Dark Ink: Into the heart of blackness

21 April 2015 - 02:14 By Gaby Wood, ©The Daily Telegraph

Toni Morrison is forbidding and theatrical in appearance, but her smile is glorious when it comes. Though she is 84, and pain makes her shuffle slowly across the floor, weakness is not a word one would ever associate with her. In her latest novel, God Help the Child, an extremely black-skinned woman who has been raised by her mother to believe she is ugly turns her blackness into a source of strength. But it is all superficial, and over the course of the novel she finds herself shrinking and losing her womanhood, until she can learn how to rise above appearances.Beside the question of "skin privileges" - the superior treatment by black people of the light-skinned among them - every character is touched by child abuse.And there's a particular view of racism, not hammered home but abundantly clear. One of the protagonists becomes a postgraduate economics student because he finds the African-American Studies department fails to address a simple proposition: that "most of the real answers concerning slavery, lynching, forced labour, sharecropping, racism, Jim Crow, prison labour, migration, civil rights and black revolution movements were all about money".Is that what Morrison thinks? "I know it," she says. "Race is the classification of a species. And we are the human race, period. But the other thing - the hostility, the racism - is the money-maker. And it also has some emotional satisfaction for people who need it."Slavery, she suggests, "moved this country closer to the economy of an industrialised Europe, far in advance of what it would have been".Last year Morrison reflected in an interview: "The issue of racism is not static. You just have to swim in it for a bit."Since then, Eric Garner has been strangled by white policemen on Staten Island, Michael Brown has been shot by white policemen in Ferguson, Walter Scott has been shot by a white policeman in South Carolina."People keep saying, 'We need to have a conversation about race'," she says now. "This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, 'Is it over?', I will say yes."In words that are simple and cadences that are sometimes incantatory, through action that is both true to life and magical, Morrison has conveyed a series of black perspectives and thrown her readers into a world they had not previously met in fiction, and realigned American history by choosing the people through whom it might be told. "God Help the Child" is available from Exclusive Books for R387

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