Toni Morrison doesn’t just write novels, she writes judgments, and we all stand naked before her—niggas and krackas alike. Mostly these judgments concern the violence our racialized culture has done to our collective humanity, and particularly the damage done to Black women’s sense of propriety, if not their good old-fashioned common sense. In these judgments, two kinds of Black women receive contempt: those who’ll do anything in the street, and those who’ll allow anything behind closed doors. But there’s a third Black female archetype here: practical, intimidating, indispensable—i.e., a witch. She knows the value of sacrifice and getting things done. Her life is one of purpose, service, sorrow, and defeat because her job is to keep chaos at bay, and in the world of American Negroes, that’s one thankless task.
Morrison’s new novel, Love, is devoted to the declamations of four women raised better prepared for life in the open rather than behind closed doors. Love is a judgment about how wild women are made, about the impropriety violation may produce. You may have read that it’s about a charismatic Black beachside resort owner, Bill Cosey, and his four women, but Cosey’s full story will have to await telling by someone for whom the women are not fascinating grist for Morrison’s judgmental mill.
Of the four, Heed and Christine could be called his women; Heed because he bought her from her father and married her when she was 11, Christine because she is his granddaughter, the only child of his only child. What binds Heed and Christine isn’t their love of Cosey but their hatred of him, which becomes a hatred of one another; in the world of proper American Negroes, there’s nothing more forbidden than for a Black woman to express a bad opinion of a successful Black man. Morrison has been tagged a Black-man-hater, but with the exception of still wondering why in God’s name the Pauls in Beloved had to fuck cows, I’ve never thought that. Being herself the kind of purposeful, binding-force Black woman who can get the job done, Morrison expects no more from Black men than she does anyone else; her judgments tend not to be prejudiced unless the case involves the kind of Black woman who’ll do anything in the street.
Call this character She Who Is Without Proper Womanly Boundaries. Call her Sula, call her Beloved. In Love her name is Junior. From the opening lines you know Judgment and Propriety are on the warpath; from the parsed and clipped sentences, you know Morrison has a few issues with this current generation of wild women.
The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum. . . . [B]ack in the seventies when women began to straddle chairs and dance crotch out on television, when all the magazines started featuring behinds and inner thighs as though that’s all there is to a woman, well, I shut up altogether. Before women agreed to spread in public, there used to be secrets . . .
Morrison unexpectedly puts her powers of chiseled description to work on sadomasochistic sex. Giving herself a grand opportunity with the proverbially “fast and loose” Junior, Love’s hot-young-thing bête noire, Morrison goes for blood.
In The Known World, Edward P. Jones miraculously does things with African American bondage that his predecessors haven’t. The dilemma in portraying American slavery is conveying the power (Ovidian and Orwellian, fantastic and fascistic) required to transform human beings into legal property, as well as the humanity of propertied beings. It’s a slippery slope. Too much Negro sentimentality and white savagery can lead to manipulative, shallow ruin; too much detachment, and you may as well be writing history rather than literature. The writers before Jones all recognized the need for a distancing device: Morrison got all Gothic, with violations and ghosts and Pyrrhic victories; Ishmael Reed worked the vein of sardonic irony and historical satire; Octavia E. Butler used the conceit of time travel to literalize the distance; Djuna Barnes Africanized and universalized man’s inhumanity to man. Jones seems to ring variations on the same, but he goes deeper, re-creating the mundane surrealism of antebellum slavery.
Using the knowledge that there were African Americans who owned other African Americans during slavery, Jones has found a distancing device capable of seductively rendering the banality of slavery’s evil. Arguably the most evil thing about slavery was its legal reduction of Black people to non-Being and then into pack mules, household appliances, and patriarchal conveniences. The Known World identifies the invisible price tags hung on individual slaves, as well as the law that normalizes their sale from white man to white man and renders the exchange so mundane that even a Frenchman jailed on murder charges can negotiate a price for two slaves from behind bars. Jones peppers this novel with plenty of similar anecdotes, letting us come to our own emotional conclusions about the daily experience of what being property means, with hardly a whiff of editorializing.
Jones also describes how Hartford-based insurance companies profited from slavery. Where he truly works miracles is in depicting the complexity of those designated slaves by the law—the folly and the absurdity of their every aching feeling rendered all the more tragic by their capricious, circumscribed lives.