as the Convent. She lived there for more than fifty years till the assault on Ruby. Consolata had green eyes, tea-coloured hair and smoky, sun-down skin. Deacon begins an extramarital affair with her. The relationship ended up in the disgust emerging from Consolata who bites Deacon’s lip. She did not want to hurt him, but wanted to “go home”, a sense of kinship. Deacon fears being literally devoured—physically, emotionally—by Consolata's unregulated pleasure-seeking, consumed by "the red, Edenic forces of desire that could only topple society, destroy all responsibility, and produce a nation without families, without soldiers, without workers"(Samuel Delaney). 8-rock characters are devotees of Black Nationalist ideology, which Deacon does not want to risk for Consolata. Her response to this isolated and excluded city is: “What do I care about your raggedy little town?” (Morrison, 2014). Consolata identifies herself with Deacon in skin colour, but she never can attain the purity of the 8-rocks. Though she asserts her self-identification, due to the preoccupation, she is no longer accepted inside the biological sameness. Through the interaction of these characters, Morrison's novel thus critiques the Black Nationalist desire for a pure and purely authentic form of African American identity.

To conclude, we can say that this is a novel full of newer aspects in racial studies. The good old days are no longer there. In earlier times the main conflict was between the blacks and the whites. But Toni Morrison’s newer study in Paradise reveals another aspect of this same racial issue. People omit their regional identities and merge into one to fight colonization. When this process is over, they remember their smaller regional, cultural identities and start fighting among themselves. This novel sees no instances of white people, who play an important role in the novel. It also portrays multi-raciality: whether to call it an intra-racial conflict or inter-racial, is difficult to say. Tagore said that too much of narcissism makes one blind towards his own faults and the novel draws layers of interpretations towards it. Blackness is normally celebrated in the light of whiteness, but in Paradise layers or shades of Black are recurrent images. Thus Toni Morrison creates the impression that the whites are not always guilty of creating hierarchies in the society, it is human nature only that make people work in a certain way. Blacks become self-sufficient in the novel and the 8-rocks create layers in the society. Colour does not matter, what matters is the craving for power; colour does not create any hierarchy, what creates is the mind:

The Mind in its own Place
And in itself can make a Heaven of Hell and a Hell of Heaven.


Reference
  • 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.


About The author: The author, Uttam Boruah has recently completed M.A. in English from Tezpur University and has been serving as an assistant professor (contractual) at C.K.B. College, Teok. He spends most of his leisure time in reading novels, particularly of Assamese literature and society. He aims to be an author-translator and wants to involve in socio-cultural, economic and educational issues through his writings. He has been staying at Teok, Jorhat, Assam.

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