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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 1

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Jean-Paul Regis

Spirituality and Connectedness: Toni Morrison’s Black Women

Dwight Hopkins

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1I would like to explore poor black women characters in various novels by Toni Morrison in order to see what type of spirituality is developed in these stories. More specifically, I want to examine poor black women's own experience in relation to such a spirituality. The voices of these women redefine the very notion of spirituality which, in common sense understanding, is often depicted merely as an abstract otherworldly phenomenon. Yet such a skewed definition does disservice to the potential liberating nature of an authentic spirituality. In fact, such otherworldly quietism has the effect, if not the deliberate intention, of smothering the aspirations of poor black people. So we must repudiate that which is accepted as normative and seek to engage into the bubbling creativity of black literary tradition itself. This approach takes us directly to the voice of the folk characters in Morrison's novels.

2Furthermore, it is important to understand the spiritual presence in Morrison's books because the overwhelming character types in her stories illustrate the lives, loves, and laughter of poor black women in the United States. Anyone somewhat familiar with the experience of poor African American women will immediately be struck by their belief in the reality of some form of spirituality (whether Christian or non-Christian, pertaining to institutional or non-institutional religion). Given Morrison's character developments based on her own reading of poor black women, and the lifestyles and concerns of these women, an examination of spirituality seems in order.

  • 1 "Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told", i (...)

3I also believe that an engagement with spiritual representations in African American novels is important because so many characters and situations in black fiction deal with religion or spirituality as subject matter, whether in a positive or negative light. Not only that, many black authors themselves, intentionally or unintentionally, are direct products of or greatly affected by black spirituality in the African American community. Thus it seems to be helpful in furthering black literary discourse to talk about the dynamics of some spiritual influence. Consequently, if we are going to "turn to the black tradition itself to develop theories of criticism" in the words of Henry Louis Gates, then the voices of poor black women, enmeshed in a novel spirituality, are not only appropriate but obligatory.1

4My hearing of the voices of poor black women and my readings of their stories in Morrison's novels indicate the following definition of spirituality. Black women's spirituality arises out of the relationships or connectedness that poor African American women have with each other (that is, a woman to woman connectedness); with Africa (that is, a connectedness to primordial heritage); with Nature (that is, a solidarity connectedness to the natural order); and with black folk's natural bodies (that is, a connectedness to affirming the entire black community). This spirituality is concretized in values and traditions of connectedness but comes from and is passed on from generation to generation, hence its transcendent dimension.

5Joined with these four relationships, poor black women's spirituality is embodied in women's efforts at self-conception and naming, and self-realization and space definition. Restated, we will discover this spirituality positioned in modes of connectedness and assertions of cultural and political formations.

Women to Women

  • 2 In her text, Just A Sister Away (San Diego, California: Lura Media, 1986), backcover, Dr. Renita J (...)
  • 3 Sula, pp. 84 and 95.

6Morrison's portrayal of black women to black women connectedness uncovers a profound instance of women defining themselves and creating a room for their own space. Amidst the adverse presence of race, gender, and class oppression, the women in Morrison's novels know that an oasis of relief resides "just a sister away."2 No other characters display this dynamic better than Sula and Nel in Sula. Both women cooperate in a harmonious healthy relation in contrast to interactions between any other two persons in the novel. "They never quarrelled, those two, the way some girlfriends did over boys, or competed against each other for them." This black woman to black woman bonding is like "magic." After Sula leaves her local community and returns, Nel feels as though she has regained the use of an eye or had a cataract removed. Sula makes her laugh and see old things with new eyes. With the return of Sula, Nel experiences a cleverness deep within. The empowering relation between the two women gives her a gentleness and a "little raunchy" tingle. Indeed, "talking to Sula had always been a conversation with herself"3 Woman to woman connectedness teaches Nel and Sula how to be with someone else and not smother them in the process. Such a liberating dynamic frees each one from the confines of a cut-throat competition in which the victory for one means defeat for the other. Indeed, black women's bonding presents an alternative; instead of a gain for one resulting in a loss for the other, when Sula wins so does Nel, and vice versa. Therefore, just relationships succeed when two people see the goodness of themselves in the other and the goodness of the other in themselves.

7Furthermore, Toni Morrison pushes the importance of black women loving black women beyond the encounter between two adults like Sula and Nel. Most African American women require an entire system of black women to women connectedness from birth till death. This web of interactions serves to shore up poor black women daily and frees them to continue the struggle to name themselves (that is a move toward self-identity) and claim their own space (that is, the assertion of self-determination). By negative example, we discover in Song of Solomon how the character Hagar lacked an intricate system of women bonding as women. Toni Morrison underscores this point in her description of Hagar:

[Hagar] needed what most colored girls needed: a chorus of mammas, grandmammas, aunts, cousins, sisters, neighbors, Sunday school teachers, best girl friends, and what all...

  • 4 Song of Solomon, p. 311.

8Because Hagar suffered from a lack of such a healthy growth development, she becomes addicted to a blind love for a black male character, Milkman, and relentlessly pursues unsuccessful attempts to murder him. Ultimately her negative and wicked spirit of possession for Milkman contributes to her own tragic death. Hagar never realized in her life or death that she required a "chorus" of black women "to give her the strength life demanded of her - and the humor with which to live it"4.

9In Morrison's novels, the tradition of a mother's relation to her daughter embodies another important instance of poor black women relating to one another. Women share a particular connection to their female children in at least two specific examples: through the act of protection and the act of passing on knowledge.

10The drive to protect helps to seal the mother-daughter bonding, especially when men attack black mothers' daughters. When this occurs, mothers draw on latent reserves of spiritual strength and even risk potential bodily harm to themselves. Such a "foolishness" of a mother's protectiveness motivates Pilate to draw a knife on a man who has wrongfully slapped her daughter. Slowly Pilate approaches the male aggressor from behind, whips her arm around the man's throat, presses a knife against his heart, and waits for him to feel the knife blade. The man checks the rhythm of his breathing for fear he might cause the blade to sink in. Now with the might of the male aggressor neutralized by the touch of steel, Pilate calmly informs him about the spiritual bond between mother and daughter.

  • 5 Song of Solomon, p. 94.

Women are foolish, you know, and mamas are the most foolish of all... First real misery I ever had in my life was when I found out somebody - a teeny tiny boy it was - didn't like my little girl.5

11If the initial real pain and misery suffered by Pilate in her life merely resulted from a little school boy not liking her daughter, then her fierce spirit to protect her now adult daughter could possibly drive her to unknown acts of "foolishness" Grasping quite clearly Pilate's words, the male attacker runs down the road when released from Pilate's grip.

12In addition to offering protection, mothers pass on vital knowledge to their daughters, important information such as how to be a woman. Mothers train their daughters to survive in a hostile world riddled with threatening spirits of racial, gender, and poverty oppressions. In order to make it to womanhood, therefore, daughters have to possess a wisdom of survival that engenders the maintenance of their lives and the attainment of their freedom - both the free ability to name their own nature (the cultural self) and to move about based on their own decisions (the political self).

  • 6 Tar Baby, p. 281.

13To this end, Jadine, in Tar Baby, receives the following advice from her surrogate mother, Ondine. "Jadine, a girl has got to be a daughter first. And if she never learns how to be a daughter, she can't never learn how to be a woman" In the very mix of the mother-daughter connection, there flows information, tradition, strategy, perspective and the particular instruction that transforms a daughter into a woman. But this womanist wisdom comes only when the daughter cares about her maternal roots. Accordingly, accountability accompanies the acceptance of the wisdom about womanhood which a mother imparts to her daughter. Continuing her maternal role, Ondine states: "A daughter is a woman who cares about where she come from and takes care of them that took care of her"6 The female child blossoms into an image of her mother because the daughter's acquired spiritual substance becomes real in proportion to the self-acknowledgement of her female lineage.

Africa

14In addition to black women's relation to other poor black women, the female characters in Toni Morrison exhibit a strong spiritual relation to the continent of Africa. Though removed from the distant shores of Africa by time and space, poor black women display a special affinity to Africa, the mother continent. Therefore to speak of black women's spirituality, one has to take seriously the role of Africa as place, cultural identity, and tradition.

15The power of Pilate (her conjuring abilities, her clarity as a woman and as mother, her love of the folk, her veneration for black ancestors, her courage to move about, to name a few) derives from her being the link between those living in her family and their origins in Africa. Besides her powers which suggest an African origin, her very physical features also confirm that an African tradition planted, incubated, nurtured and bore all her wisdom. Substantiating this certainty, Pilate's brother, Macon Dead, tells his son: "If you ever have a doubt we from Africa, look at Pilate" She lives in testimony to Africa. Somehow the tradition from Africa to black America comes by way of a womanist linkage. Not that black men play a small part in the dark tracings from the mother continent. Rather, black women's spirituality burgeons with a resourceful sense of who they are and where they come from. Accompanied by such potent exactness in ties to the broader African community, womanist spiritual experience permeates and aids the vitality of the entire black environment.

16Likewise, as a child, Sethe, in Beloved, receives knowledge of her own link to Africa. Nan, her substitute mother, explains how she and Sethe's biological mother "were together from the sea" Moreover, both her mother and Nan spoke an African language which Sethe understood in her early childhood, but since the death of Nan, she has forgotten the sounds and syntax. Yet, what remains in Sethe's consciousness was "the message - that was and had been there all along" The historical consciousness that poor black women have regarding their African nexus is not a mere infatuation with things long dead. Rather, Africa, with its forgotten language, yields significance for the present. Specifically, the exact memory of origins still suggests to the descendents of memory that they have a place of beginnings defined, not by their contemporary oppressive constraints, but by a healthy spirituality. Africa - a free place of origin - implies a historical moment in which both self-identity and self-determination prevailed as the norm. And so, knowledge of a fighting and survivalist spirit from Africa, becomes a tradition passed from one female generation to another. In fact, the resurrection of the African consciousness in all its coded and shadowy meanings comes to Sethe when she tells her daughter, Denver, the story of her hanged mother. Denver will no doubt link her own future daughter to the traditional web of intergenerational bonds to Africa. The cycle of story-Africa-woman-to-woman tradition resumes.

17In Tar Baby, another dark skinned, tar baby looking woman suggests the strong African heritage of poor black women. In a Parisian grocery store her mere African presence disrupts the normal activity of the food business. Her tar-like skin contrasts with her dazzling canary dress. Wearing many-colored sandals and sporting family markings engraved in her cheeks and a gelee wrapped around her hair, this African epitomizes "womanism" She is a "woman's woman" and a "mother/sister/she," endowed with "unphotographable beauty." In fact, her identity is summoned up in the word "she" She owns womanist values and traditions: she connects with herself, her immediate and broader communities, and, because colors and body qualities help to define her, she embraces Nature. In a word, she is extremely clear on her identity and she moves about Paris, indeed the world, with grace, ease and self-determination.

  • 7 In this section on embodiment in the broader community, see Pilate in Song of Solomon, p. 54; Seth (...)

18Unfortunately Jadine, the major black female protagonist in Tar Baby, attempts to run from this African woman in Paris and thereby break a lifeblood connection to her broader community. The mere presence of the tar baby beauty runs Jadine literally out of Paris. Furthermore, Jadine feels derailed, lonely and "inauthentic." Her lonesome emotion derives from her own fleeing from Africa and the extended community. Her depression comes from a lack of self-conscious personality. More specifically, Jadine grew up in a poor working class family in Baltimore. But a rich white male patron turned her into a white middle class woman. Now Jadine's profound schizophrenic racial identity can only achieve a healthy resolution when she feels authentic. Yet her authenticity will ensue only after and when she names and claims her tradition of embodiment in Africa; for the fountainhead of African American womanist spirituality is Africa.7

Connectedness to Nature

19Not only is black women's spirituality embodied in their relation to other black women and Africa, but there also exists a profound interplay between poor black women and Nature. Black women's roles in Toni Morrison's stories convey Nature's rich and resourceful input for a creative spirituality. Nature personifies and sides with the hopes and aspirations of the poor, particularly in sympathizing with and guiding their affairs. It also serves to unveil freeing spirit in poor black women because spirituality dwells in Nature and they both have a definite purpose. Therefore, Nature cannot carry on the affairs of this world in a neutral, silent or business-as-usual manner, and simultaneously work with the spirit. Quite the contrary, Nature grabs and points people in particular directions or embraces them deep into its arms with the purpose of placing them on a liberating journey. Again, Nature cannot be a faceless or absent element in Toni Morrison's black women characters. Poor black women's connection to Nature manifests the presence of spiritual freedom, the expression of the sacred in natural creation.

20This dynamic between Nature and black women unfolds in The Bluest Eye. Nature's love and compassion for the integrity of Pecola's spiritual essence demonstrates itself when Pecola's father rapes her. Setting aside the sympathy displayed by her two girlfriends, Claudia and Frieda, only Nature cries out in protest against such a dastardly violation of a poor black girl's life. More specifically, no seeds yielded fruit in the entire community the year of the violent rape. Mother earth halted the normal functioning of planting and harvesting to assert a resounding no!, thereby linking the ravishing of Pecola's spiritual nature to the disruption of everyone else's natural rhythm of growth and fruition. Commenting on Nature's connection to Pecola, her friend Claudia narrates:

Our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year... It never occurred to us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.

  • 8 The Bluest Eye, p. 9.

21All of Nature cried out in disgust and revulsion. Even the verdant terrain around lakes refused to give birth to marigold flowers the entire year.8 The natural rhythmic flow of the changing seasons ceased in order to side with Pecola's plight. An evil act against Pecola's personhood draws the full attention of a spirituality of righteousness which, in turn, summons the full force of Nature. Indeed, a plague devours the land and no seeds sprout, producing the disappearance of food that proves vital for human consumption and development, and of the oxygen producing plants that literally create molecules to sustain human life. In a word, the connection to Nature of a womanist spirituality and its embodiment of Nature parallel the success or failure of human living.

  • 9 Beloved, p. 31.

22Likewise, in Beloved, Nature sides with Sethe in her struggle for life and death against a potential white slavecatcher who would deny her right to escape from slavery. Pregnant with her daughter, Sethe pauses in pain just before she attempts to cross the Ohio river to free land. A deep groan leaves her aching body and alerts a passerby whom she thinks is a potential agressor. She begins to succumb to weakness and the inevitable spiritual, if not physical, death brought by the male intruder. Yet immediately, earth sends her a full jolt of strength to fight for her life and claim her space along freedom's road. A "something came up out of the earth into her - like a freezing, but moving too, like jaws inside... Suddenly she was eager for his eyes, to bite into them; to gnaw [the aggressor's] cheeks."9 Out of the bowels of the earth, Nature gives her the spirit and force of liberation to struggle against a potential power that would have dragged her back into the political system of slavery. A partnership between spirituality and Nature infuses life-sustaining, rebellious energies into poor black women even when the latter become temporarily resigned to fatigue and physical pressures. Natural spiritual power can vivify and resurrect those hovering on the brink of death.

23Not only does Nature facilitate black women's warding off political attackers, it also confronts them with an African cultural identity. In Tar Baby, Jadine substantiates this point when we discover her struggling to extricate herself from a muddy swamp. As she tugs back and forth, the surrounding trees are personified as wise women of Nature ("women hanging in the trees looked down at her"). At first glance, the Nature women smile in approval at the sight of the entrapped Jadine, for they initially revel in delight, "thinking a runaway child had been restored to them" But in dismay, the Nature women quickly realize that Jadine attempts to run not toward, but away from them and, in the process of fleeing, from her own spiritual self-awareness. In contrast, possessing absolute clarity of cultural identity and origin, these women of Nature were mindful of

their [own] exceptional femaleness; knowing as they did that the first world of the world had been built with their sacred properties; that they alone could hold together the stones of pyramids and the rushes of Moses's crib...

24By negative example, Jadine turns her back on this offering of black women's connectedness to Nature by these spiritual Nature women. If Jadine had accepted this manifestation of black women's spirituality, she would have experienced these tree-hanging women's knowledge of the African female self. Specifically, here Nature women exhibit a perceptive truth about the exceptional femaleness of African women and women of African descent.

  • 10 Tar Baby, p. 183.

25First of all, these swamp women surrounding Jadine suggest that African women gave birth to all of humanity. Thus the original world - "the first world of the world" - results from black women's labors. Second, the wisdom and strength of African (Egyptian) women assisted the engineering of the Egyptian pyramids, a testament to a highly advanced scientific and cultured society. Third, African women (i. e., the ancient Hebrews) served in the roles of savior and deliverer when they spared the life of Moses and sent him to freedom in his crib. Accordingly, black women's link to Nature reveals a profound reclaiming of the exceptional femaleness of black women's African cultural identity, indeed, their essential "sacred properties."10

  • 11 Beloved, p. 87.

26Finally, Nature becomes the liberated religious and theological space where divine spirituality and black women's spirituality merge in the character of Baby Suggs. Suggs is a poor folk preacher in Beloved. Ordained only by divine spirit, she claimed a space in Nature and called it the "Clearing," "a wide-open place cut deep in the woods."11 The Clearing served as the pulpit from which Suggs' homilies exhorted black folk about God's calling to love their black selves. In this sense, Suggs' relation to Nature brought together the theological (i. e., her religious interpretations of God from the perspective of the bottom of society in the woods), the political (i. e., her settling on a piece of earth where African American people could determine by themselves how they wanted to be in this world), and the cultural (i. e., her sermonic proclamations of love of the poor black identity).

Natural Bodies

27Black women's embodiment in their natural bodies concludes our discussion on black women's spirituality of connectedness. Poor African American women regard the natural state of their bodies as a sacred temple of self love, normal physical-emotional expression, and a gift to divine spirit in worship.

28More specifically, we return to the example of Baby Suggs who, in Beloved, pastors a congregation of poor black folk out in a section of the woods which they call the Clearing. Here this unchurched preacher woman exhorts her "church" to love the flesh of their bodies and to give full play to their natural appetites for crying, laughter and dance. Put differently, this Christian conjurer woman calls on her people to lift up their spirits through their bodies to a higher spirit.

29First, church service begins with Baby Suggs' sermon on self love of their sacred flesh. "Here," preaches Baby Suggs, "in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard." She stresses the specific passion of love of the body because she speaks within a concrete and historical context of white racism, a context quite familiar to her congregation's memory and to their daily, and dehumanizing, relation to the larger society. Resuming her spiritual sharing of the body's import, she equates the word "they" with white cultural and political norms. She then reminds her poor listeners that they despise poor blacks' "eyes" and "the skin on your backs," "they" do not love black hands; and "they ain't in love with your mouth." In contrast, her congregation must love their flesh; stroke their hands and touch other black folk with them; grace their necks; support their backs; provide strong arms for their shoulders, and love their inside parts. Above all, climaxes Baby Suggs' speaking truth, "hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize." The heart stands as the ultimate part of the body because there cannot be a healthy spirituality in relation to others if one does not love one's self, one's own black identity. Therefore, the listeners to Baby Suggs' word have to go down deep in the depths of their black hearts and love the blackness of their physical being. Self love - that is, a recognition of supreme spirituality dwelling in human hearts - sets the context for resonating with love of others, even feeling compassion for one's enemies. Thus natural bodies reflect sacred temples of self love.

30Furthermore, in her church services, Baby Suggs calls out the spirit through the normal physical-emotional expression of her congregation. With sacred authority, she summons forth the children and instructs them to laugh before their parents. And the children's bodies, which the community loved, filled the trees with laughter. She then orders the men to step forward and dance before their wives and children. And "groundlife shuddered under their feet" as the trees rang with the sounds of children's laughter. Finally she designates the women and tells them to cry, for the living and the dead. It began with clear roles for each segment of the folk, but then everything and everybody intertwined and intermingled.

  • 12 See Beloved, pp. 87-89 for a fuller treatment of Baby Suggs and the spirituality of the body.

Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.12

31Baby Suggs offers the spirituality of the individual and communal body in worship. Love of self, the spirit of love implanted in the heart, enables one's spiritual self-identity (i. e., a cultural claim) which, in turn, helps one to deal with the "they" s of the world (i. e., a political claim). In addition, one returns divine spiritual love through a demonstrative display of the body's natural activities of laughing, dancing, and crying.

Conclusion

32Evesdropping on the voices of poor black women in Toni Morrison's novels, we have primarily listened to a new configuration of the representation of the spiritual among an oppressed North American population, a cry against gender, racial, and economic disparity. At the same time we heard these women provide their own avenues for expressing spirituality, thus decrying a staid, bourgeois notion of restriction and passivity. On the contrary, Morrison's African American women refuse all attempts to restrict, curtail, or subvert their lives. They, in turn, make their spirituality explicit in the realms of culture and politics. Therefore we know and listen to these women's stories when they perform self-identity, self-conception, and self-definition (the cultural emphasis). Likewise, a hearing of their voices will bring us into contact with their struggles toward self-determination and space acquisition (the political emphasis). The culture and the politics both embody an expressive spirituality and are embodied in the connectedness of women to women, Africa, Nature, and natural bodies. Such a new definition of the spirit facilitates the broadening of African American literary discourse and, once again, privileges the pioneering speaking voice of black women's literature.

Notes

1 "Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told", in Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s, eds. Houston A. Baker, Jr. and Patricia Redmond, (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press), 1989, p. 25.

2 In her text, Just A Sister Away (San Diego, California: Lura Media, 1986), backcover, Dr. Renita J. Weems writes: "We are frequently just a sister away from our healing. We need a woman, a sister, who will see in our destitution a jagged image of what one day could be her own story. We need a sister who will respond with mercy."

3 Sula, pp. 84 and 95.

4 Song of Solomon, p. 311.

5 Song of Solomon, p. 94.

6 Tar Baby, p. 281.

7 In this section on embodiment in the broader community, see Pilate in Song of Solomon, p. 54; Sethe's talk with Denver, Beloved, p. 62; and the yellow dress African woman in Tar Baby, pp. 45-46 and 48.

8 The Bluest Eye, p. 9.

9 Beloved, p. 31.

10 Tar Baby, p. 183.

11 Beloved, p. 87.

12 See Beloved, pp. 87-89 for a fuller treatment of Baby Suggs and the spirituality of the body.

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Université de Santa Clara (Cal.)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1992

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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