The need to be fierce: In "Sweetness", Toni Morrison allows a mother to explain her actions
Anyone familiar with Toni Morrison's work would know about the gutting picture of slavery and racism that she painted with her stories. I remember, from when I first read Beloved (1987), that the powerful narrative shocked and terrified me, but it also came with the promise of an enriching experience to be found in post-colonial literature. I delved deeper into Morrison's other works— perhaps to learn about and have a working understanding of, even if it was only the tip of the iceberg, the collective experiences of African-American people and the trauma that has reverberated throughout the generations born hundreds of years after the American civil war. One such work that I came to love forevermore was Toni Morrison's short story, "Sweetness" (The New Yorker, 2015).
"She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black. 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...", a woman narrates in the opening scene of the story, as she frantically inspects her daughter minutes after giving birth, a voice that we later come to identify as 'Sweetness'. She is distressed about how her daughter's 'blackness' will reflect on her in a racially discriminatory America. As her daughter, Lula Ann, grows up, Sweetness mistreats and distances herself from the child, and even blames her for Sweetness's husband leaving, reasoning that she is only "hardening" Lula Ann to confront the cruelty of racism.
This story draws its strength from the viewpoint of its narration, in which Sweetness engages the readers by directly addressing them as she explains her actions and the mistreatment of her daughter. Her tone is equally affecting—simple, almost crude, yet powerful, sombre, and palpably claustrophobic. I find this most remarkable in Morrison's work that she uses language that is clean and uncomplicated, yet she manages to create an atmosphere of great complexity, evidently alluding to the complex themes of her fiction.
The themes of survival, acceptance, and liberation (from prejudice) at any cost echo throughout Morrison's larger body of work. In Beloved, for instance, Sethe is haunted by the child she killed in order to protect it from the violence of racism. In placing these ideas alongside the writer's other works, including "Sweetness", another pattern makes itself apparent across her oeuvre.
It didn't take me long to realise that the theme of postpartum depression is prevalent in most, if not all, of Morrison's works. Besides her physical and psychological state, the narrator of "Sweetness" is a victim to society's norms. The story, therefore, reads almost like an erratic rant at times, but perhaps it is closer to a lonely person pouring her heart out to the sole being who will care to listen—the reader. It is tragic the way she takes her roughness with Lula Ann with a grain of salt, yet as a human being she is losing the fight against the world. In the context of Morrison's body of work, "Sweetness" thus provides a rich and nuanced insight into the mind of a mother, a woman, an African-American hounded by the political realities of her time.
Sweetness's need to be fierce and pragmatic, as a mother often is, may be egregious, but there are moments when her helplessness betrays her sternness; there is almost a silent plea in her tone when she defends herself. In a time when America is still rife with racism, the mother despairs for her daughter's future. She is skeptical about their survival in a grossly othering society. And she is afraid for herself.
Toni Morrison's "Sweetness" is available on The New Yorker website.
Maisha Syeda is a writer, painter, and a graduate of English Literature and Writing. She is an intern at Daily Star Books.
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