In the 19th and early 20th century, many African Americans were lynched and hung from trees and bridges, in public gatherings. Back then, these lynchings were big events where many 'white men' gathered, some even stood by and smiled, as African Americans were beaten and murdered because of their race. In fact, the photos of these lynchings were then made into postcards and casually circulated.
In 1974, author Toni Morrison collated, edited and published a scrapbook titled The Black Book, made out of such postcards. In that scrapbook, she also included parts of not only the painful but also the glorious African American past, from advertisements of slave auctions, newspaper clippings, letters, sheet music, freedom chants to pictures of war heroes, patent documents of the typewriter, washing machine and other things that were invented by African Americans. The idea behind this scrapbook in Morrison's own words was to capture 'all the elements that distinguished black life.' The Black Book is, to date, one of the best anthologies on African Americans lives.
Forty-five years after the publication of The Black Book, Morrison breathed her last on 6 August in New York. She is one of the most celebrated authors in American History, who wrote about racial prejudice against African Americans, and specifically highlighted the everyday struggles of African American women. Often referred to as the First Lady of Literature, she is the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Unfortunately, in India, her powerful words and moving stories have only reached the 'upper' class, English educated readers over the years. I say it is 'unfortunate' because most of her stories are not about the upper class, educated individuals, no matter how much they admire, enjoy or love to read them. Her stories perhaps would resonate more with members of marginalized communities or lower rung of the social strata in India, people who may not have even heard of her, or worse still, may never have had the opportunity to read a book, go to school, or learn any Indian or foreign language, such as English.
Will Dalit daily wage workers not understand the fear, pain and injustice of mob lynching depicted in The Black Book? Will it be hard for a domestic helper working in one of Delhi or Mumbai's posh houses to understand Pauline's desire to have her employers' (The Fishers') seemingly perfect lives (in The Bluest Eye)? Would an Indian tenant farmer not be able to relate to the African American in Sula who struck a deal with the white landowning farmer, but was cheated badly?
In India, we rarely discuss race. But, a quick glance through any newspaper or news website will tell you that caste, religion and gender-based discrimination is not uncommon here. Perhaps that is why Morrison's stories touch us so deeply as readers because she talks about discrimination we have also witnessed in our neighbourhoods, and in our lives. Maybe it has a different name here, but the basic traits are the same.
I discovered my first Morrison, The Bluest Eye, in Kolkata's Boipara (College Street) during my college years. Stacked on top of a tall pile of books, just outside a small secondhand bookstall which had walls, and a counter made of books, I quickly took a liking to the book, because of its name. I haggled with the shopkeeper and finally bought the tattered secondhand copy for forty-five rupees, and a promise of reselling it after I was done reading. As a Philosophy student, stuck with the likes of Descartes and Immanuel Kant, this book seemed like a 'light read', although it wasn't quite.
Morrison, I later learnt, was already quite popular among English majors in my college. They had endless praises to sing about her style of narration and the unusual similes. I, however, loved The Bluest Eye and her other works for entirely different and very personal reasons.
Growing up in a small town in North Bengal, surrounded by tea estates, I regularly crossed paths with many tea pluckers who were mostly tribals. My grandfather worked in one such tea gardens, and I was told that my great grandmother wouldn't allow tribals domestic helpers in her kitchen for as long as she lived, which obviously is deeply discriminatory and disturbing. While my grandmother thankfully wasn't like that at all, discrimination against tribals was common back in the day in every household in some subtle form or the other, so much so that it had become a social norm.
Some families separated utensils, few ill-treated the tribal employees, some didn't even acknowledge their existence, while others made them the butts of jokes and ridicule. The kids of certain 'babu' families were dissuaded by their mothers from playing with the kids of Adivasis, and yet, for my entire childhood, I had never suspected any discrimination around me.
It was Morrison's books that urged me to go back and reexamine the mundane and as I did, I discovered that such subtle yet reoccurring form of social discrimination, that I had until then paid little attention to, and accepted without questions, existed all around me. It was Morrison who taught me to see such 'norms' for what they really are -- social constructs, like casteism or racism. It made me think of how the staff quarters, and the tea pluckers' lane, which was barely a mile apart often represented two different worlds and although they were nice to us, and we were civil to them, there was always a sharply demarcated 'us' and 'them', and often the 'us' had a strange urge to demonstrate their superiority. Morrison's works made me question such absurd prejudicial behaviour that we imbibe and propagate without thinking. In her own words, "If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem."
Because I never had a Claudine in my life, it was The Bluest Eye that also burst the beauty myth for me. It finally freed me from the obsession of Barbie dolls and a 'particular kind of beauty' that is often shown with adoration in popular media. In The Bluest Eye, Claudine points out, "Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured " although it wasn't what she had wanted for Christmas. The idea of beauty in popular culture is so narrow that it discriminates against majority of body types, skin types, ethnicities, as well as class making it very hard for young girls of diverse background to grow up with a healthy body image, Morrison taught me that before beauty magazines started writing articles about 'body image', and 'body shaming', all the while putting a size zero model on their covers.
Since my college years, I have revisited The Bluest Eye several times, and I am touched every time I read it. But, I have loved other works of Morrison too. Beloved was such a heartbreaking, yet beautiful story to read, so was Sula and Song of Solomon. But, what always stays with me, as far as Morrison's writings are concerned, is not her words, which are the most beautiful things ever committed to paper, or her stories, which are fascinating and brilliantly woven, but the empathy and love with which she moulds each of her characters -- be it Shadrack, Pecola, or Sethe and even someone like Cholly -- they are more human than people I know.
All of her tales of discrimination are unforgettable. They linger like the stubborn ghost of Beloved, refusing to leave; and with years they grow more pertinent than ever. Although Morrison is gone, she is most alive and present in those stories. Like she very wisely said, 'what is loved is never lost', neither is she. 'She is a friend of my mind. She gathers me... the pieces that I am, and gives them back to me, in all the right order.'
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