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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Sweetness" by Toni Morrison

Issue: Feb. 9, 2015

Story (Novel Excerpt): "Sweetness"

Author: Toni Morrison

Rating: $/Meh

Review: I'm not a big fan of the novel excerpt as New Yorker fiction piece for the week, but here it is and here we are. "Sweetness" is a apparently excerpted from Morrison's upcoming novel God Help the Child, which, until I read this excerpt I was pretty excited to read or at least read about when it comes out.

Before we get into my critique, let me back track and use the standard disclaimer I use when I'm reviewing the work of an author I greatly respect (it's a way to cover my ass just in case I ever run into them at a fancy literary party someday. Granted, the chances of a.) my ending up at a party with Toni Morrison and b.) her having read my blog, are approximately equal to my winning the Powerball lotto and then getting struck by lighting. But I digress...), Toni Morrison is a probably one of the greatest American authors that ever lived. Far be it for me to stand here and trample upon a few pages from a chapter of one of her (extremely) late career novels, decades after she's carved a permanent place in American letters with works like Beloved, Jazz, and The Bluest Eye...but this story sounded like someone trying -- and failing -- to imitate Toni Morrison.

Just dealing with what we have here, and not attempting to decipher what the rest of the book is about or could be about, "Sweetness" is a monologue by an extremely light-skinned ("high yellow") black woman in her 60s but already in a retirement home, who lived through the Jim Crow south and is now looking back on her life. Specifically, the woman is looking back on the birth of her only daughter who, despite hers and her husband's light skin complexion, came out of the womb with extremely dark skin.

"She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black."

The child, Lula Ann, just by having dark black skin color, challenges all of her mother's carefully-groomed and tidied-up notions about blackness and whiteness and where she herself fits in. Her own high-yellow color had allowed her to distance herself from the black community enough so that she and hers could almost blend into white society at times. The mother even feels a sort of shame over Lula Ann, forcing the child to call her "Sweetness" instead of "mom." Sweetness' husband also leaves when Lula Ann is a child, perhaps in shame and revulsion at having had a dark-skinned baby.

The story is interesting to me primarily because it touches upon the idea of intra-race racism and classism. Here's a black mother discriminating against her own child and thinking of her own child as less just because the child is much much darker than she. We primarily think of racism as inter-race: white against black, white against Latino, etc. etc. but here Morrison delves deeply into what may be an unsettling concept for some people but which is a fact of life: that there are racial hierarchies among people of the same race, and that discrimination and repression might exist within perceived "racial" lines. In fact, the story calls into question the very concept of race and what it means.

Why is Sweetness disgusted and turned-off by her own daughter? The problem is that Sweetness is viewing her own daughter through the "white gaze." Sweetness (likely) came from a time and place in which it was preferable to assimilate or to at least be seen to try to assimilate into white society. She was fortunate in her own light complexion, but the birth of her much darker-skinned daughter confuses her lifelong indoctrination that "whiter is better." It confuses her so much so that she turns against her daughter, always viewing her as a stranger even after the daughter grows up to be a productive, independent, successful adult.

This is not foreign territory for Morrison; specifically I'm thinking of a chapter in The Bluest Eye in which she describes a certain sect of black society that tries to "scrub out the funk," or rid itself of its conspicuous blackness. It's clear that Morrison has a level of contempt for this behavior, but also that she sympathizes with it to some degree as an unfortunate by-product of black people who've lived too long under the white gaze and started to judge themselves within its confines. It's interesting territory of the African American experience, and its ground not often covered.

However, my complaint here is that the ideas behind this story are too transparent. It's possible (more than likely, in fact) that this is a just a small, almost insignificant chunk of the book and that by no means should we judge the book on this excerpt. If so, then why is it appearing in the New Yorker, I ask. If not, then the book is probably going to be pretty dull and cover a lot of ground Morrison has covered and covered well over the years. What does that matter? Philip Roth has been writing the same novel for 40 years; John Irving's characters are seemingly interchangeable from book to book. You could go down the list of great authors/artists and boil down the "themes" in their work to a very small handful of subjects, maybe even one per. We're all, essentially, just working with the material we've got.

To cast God Help the Child aside based on the strength or weakness (mostly weakness) of this excerpt would be hasty and ignorant. But taken by itself, "Sweetness" is a bit transparent and flat.


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