Southern ethos / Black ethics in Toni Morrison’s fiction
Fultz, Lucille P
“You left out a s, ma’am,” the boy said. The North was new to him and he had just begun to learn that he could speak up to white people.
-Song of Solomon
The South “symbolizes the worst that America has offered to blacks-racism, poverty, and oppression. But it also represents the roots of Black culture, history and `home.’ It is `down home’ (Bone xxii) to many Blacks not born there; a ‘homeplace’ for people whose fathers and mothers left decades ago” (Holt 137-138).’ It is this mecca, so to speak, toward which many African American writers turn in their search for a site that represents a home base for certain characters seeking grounding and stability. In another sense, however, the South-with a sense of the place of a White ethos that privileges Whiteness as a site of supremacy and Blackness as the site of inferiority-is most problematic for Blacks. Robert Bone has stated that Blacks’ ambivalence toward the South is due to the fact that they are at once “deeply moved by the natural beauty of the region” and “repelled by its moral ugliness” (xxi). Philip Page is most eloquent on the role of the South in the composite African American experience when he writes about Toni Morrison’s texts, noting that for her the “past is both rural and South.” And “as characters in the urban North struggle to create healthy identities, they must come to terms with their own or their ancestors’ rural southern pasts by somehow fusing past and present.” Page further states “that past is unavoidable because it is heavily value-laden and emotionally burdened, both positively and negatively”(29). 2
Perhaps Denver most cogently formulates this contradictory notion of the Southern past when she responds to her mother’s and Paul D’s fixations on Sweet Home, Kentucky: “How come everybody run off from Sweet Home can’t stop talking about it? Look like if it was so sweet you would have stayed” (Beloved 13). But Denver can never know the “ultimate bittersweet” of Sweet Home, “a place they cannot forget but can barely endure to remember” (29). Clearly the Sweet Home Sethe and Paul D are thinking of at this moment is redolent of the natural world, one that resonates with other Toni Morrison characters, most notably Pauline Breedlove, Sethe, and Paul D, as noted above. Despite this ambivalence, for those African Americans writers who have fictionalized the South, it is an indispensable place because it is more than an erstwhile home: it is an always already originary site of their African Americanness, the place of rootedness and perdurability of the African American spirit. For many African Americans the South remains a place of comfort and contradictions-a place to turn toward and a place to turn from.
For example, when Pauline Breedlove finds herself alienated from the African American community in Lorain, Ohio, and emotionally abandoned by her husband Cholly, she evokes idyllic memories of the South that stress the beauty of the natural world which becomes a metaphor for her erotic memories of her lost love for her Cholly. Her now famous evocation of that lost world mirrors the memories of, perhaps, many African Americans who left the rural South for the concrete and smog-polluted cities and factory towns of the North:
When all of us left from down home and was waiting down by the depot for the truck, it was nighttime. June bugs was shooting everywhere. They lighted up a tree leaf, and I seen a streak of green every now and again. That was the last time I seen real june bugs. These things up here ain’t june bugs. They’s something else. Folks here call them fireflies. Down home they was different. But I recollect that streak of green. I recollect it well. (The Bluest Eye 89)
Later she muses:
When I first seed Cholly, I want you to know it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when all of us chil’ren went berry picking after a funeral and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress, and they mashed up and stained my hips. My whole dress was messed with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel the purple deep inside me. (91-92)
Pauline’s assertions that “[a]ll of them colors was in me” and that the “purple never did wash,” (92) are reinforced by her associating them with her former closeness to Cholly and her nostalgia for that natural beauty. These are homologous to her memory of certain lost erotic moments with Cholly that she will never forget. Pauline’s mingling of the southern past and the northern present is evidence of the permanent hold the South has on her. Pauline, of course, has highly romanticized the region that was the site of her birth and has forgotten the pain and neglect associated with her crippled foot, “the complete indifference with which a rusty nail was met when it pinched clear through her foot,” (88) marking her difference and setting her apart from the rest of her family. She becomes the “other” within the family because she is physically different. This difference, Morrison implies, is a result of poverty and racism that denied medical attention to Pauline’s injured foot. Hence, her selected memory of the South does not include the painful experiences.
Similarly in Beloved Morrison uses aspects of the natural world of the South to represent memory and eroticism. Like Pauline’s memories of purple succulent berries and lemonade and their resonance with her erotic moments with Cholly, Sethe’s first two sexual encounters with Halle in the tiny cornfield in Sweet Home, Kentucky, are redolent of sweet, ripe corn with silk and succulent kernels. This moment is recalled some eighteen years later when Sethe and Paul D have their unsuccessful sexual encounter. In fact, it is the failure of their lovemaking that mentally transports Paul D and Sethe back to the cornfield:”looking at Paul D’s back, she remembered that some of the cornstalks broke, folded down over Halle’s back and among the things her fingers clutched were husk and cornsilk hair” (27). The eroticization of the corn is for Sethe a way of reliving the moment with Halle: “How loose the silk. How jailed up the juice” (27) and for Paul D the fact that he could only watch them and find sexual gratification in the their act of love and the taste of corn. Clearly, Morrison wants her readers to connect Paul D’s stripping away the corn husks to free the kernels and the juices with the sexual act in which Halle spreads Sethe’s pubic hairs and exposes her vaginal fluids. The conflation of Paul D’s enjoyment of the fresh corn and the sexual act between Sethe and Halle is redolent of the touch and taste of the natural world: “The pulling down of the tight sheath [comparable to the outer skin, or shaft, of the penis], the ripping [the breaking of her hymen, perhaps] sound always convinced her it hurt” (27). But as soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last. How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free…. How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free” (27). The foregoing passage intermingles two concupiscent moments: Paul D’s joy in eating fresh corn and the joy of Sethe and Halle’s first sex. Both Sethe and Pauline recall these moments when they are up North, where they no longer are aroused by sexual love and must rely upon memories of what was, for them, jouissance.
Besides the Southern landscape with its seductive, though insidious, beauty, the Southern region is also equated with the pinnacle of manners and hospitality. According to Charles R Wilson, “Southerners have . . . traditionally equated manners-the appropriate, customary, or proper way of doing things-with morals, so that unmannerly behavior has been viewed as immoral behavior.” By Southerners, Wilson, of course, means White Southerners. This notion of behavior, according to Wilson, implies that “moral codes, laws, and manners have been intertwined with the aim of curbing individual aggression and maintaining social order through a combination of community pressures and internalized individual motivation.” Some of the “rules” that govern behavior and manifest respect for parents are expressed in a discourse of politeness (“yes, Sir,” “no, Ma’am”); it also means that one must honor obligations to kin and welcome neighbors and protect the weak and helpless” (Wilson 634). But we also find a “deeply rooted code of etiquette [manners] among black families in the South” as well. Wilson cites Frederick Douglass’s observation that “black etiquette derived from similar African codes.” According to Douglass, “there is not to be found, among any people, a more rigid enforcement of the law of respect to elders, than they maintain…. There is no better material in the world for making a gentleman, than in the African” (635).
This etiquette or respect for elders became “a double-edged tradition”: a respect for one’s elders and a “foil to Southern racism” (Wilson 636). The traditional manners Southern Whites brought from Europe and enslaved Blacks brought from Africa resulted in duplicitous behavior on both sides: an overt attempt on the part of Whites to demonstrate their “respect” for Blacks who behaved towards Whites according to White established rules, and overt and covert gestures (masking their true feelings and puttin’ on ole Massa) that Blacks adopted to show Whites that Blacks knew their “place” and were willing to stay in that “place.” This duplicity on the part of Blacks sometimes meant stealing to enhance their meager allotment of food and then lying or dissembling about it. Consider, for example the following exchange between Sixo and schoolteacher when schoolteacher accuses Sixo of stealing one of his shoats:
`You stole that shoat, didn’t you?’
`No. Sir.’ said Sixo, but he had the decency to keep his eyes on the meat.
`You telling me you didn’t steal it, and I’m looking right at you.’ School
teacher smiled. `Did you kill it?’
`Yes, sir.’ (190)
The interrogation continues until Sixo offers an explanation for what schoolteacher terms “stealing.” If it is not stealing, then schoolteacher wants to know “What is it then?” To which Sixo offers a brilliant and appropriate explanation that indicates his knowledge of his position as chattel: “Improving your property, sir” and as a way of “putting on” schoolteacher without ever forgetting the obligatory “sir.”
“Sixo plant rye to give the high piece a better chance. Sixo take and feed the soil, give you more crop. Sixo take and feed Sixo give you more work” (190). Schoolteacher inwardly sees the cleverness in Sixo’s explanation, but “beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers-not the defined” (Beloved 190). Put another way, schoolteacher beat Sixo because Sixo had stepped out of his “place” as chattel and into the role of agent, a clever, thinking human and must be put in his place. Duplicity like Sixo’s that is countered with the lash served to crystallize the “daily sense of inferiority among blacks,” (Wilson 636) despite the successful attempts by many Blacks to fool Whites into thinking they believed in and accepted the “normative” and prescriptive modes of conducting themselves in the presence of Whites. Wilson goes on to argue that such a “requirement of racial manners in the South meant that Blacks lived in an atmosphere of daily intimidation and frequent anxiety”-a “life-and-death situation”(636). 4
This “caste etiquette,” de rigueur, was developed to ensure social distance between the races. This system demanded a codified behavior between the races. Such behavior was most apparent in the discourse of manners requiring that Whites not address Blacks by the courtesy titles of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” nor shake hands or tip a hat to them. Blacks, on the other hand, “should address all whites with respect, should not crowd whites on sidewalks, should enter the home of a white person through the back door” (Wilson 636).
However, because the much-touted Southern hospitality associated with White culture did not extend to them, Blacks developed a counterculture of self-defense to ensure their survival in the face of discrimination and other efforts toward diminishing their humanity. I am calling this counterculture a “Black ethic”-one that operates within the Southern ethos but is not an ethic grounded in morality. It is based upon necessity and expediency and, therefore, constantly shifts in response to the complex and sometimes arbitrary Southern mores. Blacks found themselves in positions much like a chameleon; they had to adapt to shifting circumstances. I am using the term ethic rather than morality, which for the purposes of my argument, is static and “irremovable,” to borrow Geoffrey Harpham’s terminology. Morality “represents a particular moment of ethics, when all but one of the available alternatives are excluded, chosen against, regardless of their claims . . . it commands us to act now and on the right principle” (Critical Terms for Literary Study 397).
The distinction I am making between morality and ethics can be illustrated by the actions of the “Seven Days” in Song of Solomon. Their decision to avenge Emmett Till’s death based upon an eye-for-an-eye philosophy is based in morality, not ethics. For them to kill a White person in order to “even” the score for every Black person killed by a White person evolves from a knowledge of what is good and bad; while African Americans’ decision to establish an alternative system of behavior to counter the cruelty they suffer because of White oppression is an ethical decision-one based upon expediency and acceptance of the reality of their powerlessness in some situations. Hence this Black ethic is often spontaneous and is primarily oral and behavioral, often expressed through signifying.’ Whereas many Southern Whites used to address most Black males as boy regardless of his age, Blacks substituted the word man, which still has currency in the African American community. Black males-even little boys-frequently address one another as man. In response to Southern Whites addressing Black females as girl, gal, or Auntie, and older Black males as Uncle or Preacher, Blacks placed a title or “handle” before the name: “Ms. Mary,” “Mr. Louis,” if they were family friends and the generic titles before last names. Consider, for example, the moment when Sethe introduces Denver to Paul D, “Here is my Denver. This is Paul D, honey . . .”; to which Denver replies, “Good morning Mr. D,” (Beloved 11). The automatic “Mr. D” is Denver’s understanding that his last name is “D,” and that she has been taught how to address African American adults. When Paul D corrects her, “Garner, baby. Paul D Garner,” Denver’s response to his correction is a polite, “Yes, sir” (11). Note also that the Black teacher in Cincinnati, because of her position, is given a title of respectability and gentility-“Lady Jones.” A Black Southern ethic is an ethic that evolved during slavery in the face of an irrational, incomprehensible, and duplicitous White ethos. The Black ethic of survival-even after slavery and in the face of constrictions and a host of other barriers-was formulated by Richard Wright as a modus vivendi and modus operandi for living within a system to which some-himself being his best example-could not adhere. A formulation such as a Black ethic may be somewhat disconcerting for those of us who may wish to speak of a broader, more comprehensive ethic. Yet a closer examination of what I am calling a Black ethic reveals that it is one that enables survival not only within a dominant hostile Southern community but one that also ensures stability and power within the ethnic community. There was a price to pay for those Blacks willing to abandon the Black community and assimilate within the White community. This assimilation of hegemonic values was, and remains, often a price so high that it meant not only abnegating the ethics of one’s own community but sometimes sneering at that community’s expectations of loyalty to those principles that not only enabled survival but encoded a message of difference.6
Several African American writers of the twentieth century have demonstrated through their formative years in the South just how complex and terrifying life in this region can be-especially for a young Black male. Wright describes how Blacks are assigned a “place” vis-a-vis Whites. Wright defines this “place” as a way of being in the South for both Blacks and Whites. To underscore his point, Wright rehearses an incident involving himself and two young White men who resented his doing what they considered “a white man’s work” (“Ethics . . . Jim Crow,” 291). According to Wright his family “called me a fool. They told me that I must learn never again attempt to exceed my boundaries. When you are working for White folks, they said, you got to `stay in your place’ if you want to keep working” (Black Boy 8).
This admonishment from Wright’s family is a way of familiarizing him with Southern White mores-a milieu that demanded strict and impenetrable boundaries between Whites and Blacks: a set of principles established to guarantee social distance and to maintain White economic and political power. From a White perspective, this was not a problem so long as Blacks remained in their “place” and Whites kept their clearly defined “distance.” But this was a onesided arrangement since White males were forever breaching those putative boundaries by raping and seducing Black women 7 by and denying many Black men the right to work and provide for their families. The Southern ethos meant total freedom for White males (they made the rules) and restrictive freedom for Blacks. No Black person could expect to participate, except in a position of subjugation and denial of most human rights.
Denial and subjugation, as inscribed in Morrison’s fiction, have an ethical dimension for many Blacks: an ethics constructed not only by circumstances of enslavement and Jim Crow but enlarged by a community of people determined to maintain within their designated and mandated space a culture of civility and intra-communal respect both for its endurance and perseverance. This is a culture with an appreciation for its efforts toward attaining first class citizenship in political, social, and artistic endeavors. This Southern Black ethic is intergenerational-sometimes challenged by those who have abandoned it or never learned it, as well as by those who continue to subscribe to it. It expects its posterity, regardless of its dispersions across this country and migrations to other lands, to hold on to its tenets. It is an ethic that sees value in learning and high achievement but neither accepts nor tolerates any conflict between high achievement and the survivalist ethic. This Southern Black Ethic goes beyond who has the right of way on a Southern sidewalk, or where the sidewalk ends in terms of the Black/White neighborhoods, or what jobs are closed to Blacks.8 It is a demanding ethic that brooks no deviation from or bending of the rules. It demands not merely a respect for one’s elders but a sensitivity to the limitations of one’s ancestors and an appreciation for their struggles and efforts to make a way out of no way. The ethic asks for a pride in the achievement of those for whom a way was made; and gratitude from those who made it on the backs of those left behind.
Toni Morrison creates diverse characters to articulate the multiple worlds of fiction in which both aspects of this Southern Black ethic are encoded and tested. Her novels, Song of Solomon and Sula, call into question the old ways of those “down home” Blacks, the new ways of those offspring who were born in the South, and of those who not only migrated to the North but crossed over into that often elusive “promised land” of money and opportunity. Sula and Song of Solomon rehearse such moments when Blacks, specifically Sula Peace and Macon Dead, Jr., most often referred to as Milkman, breach this protocol: Sula, out of rebellion; and Milkman, out of gross ignorance. Both Sula and Milkman are second generation Northerners. What is most striking about Milkman’s violation of the Black ethical code is that he, thanks to his father’s wealth, has the advantages of bourgeois material comforts; but because his father has abandoned those simple values that Southern Blacks view as fundamental to familial and social interaction, Milkman has missed his Southern rootedness. Therefore, when he violates the Black code of conduct toward friends and neighbors, he is guilty of an unpardonable offense: he insults his family, his neighbors, and his potential allies.
In the tale of Cholly and Darlene, Morrison reinscribes the long Black song of the Southern past that has haunted African Americans. The view that characterizes the South as a culture of gentility is also one that simultaneously flaunts and hides the brutality that lurks just at the border separating Whites from Blacks. Consider, for example, the meeting in the Kentucky woods between the White fugitive Amy and the Black fugitive Sethe. Sethe’s fatigued condition and near helplessness from days of running, do not blind her to Southern protocol. Even though the similarities between herself and Amy should put them on equal footing, the rules of racialized manners operate even here. Amy asserts White privilege while Sethe responds from the knowledge of her “place.” Sethe’s prone position beneath Amy might well serve as a metaphor for their relationship in the woods. Neither needs to practice the code of racialized conduct, yet each falls instinctively into her socially prescribed role. For Amy there is nothing to consider; she acts out of her habit of being. But for Sethe the choices of behavior are far more complex, requiring caution and dissembling because with Amy’s presence her survival and her freedom depend not upon her ability to continue her journey to Ohio but upon Amy who, even as a runaway indentured servant, has the legal responsibility and the potential for profit to turn Sethe over to the nearest marshal.9 The simultaneous awareness of these facts emerge as the two play out their respective racialized roles. Not only does Amy, whose insensitive words belie her kind behavior, refer to Sethe in racist discourse but she also bestializes Sethe and her condition [“What you gonna do, just lay there and foal?” (33)] Amy’s first question, once she realizes Sethe is pregnant, is presumptive-“Whose baby that?” She presumes that either Sethe does not know the child’s father, “You don’t even know” (78), or that the child’s father just may have been fathered by any man on Garner’s farm, including Garner himself.10 At the same moment that she asks about the child’s father, Amy rubs Sethe’s wounded feet or strokes her excoriated back.
Sethe is nineteen; Amy, a year younger. Their similarities in age and condition of servitude, however, do not at first diminish their separation by the racial codes. When Sethe drags herself into the open, Amy’s first words reflect her learned behavior, “Look there. A nigger…. You ’bout the scariest looking something I ever seen” (32). Denver, in recounting this narrative of her birth recognizes that Amy has no social capital that would place her above Setheonly her Whiteness or racial difference: “The raggediest-looking trash you ever saw saying, ‘Look there. A nigger. Now don’t that beat all” (31-32). But Sethe momentarily forgets herself and admits that she’s a runaway slave. However, she does not forget the discourse of Southern etiquette: “I’m having a baby, miss,” and “Where you on your way to, miss?” [emphasis added] (32). And when Amy asks her name, Sethe’s knows that her freedom is contingent upon a lie. She assumes a cognomen-“Lu.” And whereas Sethe refuses to throw caution to the wind-“However far she was from Sweet Home, there was no point in giving out her name to the first person she saw” (33*)-Amy’s compassion momentarily overrides her racial privilege. Terms like “nigger” and “gal” are replaced by Sethe’s assumed name “Lu,” and Amy’s journey to Boston is put on hold while she assists Sethe during the night by rubbing her severely swollen feet and excoriated back. In the morning, she serves as midwife.
Once they have safely delivered the child and Sethe is able to complete her journey across the Ohio River toward Cincinnati, Amy reasserts White privilege-even though the narrator insists that they are similarly situated, “two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws” (84). Still Amy expects some return for her role as midwife: she admonishes Sethe to tell the child “who brought her into this here world…. Say Miss [emphasis added] Amy Denver. Of Boston” (85). Amy’s concern that the child know her name is both an assertion of privilege (“You better tell her. You hear?”) and an assertion of self as an important individual outside the system of indenture: a future Boston “lady” (85). Morrison’s depiction of this scene of birth demonstrates the cracks in the Southern code. The chance encounter between Sethe and Amy, like a similar meeting between Jim and Huck, in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, evolves from one of “master and slave” to one of equals, this so long as they remain in the neutral and secluded space of the woods and the river.
In response to this established “place” and in reaction to laws and common practices established during slavery to govern the master/slave relationships, 10 a Black survivalist protocol developed that found articulation in lectures from one’s elders or the signifying comments from the community. This is most especially prevalent when Northern relatives or friends return “Home” after residing up North or “Up South,” as Malaika Adero phrases it, or among those who have been educated outside the community and/or beyond the social level of the community. Consider for a moment Sula’s return to Medallion after a ten-year hiatus which has taken her across the country. Her mental and emotional distance from the town is evidenced by her language and her tone of voice toward Eva, her grandmother. Her first remarks to Nel are about the town, half of which, according to Sula “need killin”‘ and the other half needs “A drawn-out disease” (96). In response to Nel’s query, “Is Medallion that bad?” and her suggestion that Sula has been away “too long,” Sula replies, “Not too long, but maybe too far.” Nel is confused by this response: “What’s that suppose to mean?” (96). Sula pretends not to know what she herself means by “too far.” But she clearly means that she has outgrown the town and feels superior to those in it. Her remarks are simultaneously a commentary on her physical and intellectual distance from the town and her view of the stagnation of the town itself.
Sula’s iconoclastic attitude toward the town and her mental and emotional distance from it are evidenced by her language and its tone when she addresses her grandmother Eva. But it is a mutual challenge about the proper behavior each owes the other. Eva asks about Sula’s intentions and if she plans to stay in Medallion: “Where’s your coat?” while Sula immediately challenges Eva’s “manners”: “Don’t you say hello to nobody when you ain’t seen them for ten years?” Eva then calls the question on Sula, “If folks let somebody know where they is and when they coming, then other folks can get ready for them. If they don’t-if they just pop in all sudden like-then they got to take whatever mood they find” (91-92). This exchange between Eva and Sula bears not just the ethics of separation and education that produce a change in the behavior of granddaughter toward grandmother but the seeds of the granddaughter’s questioning-through her behavior-the old ways and her readiness to posit a new ethic that will set the entire community in a whirlwind of disbelief and fear.
Sula’s behavior toward her grandmother and her real threat to the community’s values arise when she conspires to have Eva committed to an asylum. What the narrative reinforces is the notion that those who leave the village and return are changed by experiences outside the community and can no longer live by the old rules. More importantly, however, those who leave and return often feel the need not merely to challenge but to change the status quo. Sula’s behavior engenders all kinds of responses and accusations-the worst of which is not that she sleeps with her best friend’s husband and her neighbors’ husbands but that she sleeps with White men. This indignity implicitly recalls for the community the long night of enslaved African women who were forced into sexual intimacy with White men. Thus, for Sula to have sex with a White man-if indeed she does-is to fly in the face of Black women’s tragic history and to thumb her nose at communal values. When the community imagines the scene of coitus with Sula “underneath some white man,” they are “filled with choking disgust” because for them “all unions between white men and black women [should be regarded as] `rape. “‘ The narrator adds that for a Black woman to “willing[ly]” consent to such a union “was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did” (113). In their disapproval of Sula, the community of Medallion enforces the Black ethic of survival that governs actions outside and power within the Black community. Sula violates both spaces when she challenges the community’s values.
This brief reference to Sula is a prelude to more detailed analyses of the kind of Black ethic in Song of Solomon that develops out of the Black Southern experience: an ethic that is social, gendered, and familial. The scene alluded to in the epigraph to this paper occurs quite early in Song of Solomon. The second sentence of the epigraph says it all. Even though Guitar had not been up North for long, “he had just begun to learn that he could speak up to white people” (7). Guitar focuses upon the nurse’s orthography, while his grandmother calls attention to the nurse’s “bad” manners. Further, Guitar is surprised that a White woman can misspell a word: “Granny, she left out a s,” his grandmother responds, “And a please” (7). The brief discussion of the White nurse’s behavior ends with the grandmother’s remark, but the repartee establishes immediately the differences between the authoritative attitudes of some Whites toward Blacks and the fact that such behaviors do not go unnoticed by Blacks. Mrs. Bains, Guitar’s grandmother, was already aware of the nurse’s color and behavior before Guitar remarks the misspelling. When Mrs. Bains is addressed as “You,” she puts the voice and the color together and responds in a manner she had long been accustomed to: the “lowered . . . brows,” “veiled eyes,” the title of respect “Ma’am,” and the concomitant order given by a White person to a Black person (7). Guitar’s ingenuous response to the nurse is transformed later into a bitter hatred of Whites as he recounts the terrible accidental death of his father and the employer’s gesture of mollifying the family by offering them candy. The gesture sickens the boy Guitar and most certainly influences his decision to join the Seven Days in their commitment to an equivalent vengeance against the White community for each Black person killed by a White. Philip Page observes that Guitar’s obsession with his father’s death and “his bitterness toward it” lead him to embrace the “Days’ philosophy” in order “to redress those perceived wrongs” (94). For Guitar, therefore, Emmett Till’s death is just one more nail in the coffin of a White person who must be sacrificed. But for Morrison, Till’s death is a complex act that in one respect holds up to her readers the Black ethics of survival in the South. Till is not only a teenage foil to the younger Guitar who tells a White woman that she cannot spell but is also an example of what happens to a Black male who would dare to whistle at a Southern White woman. The Southern White ethos demands his castration and death. Both the Seven Days and the North provide an outletalbeit a warped ethic of equivalent revenge-a way for Guitar to get even. However, the vigilante ethic espoused by the Seven Days resembles the Southern White ethic whenever the issue involves the taboo against White/Black social relationships and/or violence perpetrated by Blacks against Whites. This real or perceived violation and penetration of the invisible, yet understood, boarder between the Black world and the White calls for redress or lynching of the perpetrator.
The manifest ethic of Black values designed to counter White disrespect is played out when Milkman heads for Danville, Pennsylvania, in search of gold in Hunters Cave. When the cave yields none, Milkman continues to Virginia, where Pilate had once lived during her journeys across the country. In the course of the journey, he learns from strangers (but people who knew his father and grandparents) that wealth can be both a sign of success and an insult to those who lack it. When, for instance, he meets Reverend Cooper and Circe in Danville, they signal their displeasure with his flaunting his money and his offering to pay them as his gesture of gratitude. They do not directly challenge the insult, but Milkman senses from the shift in their tones of voice that he has said something wrong. After all, he “had never had to make a pleasant impression on a stranger before,” nor did he recall “ever asking anybody in the world how they were” (229). Momentarily caught up in Milkman’s name and family, Reverend Cooper apologizes for his own failure to follow the unwritten rules of hospitality. “Oh, Lord,” he says to Milkman, “I’m forgetting myself. You must be hungry” (229-30). Milkman, by contrast, seems to have no sense of the “manners”/hospitality Reverend Cooper has in mind: Milkman assumes that money will take care of everything or those things that symbolize money. The shirt he gives to Reverend Cooper’s nephew, is an example: he “seemed interested only in Milkman’s clothes, which he took every opportunity to examine” (237).
Milkman’s habit of “paying” his way or helping someone else by offering money leads eventually to a brutal awakening for him. When he offers Circe money to move from the woods, she rebuffs his offer in a cold voice, “Put your money back in your pocket” (246). Milkman gets a similar reaction from Fred Garnett, who offers him a ride and a lesson in behavior towards his “people” even though they may be strangers. To Milkman’s question, “What do I owe you? For the Coke and all?” Garnett replies with a look and a gesture that are not lost on Milkman. “I ain’t got much, but I can afford a Coke and lift now and then” (255). Garnett accentuates his disgust by shutting the door on Milkman’s voice.
By the time Milkman reaches Virginia, he begins to focus on the fact that people’s generosity has nothing to do with their fascination with his father’s wealth nor with him; rather, it is part of their learned behavior. He is aware of “his ability to get information and help from strangers,” their attraction to him, and their generosity (Need a place to stay? Want a good place to eat?). This momentary epiphany goes to the heart of the argument of this paper: “All that business about southern hospitality was real” (260). At this juncture Milkman observes that “there wasn’t a white face around, and the Negroes were as pleasant, wide-spirited, and self-contained as could be” (260).
Morrison is clear on this point about the inculcation of civility among Blacks in the South as a way of looking out for one another in the midst of racial segregation, degradation, and limited resources. Their gestures of generosity come out of a knowledge of the paucity of resources in the Black community and the resourcefulness that makes it possible for one member or one family to stretch what little they have to accommodate the needs of others. Milkman “wondered why black people ever left the South” (260).
In spite of this awakening to the generosity of Black Southerners, Milkman will have to unlearn or modify his behavior as a rich Northern Black in light of his recognition that he earned the rewards he got here. Milkman’s conclusion that this recognition is based entirely upon the force of his personal character leads to the ultimate deflation of his ego and the knowledge that his self-absorption must give way to the humanity of others. In other words, the process of learning the ethics of interacting with other Blacks is slow, but deep and lasting because his rudeness and incivility toward the Black community of Shalimar must be literally beaten into his head. Circe tells him long before he heads for Virginia, “You don’t listen to people. Your ear is on your head, but it’s not connected to your brain” (247).
Milkman’s first misstep in Shalimar is to assume that the men of Shalimar are ready to enter into sexual discourse with him or that his money can necessarily purchase whatever he needs, including a woman. In both instances he realizes from the men’s body language that his desiring Shalimar women and flaunting his wealth (“I may have to buy a another car to get back home,” ) are not well received by the men at Solomon’s store. In fact, the men are “insulted” by his swagger and banter. “They looked with hatred at the city Negro who could buy a car as if it were a bottle of whiskey because the one he had was broken” (269). Moreover, Milkman “hadn’t bothered to say his name, nor ask theirs, had called them `them”‘; nor had Milkman shown any appreciation for their condition. He had demonstrated by “his manner, his clothes,” and by his “thin shoes and suits with vests and smooth hands” that he was better than they. “They had seen him watching their women and rubbing his fly” and “lock his car as soon as he got out of it.” Neither had he “found them fit enough to want to know their names and believed himself too good to tell them his” (269).
The most telling observation and interior commentary by the men of Shalimar go directly to the core of Black Southern ethics: the “crime” of diminishing one’s people by flaunting White values. “They looked at his skin and saw it was as black as theirs, but they knew he had the heart of the white men who came to pick them up in the trucks when they needed anonymous, faceless laborers” (269). Insulted by Milkman’s depersonalization of them, the men in turn treat him as the “Other,” “the Negro with the Virginia license and the northern accent” (266). Thus, what begins for Milkman as an inflated ego and a conviction that he had “earned” the admiration of the community turns out to be a bloody and formidable test of his manhood by the men of Shalimar. They bait him by bringing up the subject of money and women in the most vulgar terms until the dialogue takes on the discussion of the size of one’s penis-the test by which men evaluate their masculinity. Milkman’s use of a phallic symbol-a Coke bottle-to defend himself is countered by his adversary’s use of another such symbol-a knife. But this bloody scene is a mere prelude to what the Shalimar men deem the “real” phallic symbol-the gun. “You pretty good with a bottle. How you with a shotgun?” (267).
In this scene of masculine play, Morrison posits the notion that the men of Shalimar must, like Milkman, prove their worth on their own terms and in their own territory. They cannot live with themselves if they permit a strangereven though he is a successful Black man-to put them down or show them up. They have endured such insults from Whites, but cannot countenance such behavior from a Black man. Furthermore, they must punish him for his refusal to see them as equals and to regain the self-worth they momentarily lose under his gaze. Once Milkman admits his fear during the hunt and can laugh with the others about that fear, he becomes one of them. He is the “butt of their humor, but it was good-humored humor” (281).
The hunt results in Milkman’s examination of his behavior towards others and the recognition that he is not the center of other people’s interests nor the envy of all who see his conspicuous wealth. The scene of interior musing, presented through free indirect discourse reveals Milkman’s struggle to understand himself in relation to others:
Maybe the glow of hero worship (twice removed) that had bathed him in Danville had also blinded him. Perhaps the eyes of the men in Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, had not been bright with welcome and admiration. Maybe they were just curious or amused. He hadn’t stayed any place long enough to find out. (276)
His sojourn in Shalimar affords him the opportunity to find out who he really is and how he relates to other people. But he cannot see his self-absorption (even though his sister Lena had pointed it out to him long before he reached this juncture) or move beyond self-righteousness until he is willing to examine his relationships with other people.
The darkness of the woods and the loss of most of his possessions or his inability to use them provide an opportunity for him to look into his inner self and emerge with less attention to his own needs and more recognition of and concern for others. The hunters who seem like savages to Milkman are also, in his view, “Suspicious. Hot-tempered. Eager to find fault and despise any outsider” (276). He exonerates himself from any blame because “He had done nothing to deserve their contempt. Nothing to deserve the explosive hostility that engulfed him when he said he might have to buy a car” (277). Once he moves beyond self-righteousness and listens, as Circe had warned him back in Danville, to the sounds of the hunters and the woods, he can identify not just with his friend Guitar but with the Shalimar men as well.
Milkman’s tactile response to the Southern woods is not unlike Pauline’s and Sethe’s erotic responses discussed above. Consider, for example, Milkman’s musings upon Guitar’s attachment to the Southern landscape:
Milkman rubbed the back of his head against the bark. This was what Guitar had missed about the South-the woods, hunters, killing. But something had maimed him, scarred him like Reverend Cooper’s knot, like Saul’s missing teeth, and like his own father. He felt a sudden rush of affection for them all, and out there under the gum tree, within the sounds of men tracking a bobcat, he thought he understood Guitar now. Really understood him. (278)
After this reflection and Guitar’s attempt to strangle him, Milkman can enter into the humor and self-deprecation because he has come to understand that he did not need the trappings of wealth to be accepted by others, that when he can admit that he has fears, that in the woods he was “scared to death” (280), then the hunters can embrace him as one of them. He no longer limps (ostensibly maimed by his warped notion inherited from his father that money and the owning of things are what really matter) but has both feet firmly on the ground, and like his Shalimar “brothers” he is: “. . . exhilarated by simply walking the earth. Walking it like he belonged on it; his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extended down into the rock and soil, and were comfortable there–on the earth and on the place where he walked. And he did not limp” (281). He does not limp because he has accepted the world in which the men of Shalimar find pleasure and a measure of their manhood. Once they prove their point and regain their self-worth by testing Milkman’s strength against theirs, they are ready to receive him into their community.
Song of Solomon simultaneously plays out the notion of generosity and gracious acceptance, revealing Milkman’s ancestry while the currency of his wealth seems to both fascinate and insult the people whose knowledge and service he needs. In Shalimar, Virginia, Milkman gets the most brutal lesson in the civility that Circe and Garnett implicitly allude to in their gestures. In Shalimar, Milkman begins to understand that wealth and power are admirable for those Blacks who “make it” in the North-after all, that is the hope of those Southern Blacks who, for whatever reasons, remained in the South-but there is little tolerance for those Northern Blacks or those educated Blacks who look upon their Southern “brothers and sisters” with contempt and disdain. Milkman as social pariah vis-a-vis the Shalimar community is integrated into the community once he learns that in order to be a real part of the community he must respect the community, however limited their material resources may be. Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin observe that individuals like Sula and Milkman, among others, “may be ostracized for violating social codes of the community, but they are not expelled” (Harding and Martin 103). They are tolerated, like Sula, or given a chance to redeem themselves, like Milkman.
Money and the concomitant fruits of money can, no doubt, be divisive elements within the Black community, since many Blacks who acquire money, recognition, education-some of the major consequences of wealth-feel that the community is no longer relevant to them. But such individuals must learn, as Harding and Martin argue, that “the only way to find individual fulfillment in Morrison’s world is within the collective context,” (Harding and Martin 102), one that insists upon a knowledge of a Southern past that engendered a Black ethic rooted in slavery and harvested in a desire and a press for intra-racial and universal respect.
‘Bone says of the South in African American fiction: “Either the vast majority of Afro-Americans still lived in the rural South, or the Southern migrant, transplanted to the city pavements from the green fields of his youth, persisted in bestowing on the place of his nativity the affectionate epithet of `down home”‘ (=ii). While Bone’s selected short fiction ends with the Harlem Renaissance, the literary affinity with the Southern past does not stop at his arbitrary ending of 1935. Morrison, writing some thirty-five years later, invents characters whose lives begin in the rural South or Northern characters whose experiences take them to the South. For further examples of narratives by Northern Black writers musing upon the South, see Adero.
2 Page notes that while Pauline and Cholly Breedlove lived in the South, they “were members of viable families and communities, and their youthful identities were comparatively healthy… But in the infertile soil of the North, each is cut off from meaningful group well-being and so neither can crate a stable adult identity” (46).
3 Holloway speaks to the issue of seeming unmotivated violence that erupts in the African American community and the need to search for causes. Holloway’s cogent comments are applicable to
Morrison’s fictional landscape of Black male repressed violence born in the heat of Southern white male abuse. Holloway writes, “Our effort has been to account only circumstantially for immorality of the absence of ethical conduct, but we have not been willing to explore the reasons behind the alternative ethics that operate when victims of racism become violent” (175). Clearly, Morrison, in recounting Cholly Breedlove’s early life experiences, holds up to her readers the complex matrices of
one Black male’s violent behavior engendered by his abandonment by his parents and his humiliation by Southern White men.
4 Genovese offers a controversial description of Southern more when he describes the behavior of White Southerners toward African Americans as one based not upon race but upon class. Genovese writes: “Politically, southern conservatives . . . strongly prefer a society of orders based on a hierarchy that recognizes human inequality-that is, inequality of human beings as individuals, not as members of a race. Historically, their viewpoint has often accompanied racism, but is has no necessary connection to it Southern conservatives have always distrusted mass politics of liberalism and social democracy and favored deference to duly constituted authority” (27). ‘ For an extended definition of signifying and its various connotations, see Gates. 6 Consider Toni Morrison, Tar Baby (New York: Plume, 1983) where Jadine Childs chooses an uncertain life in the Western world of European values. She looks down upon the achievements of
her African and African American ancestors, even the sacrifices her aunt and uncle have made to guarantee her access to better opportunities than they had.
7 For writers other than Morrison who have written detailed accounts of African American women in fiction fleeing the South or seeking other means to avoid rape and other crimes by Whites, see, among others, but especially James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York: Doubleday, 1952), Zora Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Lippincott, 1937) where Janie Crawford’s grandmother forces her to many an older Black man to protect Janie from potential sexual assault by White men.
8 In addition to Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and Black Boy, also see, among others, Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (New York: The Feminist Press, 1981),Praisesong for the Widow (New York: Plume, 1983), and Ntozake Shange, Betsey Brown (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985) for discussions of Black-White behavior in the North as well as the South. 9 The Fugitive Law of 1850 required that all Whites turn over to the nearest marshal or person of authority any fugitive slave. Besides the law, there were monetary rewards posted for runaway slaves.
‘o I am not suggesting that Amy knows that Sethe is a fugitive from Garner’s place, rather that Amy, as a White woman reared in the South knows how enslaved Black women are treated.
” See, among others, James O. Breeden, Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); George M. Stroud, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several Southern States of the United States of America, with Some Alterations and Considerable Additions, 1856 (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968); and John A Calhoun, “Management of Slaves,” DeBow ‘s Review 18 (1855): 713-719.
Adero, Malaika, ed. Up South: Stories, Studies and Letters of African American Migration. New York: The New P, 1993.
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Doubleday, 1952. Bone, Robert. Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Capricorn Books, 1975. Boney, F. N. Southerners All. 1984; (rev. ed) Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1990. Breeden, James 0. Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1980.
Calhoun, John A. “Management Among Slaves.” DeBow Review 18 (1855): 713-719. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey:A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New
York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Genovese, Eugene D. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Harding, Wendy and Jacky Martin. A World of Difference An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison ‘s Novels. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 1994.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. “Ethics.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. 21 ed. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P,1995. 387-405. Holloway, Karla, E C. Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP,1995.
Holt,Thomas C. “Black Life: Creative Expression of the Black Experience.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Wilson and Ferris.135-232.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Lippincott, 1937. Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. 21 ed. New York: The Feminist P,1981. -. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Plume,1983. Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume,1987. -. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square P, 1970. Song of Solomon. New York: Plume,1977. Sula. New York: Plume,1973.
Page, Phillip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P 1995.
Shange, Ntozake. Betsey Brown. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1995. Stroud, George M. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several Southern States of the United States of America, with Considerable Alterations and Considerable Additions. 1856. New York: Negro Universities P, 1968.
Wilson, Charles R. “Manners.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1989. 634-437.
Wright, Richard. BlackBoy. New York: Harper & Row, 1937. -. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch.” Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature. Ed Abraham Chapman. New York: Mentor, 1968. 288-298.
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