The strikingly black lady in pristine white beckons from the covers of Toni Morison’s God Help The Child, her white dress dissolving into the whiteness of the covers. That is Bride, the protagonist of Morrison’s book that holds so much pain, so much hurt… ugly, uncovered truths like scratched wounds with pink raw flesh lying bare for all to see.
It is, as evident from the title, spun around the horrors of child abuse. Shakingly so. But not just one form of it— the countless ways in which children suffer abuse at the hands of the world; their own family, too. It is a map of childhood betrayals that trace their path all the way to adulthood, shaping the individual in strange patterns, restricting the healing of broken parts that sting every now and then.
Bride is the African-American girl, born so black that she ‘scared’ even her black parents, abandoned by her father who believes her mother cheated. She is all but abandoned by her mother, too, so repulsed by her ‘blue-black’ skin she refuses to touch the child, giving her as little physical contact as possible, not allowing the girl to call her ‘momma’ but merely Sweetness, her name.
First Sweetness, then Bride. The names are unusual, snagging attention. Until you realise that Bride has been carved from Lula Ann Bridewell ; carefully picked by its owner to carve out a life where her blackness can be transformed from cringe to awe. Bride is the regional manager of a successful cosmetics company, she has her own product line, too. And she wears only white. All white clothes, no make up, no accessories. Such is the advice given to her by Jeri, the ‘total person’ designer, transforming her into the proverbial swan, an exotic beauty that makes people catch their breath.
There are so many things that Morrison states along the way, subtle observations weaving through her central theme. How Bride, scorned for her blackness, getting countless refusals at job interviews, “ got to be a buyer only after rock-dumb white girls got promotions or screwed up so bad they settled for somebody who actually knew about stock” skyrockets to regional manager as soon as she gets the all-white makeover. The artificiality of ‘professionalism’ that disregards a less-than-beautiful woman.
How Brooklyn, Bride’s best friend is wondering about filling Bride’s position at the company while she recovers from a vicious assault that lands her in hospital. The artificiality of friends.
How little Lula Ann unwittingly ruins another woman’s life in her quest for her mother’s appreciation, her thirst for the love long denied. The artificiality of love. Artificiality,even, of those that give birth to you — parents.
The core of the book, though, is what Sweetness realises later: “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” You never really soften toward Sweetness, but she does make you pause at the end when she says, “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.”
What Rain, the adopted daughter of a couple living in the middle of nowhere, narrates of her prostitute mother who lets people “do it to her”, what little Lula Ann watches through her window—her landlord bent over a little boy whimpering in pain… what Booker, Bride’s man, carries with him in the image of his brother’s mutilated child-body half-eaten by maggots, one of six children whose murderer had their names tattooed on his body… indeed, you want to say Amen when Morrison says god help the child.
(This piece was first published in the Shelf Life column in Financial Chronicle on Nov 6, 2015)