God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Posted on: November 26, 2015

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

Lula Ann Bridewell leaves her mother's house, changes her name to Bride and dresses only in white one word, one colour, one startling, spectacularly beautiful, confident and successful woman, who was once a child desperate for her mother's love.

Bride has grown into herself once she's left home, so much so that she's almost a caricature of what it means to have a successful career: designer clothing, driving a Jaguar, running a popular, hip business that sells beauty, dates with professional athletes and actors, traffic-stopping good looks, and currently, a smart, handsome and uncomplicated boyfriend. But of course, Bride has her own albatross that she's been carrying around since she was a child, as does everyone else in Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's newest book, God Help the Child.

As a child, Bride then Lula Ann is a shock to her parents when she is born. Bride's mother Sweetness is horrified at her very darkskinned baby, since both she and her husband are "high yellow". "You might think she's a throwback, but a throwback to what?" asks Sweetness, whose husband accuses her of adultery and walks out, leaving her to raise their child as best she knows how. It is with Sweetness's sudden, urgent denial of blame that the novel starts: "I didn't do it and have no idea how it happened," she says about Bride, who was "so black she scared [her]"; "Midnight black, Sudanese black". Sweetness assumes the "tough love" stance, but she raises Bride with no affection at all, insisting that she "had to be very, very strict. Lula Ann needed to learn how to behave, how to keep her head down and not to make trouble."

The fact that Sweetness assumes a black child must hide because of her colour and race, speaks volumes about the racism that can be inherent within a community of colour, and how insidiously it has crept into the psyche of so many people who want to "pass" as white, who refuse contact with any of their darker skinned, more obviously black family.

Sweetness justifies this, explaining "some of you probably think it's a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin colour the lighter, the better in social clubs, neighbourhoods, churches, sororities, even coloured schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity? How else can you avoid being spit on in a drugstore, shoving elbows at the bus stop, walking in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, charged a nickel at the grocer's for a paper bag that's free to a white shopper?" It's hard to argue with her logic if you have ever faced any form of racism, because it isalways easier to not stand out. It may not be the right thing to do, but it is undeniably easier.

Sweetness can hardly be blamed for her thoughts she, too, has been shaped by her society, one in which a person with lighter skin can climb higher, achieve more, be accepted graciously. And so she sees Bride's skin colour as a burden, something the child will never be able to leave behind: "I don't care how many times she changes her name. Her colour is a cross she will always carry. But it's not my fault. It's not my fault. It's not my fault. It's not.

The repeated refrain of 'not my fault' can be heard echoing throughout God Help the Child.

Just as Sweetness refuses to accept that by raising Bride with no affection physical or verbal she has played a large part in whom or what Bride will become, Bride, too, is unable to accept that in her desperation for maternal approval she did something terrible and cruel as a young child.

During her entirely loveless childhood, Bride is so desperate for her mother's touch that even being beaten by her was enough: "I used to pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch," she says, eventually admitting that she played a crucial part in ruining someone's life because she was desperate for her mother's affection and attention. It's entirely heartbreaking all around Sweetness' treatment of her child, Bride's desperate lies and the waste of an innocent life.

As an adult, Bride — "all sable and ice. A panther in the snow" uses exactly what Sweetness thought was a burden as her power. She is empowered by her blackness, her physical beauty and makes just as much effort to stand out as her mother did to hide her away.

She and her boyfriend Booker break up when he doesn't understand why Bride wants to meet a woman who is being let out of jail that day, taking to her money and gifts, hoping to make this woman's transition back to the outside world easier. Is there some guilt that Bride harbours? Something that makes her go to this stranger, whose imprisonment she may have had something to do with? When Bride's meeting with the recently released prisoner does not go as planned, she is forced to take time off. Alone at home, she is haunted by Booker's departure. Strange things start happening to her, odd and sudden physical changes that make no sense. She notices that some of her bodyhair has vanished-not removed, but gone, as if it had never been there at all. A little later she finds that her ear piercings have sealed up. Slowly, her body changes in other ways, almost as if she is returning to a pre-adolescent physique.

"I'm scared," says Bride when we first meet her. "Something bad is happening to me. I feel like I'm melting away", and we see this slow melt, this slow unravelling of her carefully constructed life in wonderful Morrison simplicity. But the physical changes, these quasi-fantastical elements that are the mysterious, slightly magical things many readers love Morrison's narratives for, this great freeing mix of magic and harsh reality is what we don't get enough of here. In God Help the Child, these elements just feel a little less developed than they could be, with a lot left to unpack; an explored depth that could have led to a richer narrative.

But that's not to suggest that there is no emotional death in God Help the Child, obviously. This is Morrison, after all she's incapable of writing badly or flatly. Evenher grocery list probably has a deep understanding of human nature, of frailty, pain and of the trauma that holds us back.

When trying to understand his brother's murder, Booker thinks about a tribe in Africa that lashed the dead body to the back of the murderer. "That would certainly be justice to carry the rotting corpse around as a physical burden as well as public shame and damnation", he thinks. But it isn't a murderer who carries this albatross it is Booker, unable to move on, unable to form new relationships that are not tainted by this weight. Bride, much in the same way, finds her burden weighing down her future, too. It's when they both find something beautiful, something true that they can appreciate, when they understand the truth people owe each other, that they realise the care we must take to not irreparably damage each other, especially our children. As Sweetness says, "what you do to children matters. And they might never forget".

And memory, writes Morrison, "is the worst thing about healing".

God Help the Child has a contemporary setting, which is rare for Morrison. And while it occasionally feels like a sketch beautiful and evocative, thoughtful and intelligent but something that could have been a bigger, deeper work of art -it still holds so much of what Morrison is loved for: beautiful, simple and evocative writing, rhythms that lilt and sway in the best of ways, and the ever-present questions about race, trauma, abuse, human frailty and the albatrosses we all bear and sometimes cannot bear to be free of. Of course, the title of the book also recalls the wonderfully intimate, evocative Billy Holiday song, "God Bless the Child", a song she wrote after an argument with her mother.

A note on the cover: it is rare to have a "Sudanese black", beautiful female character as a protagonist in fiction and so there is an immediate appreciation for Bride`s existence. It`s also quite rare to have a book cover with a black woman on it as the UK edition of God Help the Child does, a black woman so unabashedly, proudly owning the space, not an `other` and not abject in any way, but instead powerful.