Monday, October 22, 2012

The Lyrical Emotion of Toni Morrison’s Sula

There is a reason why Toni Morrison is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; why her celebrated literary genius has earned her great respect in our country and abroad.  Her poetic, imagery and telling narrative of historical moments is never more evident than in the emotional story of Sula.

I once commented that one is truly grown up when they can read Morrison and delve into the feelings behind her poetic writing.

Sula is a classic, first published in 1973, and at the cusp of black intellectual thought and progressive movements of the 1970s. Morrison was a contemporary of Dr. Angelou, each of these strong, black female writers contributed to the literary discourse we celebrate almost forty years later.
This historical fiction, set in a small Ohio town, a place in the North, begins in 1919 and ends in 1965 – spanned that crucial time in American history from the end of World War I to the height of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights era.  It follows the characters of this small town, set apart, not the integrated North imagined in the segregated South.  The time, the era is a backdrop to this story that is at once about that time and place, the limitations it placed on the men and women, the location of their part of town, the Bottoms in what was then the most undesirable (to the whites) location – away from the town center, away from the water, the place where rainfall ran down the hill to the valley, to where the whites lived and prospered.  Yet, this book was not about that part of the story.

This story resonated with me most deeply because I just returned to my second hometown, the place where I moved to as a little girl, much like some of the characters in Sula.  The place where the whites had their side of town and rituals and the blacks had their’s.  A place where I met my first friend, both of us in 3rd grade, formative time, growing time, as Nel said at the end of the book, “we were girls together.” 

This book is about the two girls who became women, who shared the deep bond forged through the discovery of life, until adult choices rendered them on different paths.  They came back together, later in life, and one careless act destroyed and silenced the yearning of both their hearts, unrealized until the final place called one home, illuminating the void, the thing hoped for all the years before.

Who can know the heart of a woman? Who can know her motives? Who can know her thoughts? Sometimes it truly is that first friend, that girl who shared your little girl secrets and giggles at the lake, the one who knew your thoughts before you spoke them, the bond between you so deep,  45 years in the making. 

This book joins the anthology that is Toni Morrison’s lyrical, poetic, illustrative, probing prose – uncovering emotions and rendering them in plain view to be examined, evaluated, and endeared.

Sula is a woman we journey with through the wanderings of her life and quest for selfhood in a time of turmoil, change, upheaval, and unrest. She went against tradition in more than one way.  She held a terrible secret, learned independence by the way she was raised, used men for one purpose only, and even in the end, departed under her own terms, she was a feminist without being called one.  

This novel aquaints and reaquaints us with those things we love and loathe about everyone knowing everyone.  A small town can be unforgiving if one acts outside the norm and can be protective of its own unusual characters when faced with an onslaught of outsiders.  As in this small town in Ohio, like my small town in Missouri, we meet a cast of characters that make communal living at times funny and at other times frightening.  

We understand the quirks of certain characters, like Shaddrack out on Suicide Day, and as time goes on, generations change, and celebrations happen without remembering the origin, we understand the dynamic that binds us to a place, makes it part of our identity.  The draw back home, even while exploring the world, sometimes is a matter of the heart being healed and love being remembered.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Wake of the Wind

Wake of the WindJ. California Cooper has sealed a place for herself in my heart and on my bookshelf.

Her at times lyrical and at other times observational writings in The Wake of the Wind
has given me a glimpse into the heart and mind of a time beyond my knowing.

The book is set in the waning moments of the Civil War and the dawning of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It is told through the main voice of two former slaves who journey from the darkest, darkest places of bondage - Texas - to eventually a land where their next generations will prosper - Virginia.

Mor and Lifee have earned a place in my imaginary great hall of ancestors who paved a path for the rest of us to follow - all of us who have ancestors who were once captured from the lush green and vibrant winds of the great motherland of Africa.

Africa, that still weeps for her millions and millions of sons and daughters who were stolen to feed an insatiable greed, opened the beautiful story of this book and shared her thoughts about what she lost.  One can only imagine if the beauty and ability that led Mor and Lifee to form family from the cobbled bits of oppression and create opportunity in the midst of opposition had been allowed to remain in Africa, where would she have been?

There have probably been a few books that have cultivated such a place in my soul, there are only a few that reach through time and speak wisdom and knowledge to a new generation, The Wake of the Wind is just such a book, if only the new generations will listen.

J. California Cooper managed to take the difficult story of the emerging freedoms of blacks set against the consuming frustration of poor whites who suddenly found themselves without the one thing that made them superior.  This story touched on the history of America that is as complicated and interwoven as the high designs Lifee would sew for the wealthier clients.  Like the thread that goes through the needle, the story of race and wealth in this country exists only because one was inside the other.

I highly recommend this book.  If you are white - read it. If you are black - read it.  If you are alive - study it for in reading about the anecdotes about things we grapple with today occurred, you become more equipped to respond, and respond from a place of truth.

This is one of the most revealing books about where my nation sits today, at another wind of change, forces swirling around like a tornado, each trying desperately to hold onto what they think is permanent, all hit with the waves of debris that twirl through the air, endangering us all.  It is also a time where if we simply stop and look back and understand how we got here, that we can possibly, possibly move forward.  Aman and Able, the first generation of sons born to Mor and Lifee after slavery managed to use their unique look to pave a way for the second generation after slavery and on into the future.  Each had to forge a place in a world that would threaten their soul if they hadn't had the foundation, tenacity, and strong wisdom of their mother, the quiet hard work of their father, and the force of previous generations to rush them into a new life.

The wind blows on the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the black and the white - alike.  The difference is if there is recognition of life after the wake.

The links to the previous excerpts I provided as I studied the book have been provided here:

You must read this book!

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