By Toni Morrison
Knopf; 320 pages; $25
Klansmen were not the only people who resented integration. African-Americans who lived as serfs in the deep South saw Brown vs. Board of Education in a favorable light. But those who had thrived in functional black communities with strong schools and civic organizations–doing just fine without white folks–were understandably ambivalent about desegregation. Their misgivings rarely reached the mainstream media. A notable exception was the black novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1901-1960), who had grown up in the “Pure Negro Town” of Eatonville, Fla., which boasted a charter, marshal, mayor, council, plenty to eat–and streets so peaceful that there was no jail. Hurston wrote that she was too busy eating well and sharpening her oyster knife to feel victimized by racism. Black liberals attacked her bitterly when she described the Brown decision as an insult to black communities like hers, which had educated their own just fine.
Toni Morrison has been praised for using magical realism in the style of Gabriel García Márquez and for the literary black feminism she established almost single-handedly in novels like The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), and Song of Solomon (1977). But magic and feminism are only surface features of Morrison’s work. Her novels are an archaeology of strong black communities like the ones she and Hurston were born into. Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, a stone’s throw from Oberlin College, a stop on the underground railroad. In Morrison’s youth, the region would have been heady with this heritage, filled with descendants of blacks who felt themselves equal if not superior to whites and who had made self-reliance into a religion.
Communities like this one faded with desegregation, which sent middle-class blacks scurrying to white suburbs. By the 1960s, even the memory of flourishing towns like Hurston’s Eatonville had been erased, replaced by crime-ridden ghettoes that ‘60s radicals tried to palm off as the only legitimate black experience.
Morrison reconstructed those lost communities magnificently in her early novels. Sula is my hands-down favorite, a crystalline work about the bond between a pair of girlhood friends, the timid conformist Nel and the rebel Sula Peace. Sula is a force of nature, the alpha and omega of the town. After an absence of 10 years, she returns accompanied by a plague of robins who coat the town in shit and fall dead from the skies. The novel strikes a creative balance between Morrison’s affection for magical reality and the need to tell a straightforward story of small-town pettiness, jealousies, and affections.
Morrison’s novels since then have revealed a growing tension between the two. Paradise finds that tension more pronounced than ever. The novel has a difficult, Faulknerian style–with twists, turns, and ghosts. There is beautiful writing here. (to read a sample.) But the historical events that inspired the novel remain submerged and inaccessible, except to those of us who know them well.
Paradise focuses on the fictional town of Ruby, Okla., founded by blacks who came West to escape the horrors of Reconstruction. Morrison has given the town’s founders a biblical stature. But they are almost certainly based on the founders of a very real town called Langston, Okla., settled by Negroes in 1890 and named for the black educator and Reconstruction congressman, John M. Langston. (He graduated from Oberlin College, was Ohio’s first black lawyer, and would have been a familiar figure in the local history to which Morrison was exposed as a child.) Long before it became a state, Oklahoma was Indian territory and a haven for runaway slaves. Langston’s founders convinced about 2,000 Negroes to settle there. But the town shrank dramatically when the proud Negro residents had exhausted their savings with no way of making a living. With prospects dwindling, the founders themselves decamped for Guthrie, the territorial capital.
Paradise recounts a similar move for the people who eventually founded Ruby, but attributes the migration to the fact that an earlier settlement had become too worldly and corrupt. In Ruby, founding families control the local bank and mete out justice as they see fit. The town is lavishly prosperous, sharing food and resources and money such that need is unknown. The nearest municipality is 90 miles away, and outsiders are profoundly unwelcome. (A white family that happens through town ends up trapped in a blizzard and is eaten by buzzards come the spring thaw.) One leading citizen criticizes the NAACP as a bunch of “stir-up Negroes” for bringing desegregation suits in Oklahoma. The families evaluate prospective spouses on the basis of skin color, and only the blackest of the black are welcome. Mulattoes are despised as mongrels.
The isolation pays off in immortality, for no one dies in Ruby. But inbreeding brings sterility and spiritual rot. The town’s first family reaches the end of the line when neither of its scions produces an heir. Such children as there are grow troublesome during the ‘60s, when they rebel against tradition. Vexed by discord, the founding families find a convenient scapegoat in a colony of single women that springs up at a ruined Catholic home for Indian girls 15 miles away.
Morrison has always regarded the impulse to murder as part and parcel of love, particularly a mother’s love for her children. In Beloved (1987), for example, an escaped slave slits her infant’s throat to prevent its capture by slave hunters. In Sula, a mother douses her son with kerosene and burns him alive after he becomes a heroin addict and petty thief. Through murder, the mothers deliver their children–and sometimes themselves–from evil.
Paradise reiterates these themes. Before running away from home in Newark, N.J., to the Catholic home–known locally as the Convent–for instance, a character named Mavis allows her twin infants to smother to death in the family car. Mavis believes the deaths are accidental, but circumstances suggest that the act was at least unconsciously volitional. Mavis has dreamt of an incubus (clearly a child) taking her blood. She is frightened to death of her remaining children, whom she suspects of plotting to murder her.
The Convent’s other residents are refugees from bad marriages or abuse of one kind or another. The place also serves as a haven for Ruby citizens who need a break from the town’s claustrophobic sameness. An influential townsman takes a lover there. A mother driven mad by caring for a disabled child recovers there. The Convent’s spiritual life revolves around Consolata, a benevolent witch who uses her powers to bring a dying townsman back to life. But the stallions who run Ruby see the place as purely evil. To them, the women represent the danger and disorder that must be expunged if the town is to survive. The men attack, murdering some women and scattering others to the winds. The women do not go quietly, extracting a toll on their way out.
Morrison uses both Ruby and its opposite, the Convent, to critique the utopian ideal as dangerous, stultifying, and illusory. The moral of the story, simply put, is: Till your garden where you are; good and evil exist in similar quantities almost everywhere.
This, of course, is a drastic simplification of a complex book that tells its stories from several perspectives, each in its own chapter. Morrison thickens the ambiguity by avoiding literal references to history and even physical descriptions that might fix characters in time and space. These omissions blur the characters and allow them to operate at the level of myth. But the absence of workaday and historical detail keeps the reader at a distance; many of Morrison’s characters are impenetrable to the mind’s eye. The lack of literal historical context also allows us to leave Paradise without learning about the black Western settlements that sprang up during Reconstruction, or the so-called “exodusters” who left the South to seek their fortunes on the frontier. The history is so little known–and so fascinating–it could easily have served as this novel’s point of departure, or the spine of a novel all its own.
Morrison certainly has earned the right to be as idiosyncratic as, say, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, or William Faulkner. But I would love to see her talents turned to a cultural history of the eras and places she treats so compellingly in her novels. She has recaptured those communities beautifully in fiction. It would be even more rewarding to see her write about them in fact.