Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

“My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.

You are always too young to read Morrison. I was eleven. A teacher had grown concerned. From what I can recall of the report, my eyes glazed over in class and I was sinking into my desk, falling inexplicably ill. “Maybe this will make you feel better?” my mother asked. The copy of “The Bluest Eye” that she gave me was distended, graffitied with epiphanies. It had been assigned to her in an E.S.L. class at Kingsborough Community College, burdening her for all time with a misleading impression of the potential of English. Out of a “discredited vocabulary,” as Morrison once termed it, the author coaxed out a superior written tongue—one that, I more than suspect, each black woman writer who has come after her mimics, to varying degrees. My own mimicry was, at first, automatic. That summer, I stayed indoors, truly possessed. I transcribed the whole of “The Bluest Eye,” in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, at least a dozen times. I memorized whole chapters. My finger pads melted. I ingrained the beat of the novel into the movement of my right wrist.

For years, it went on like this: I would become withdrawn, and my mother would hand me “Sula,” then “Jazz,” then “Beloved.” My early readings of the novels were hungry misuses. Her novels were the boundary between herself and her readers, an instrument of intellectual self-protection, but we violated the boundary, almost deliriously. By the time I was reading Morrison, the novel had allegedly lost its status as an influential factor in the making of society. We didn’t know that. Morrison was our celebrity; it was only right that she appear on “Oprah.” We were poor in imagination, trained to think of our histories as sociological math. Morrison invalidated the lie, which taints black minds especially, that our people are either one way or the other. To her, we were naturally literary and epic. I got inebriated on the image of Pecola Breedlove, who “was a long time with the milk,” soused by a community’s predilection for a certain kind of beauty. The ghost in “Beloved,” swelling as she threatened to overcome the spiteful home at 124 Bluestone Road, made us think gothically. I wanted to build a retreat in the woods, like Denver. I thought that I was destined, one day, to become a Sula Peace, leaving home, and returning under the shelter of a great hat, carting havoc just under my breast.

In a foreword to “Sula,” Morrison wrote, “Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men.” It is too seldom acknowledged that the greatest novelist this country has ever produced was a single black mother. She had two sons, one who passed before she did, and how many daughters? We know that it is problematic, or maybe just self-indulgent, to claim her as mother. And yet, if the business of mothering is to broker the link between two generations, then what else can she be? During her childhood conversion to Catholicism, she chose the confirmation name that eventually led to “Toni”: Saint Anthony, the patron of the lost. An old-fashioned loss lives between my mother and me, and we tend to it. Ghosts have visited her, and human dramas have haunted her, and erotic moments have freed her, and for reasons both altruistic and proud she will not express these stories to me. I have my own things she will not know. We are secretive. We talk to each other through intermediaries, and their names are Baby Suggs, Guitar, and Milkman. We talk to each other through Morrison.

  • Doreen St. Félix is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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Source: Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

The “Unsophisticated” Mirror of Rachel Jeantel thefeministwire

The Feminist Wire

The “Unsophisticated” Mirror of Rachel Jeantel

July 22, 2013

By 

By Lauren G. Parker

The prosecution needed to represent Rachel Jeantel as much as they represented Trayvon Martin because her assumed unintelligence and subsequent worthlessness were inadvertently assigned to him. Aware of this, prosecution attorney Bernie de la Rionda attempted, but failed, to insist upon her credibility in his closing statements. Before queering a Dr. King quote by saying that she “should not be judged by the color of her personality but by the content of her testimony,” he told the jury that she was “a little unsophisticated” and “uneducated.”Rachel_Jeantel_rtr_img

By insulting her to gain credibility, he complied with the idea that she was insignificant and by default, so was Martin’s life. Such inherently assumed superiority over Jeantel from the prosecution’s closing statement, the defense’s humiliating tactics and venomous commentary from cyber voyeurs was deeply remnant of a passage from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in which Morrison stated:

 All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us; her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.

Afraid to embrace those realities, many dwelled on their critiques of Jeantel’s dialect. Here, too, there was a deep politic that neither the talented-tenth, code-switching middle class Black folks who claimed to be ashamed by her nor those who maintained the racist ideology that she was merely another ignorant, fat black woman, could bear to acknowledge. James Baldwin’s 1979 essay, “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” best presented this truth where he states,

…language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.

He further explains,

Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [them]. People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate.

Just as many have never considered that Trayvon Martin, who we know for a fact was followed by George Zimmerman, was standing his own ground, many who shared Juror B-37’s condescending viewpoint and “felt bad” for Rachel who was “using phrases [they] never heard before” have not considered themselves ignorant for not understanding her. Those same individuals may never challenge the absurdity of having deemed themselves the standard of comparison; nor will they realize that they misnamed her “uneducated” in order to hide from the paralyzing fear of a heavy-set, dark skinned teenager unwilling to bow to their assumed superiority.

Rachel Jeantel cannot be reduced to just a witness in a popular trial because what she endured in court and from the media were private acts made public: the mocking and silencing of black women and girl’s stories as well as the devaluing of their traumas. In response to critics, Jeantel shared with Piers Morgan that  “[My critics] should be appreciating [me]. You should learn from this situation. If it happened to you or your family, would you step up or would you just say ‘oh, it ain’t my business’?” To my mind, she has remained brilliant and strong in spite of the overwhelming grief of losing a friend and then being publicly labeled as ignorant–as a national embarrassment–because she, like James Baldwin, knows that  “it is [never] the black child’s language that is in question, it is not [their] language that is despised: It is [their] experience.”

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L_G_Parker-The_'Unsophisticated'_Mirror_of_Rachel_Jeantel-lgpLauren G. Parker is an undergraduate, intended Creative Writing major at George Mason University. Currently, she is co-coaching Richmond, Virginia’s internationally competing youth slam poetry team.