The Color-line and Sexual Abuse in Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child: A Review

After reading the first seven novels that Toni Morrison wrote, I declared a personal moratorium on her novels.  I enjoy complex novels, but I decided that I needed a respite from the great complexity. That respite, however, lasted eighteen years. I recently decided to purchase her most recent novel, God Help the Child.  The title grabbed me, and the first page transfixed me. Sweetness, one of the characters in the novel says, “I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father.  Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.  Tar is the closest I can think of yet her hair don’t go with the skin.”  Because of these issues, Lula Ann wrongly accuses a woman of sexual abuse.  She desires her mother’s attention, and therefore, engages in mendacity to achieve it. Unmistakingly, Morrison is making social and political statements within the novel in reference to both the color line in America, and to sexual abuse, and she makes it plain enough for everyone to comprehend. Frederick Douglass first coined the term the color- line and W.E. B. Dubois, later in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, expounded on the issue that was plaguing the world, not just America. The color-line is the relation of the darker to the lighter races of people throughout the world.

The first page of the novel riveted me because I myself have felt a fair amount of disdain from within my own race because of my skin color, although, my parents loved me and never made disparaging remarks about my color. My mother is a light brown complexion and my father and I shared a similar complexion. I still, however, felt the contempt from school children and from others within my own home for the color of my skin.  As a result of my adolescent experiences, I have during adulthood and continuing, put myself on a journey to like every aspect of myself including both my hair and my skin color. I tend to show both an increased amount of love and affection for darker skinned children because I know that they are not often esteemed as lighter skinned children. I wish that I did not feel as if I had to treat children differently based on skin color.  I am a victim, and equally a contributor to the issue still plaguing the world. Thus, when I began reading the first page of the novel, I easily identified with the main character in the novel. I hesitate to call her the protagonist, because in many ways she is no hero, but is a victim of the tragic mistakes that parents often make with their children. Although these issues are prevalent within the black community, I am sure it is not restricted to the black race. Through her novel, Morrison is making a statement about how childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and neglect, often leave long-lasting scars on children that affect them for the rest of their lives. The novel ends with the statement, “God, help the child.”  Indeed, God help the child!

God Help the Child is centered around a woman, renamed Bride (Lula Ann), and her friends who each have suffered a traumatic event in his or her childhood. She renamed herself Bride because of the connotations associated with brides. Brides often wear white. Bride, at the suggestion of a friend, began wearing white to reflect the beauty of her own black skin. She wears every shade of white and only white.  As a child, she was often alienated because of her “blue-black” skin. She has had difficulty working through all the conflict that her color produced.  She was rejected not only by both parents but by others in her community.  She spent her entire childhood trying to get her mother’s love, but not without detrimental effects. Bride and her friends also spend their lives trying to work through both the abuse and the trauma they have either witnessed or experienced. She and her two friends are all connected by some form of trauma, even though they are unaware of their connection.

The name of the characters in the novel all symbolize some trauma of their lives, and reflect their coping strategies. Bride’s best friend, Brooklyn, rescues her from a severe assault from the woman Bride wrongly accuses of sexual abuse.  The name Brooklyn is symbolic of the original Dutch name, “Breukelen” meaning “broken land” and even the American meaning for “brook” is significant; it means water or stream. Brooklyn is indeed broken by childhood abuse, and she provides herself as a lifeline for Bride. Water, is a sign of life. Bride’s lover, Booker, as his name implies, is concerned with books and with writing (He is broken too.). He is a deep thinker, which negatively impacts his ability to work through the trauma of losing his brother because of a sexual predator’s actions. He relives the trauma of his brother’s death, and cannot forgive his parents for their ability to move forward.

I wish that I could say that this story ends on a positive note.  At first glance it does. Bride is pregnant out-of-wedlock. The Bible says in Proverbs that “Children are a treasure from the Lord.” Unfortunately, neither Bride nor her lover have worked through the trauma of their lives for this child to feel the treasure that she will be.  They have not reconciled with their parents and with the events that have shaped their lives. The reader knows through the words of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, that the path for her unborn grandchild will be fraught with challenges. Sweetness says silently in her thoughts, “Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child.”

The novel provides subject matter that causes the reader to pause for reflection.The novel is both somber in tone and in content; it allows for both personal and powerful rumination for both parents and their adult children. Do not expect the typical Toni Morrison style of unfettered complexity, but perhaps upon careful meditation, one may accept the challenges of parenthood with both alacrity and God’s help. I recommend it, but the reader must know, that the novel is thought-provoking, with the hope that it will spur both parents and children toward positive action.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

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