God Help the Office Clerks: Book Review of God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
June 1, 2015
by katherine frain, managing editor
Strangely, there’s nothing that God Help the Child reminds me of so much as Parks & Rec.
Not because it’s about a group of well-meaning bureaucrats – no one in God Help the Child is so moralizing, nor do they ever put the meticulous details of protocol above their own needs. No, what brings Parks & Rec and Toni Morrison together is Rashida Jones.
A few months ago, Rashida Jones hit the headlines again. Not for anything Anne Perkins – sweet, pragmatic, perpetually perplexed Anne – had done on Parks & Rec, but because a reporter had asked Jones how she kept her skin so flawlessly tanned. The answer was genetics: Rashida Jones is black.
Well, actually, she’s a color that Sweetness, mother of the main character of God Help the Child, would call ‘high yellow’. High yellow is more than a skin tone for Sweetness and her ‘blue-black’ daughter Bride. High yellow is refined, sophisticated, closer to white. It’s a color that defines and redefines how Sweetness and Bride are treated, both by the world and each other.
On Parks & Rec, non-white characters supposedly abound: Donna, a no-nonsense, pining-for-the-good-life black woman works side-by-side with Tom, a shiftless Indian pencil-pusher who would hock his heart of gold on eBay if he ever found it. April sarcastically attributes her character’s flat affect to her mother’s Puerto Rican feistiness. And of course, there’s Rashida Jones as Anne, the sidelined girlfriend of a sweet if clueless musician who eventually becomes one of the main characters of the series.
In Parks & Rec, the quote-on-quote “diverse” characters – as most TV shows not directly marketed to a minority group – are thrown into relief by a sweet and clueless white woman. Call it the Orange is the New Black Effect. Leslie Knope opens Parks & Rec by whispering conspiratorially to us that Tom is from Pakistan. South Carolina, he says. She doesn’t hear.
The central conflict in God Help the Child is remarkably like this; Bride has cried out and Sweetness has used the color of her skin to justify not listening. The world, Sweetness had decided, will be cruel to her child. And so Sweetness would be cruel first, to teach Bride what lies ahead.
The story isn’t all mother-daughter, of course. Years later, Bride has taken Sweetness’ wounds and calcified them over. She’s gone from a girl so self-conscious it was maniacal to a shadow of a woman unable to turn her focus to the world, even now that she’s found beauty in her blackness by clothing herself only in shades of white. Her world, a Corinthian knot of money and privilege defined by the cosmetic line she’s designed, is cut to ribbons when the only man she’s ever really been able to love disappears with seven words: “You not the woman I thought.”
This becomes Bride’s rallying call. Her clarion cry, her drive to track through the distance a man she freely admits was her love only because he served as a blank slate for herself, and because they had fantastic sex.
It’s only because of Toni Morrison’s flawless delivery that the ability of a woman to walk away from a million-dollar lifestyle and disappear into the salt flats of an unnamed desert never struck me as strange, just as I never questioned Rain, the erstwhile stray of a well-meaning couple who find Bride’s crashed car in the wilderness. Rain becomes the strange antithesis to Bride, and the personification of the scrubby land: mysterious and selective in her details, holding horror and redemption in tow. It’s Rain who becomes the odd child to Bride just as Bride is regressing to a child herself, her sexual characteristics and signs of womanhood lost in a reverse puberty, the body fleeing its loss by fleeing itself. And it’s Rain who sends Bride on her way. Even if Bride credits herself with leaving, her story is closed by other voices. Rain announces Bride’s loss by announcing Bride saved her. It’s the only time we see Bride’s truly good deed.
In her defense, Bride is someone whose goodness was corrupted young. Sweetness blames the girl for her husband’s loss. Bride blames Sweetness for everyone else’s. The consequences of Sweetness’s coldness and Bride’s pathological need to be held reopen. It’s impossible to decide who’s good, who’s right, who’s the hero in all of this.
While Sweetness is cruel, she isn’t wrong. Colorism exists; high yellow in America has traditionally been considered more desirable, European-esque features more beautiful. Bride, dressed in all white, stands in opposition to tradition by simply being everything that she is – a sexually liberated woman, a woman entrepreneur and primary breadwinner, a woman who is deep, pure blue-black. I can’t help but remember how the brunt of the racial jokes in Parks & Rec fell on Tom, how Donna instead of Anne was considered hypersexualized – a common historical trope for black women. Bride became fundamentally transgressive. But was she already, by virtue of existing? Read the book. You should think about the answer for yourself.