Over the years, decades even, black men have been faced

Over the years, decades even, black men have been faced with the stigma of “lazy,” dead-beat dads, afraid of commitment, etc. How does Morrisonperpetuate this stereotype in the story?

  • ToniMorrisonSweetness.pdf

Toni Morrison, “Sweetness” Toni Morrison (1931-2019) was the author of twelve

novels. She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it

happened. It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between

my legs for me to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. 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. Tar is the closest I can think of, yet her hair don’t go with the

skin. It’s different—straight but curly, like the hair on those naked tribes in

Australia. You might think she’s a throwback, but a throwback to what? You

should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white, married a white man, and

never said another word to any one of her children. Any letter she got from my

mother or my aunts she sent right back, unopened. Finally they got the message of

no message and let her be. Almost all mulatto types and quadroons did that back in

the day—if they had the right kind of hair, that is. Can you imagine how many white

folks have Negro blood hiding in their veins? Guess. Twenty per cent, I heard. My

own mother, Lula Mae, could have passed easy, but she chose not to. She told me

the price she paid for that decision. When she and my father went to the

courthouse to get married, there were two Bibles, and they had to put their hands

on the one reserved for Negroes. The other one was for white people’s hands. The

Bible! Can you beat it? My mother was a housekeeper for a rich white couple. They

ate every meal she cooked and insisted she scrub their backs while they sat in the

tub, and God knows what other intimate things they made her do, but no touching

of the same Bible. Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves

according to skin color—the lighter the better—in social clubs, neighborhoods,

churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little

dignity? How else can we avoid being spit on in a drugstore, elbowed at the bus

stop, having to walk in the gutter to let whites have the whole sidewalk, being

charged a nickel at the grocer’s for a paper bag that’s free to white shoppers? Let

alone all the namecalling. I heard about all of that and much, much more. But

because of my mother’s skin color she wasn’t stopped from trying on hats or using

the ladies’ room in the department stores. And my father could try on shoes in the

front part of the shoe store, not in a back room. Neither one of them would let

themselves drink from a “Colored Only” fountain, even if they were dying of thirst.

I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward the baby, Lula

Ann, embarrassed me. Her birth skin was pale like all babies’, even African ones,

but it changed fast. I thought I was going crazy when she turned blue-black right

before my eyes. I know I went crazy for a minute, because—just for a few

seconds—I held a blanket over her face and pressed. But I couldn’t do that, no

matter how much I wished she hadn’t been born with that terrible color. I even

thought of giving her away to an orphanage someplace. But I was scared to be one

of those mothers who leave their babies on church steps. Recently, I heard about a

couple in Germany, white as snow, who had a dark-skinned baby nobody could

explain. Twins, I believe—one white, one colored. But I don’t know if it’s true. All I

know is that, for me, nursing her was like having a pickaninny sucking my teat. I

went to bottle-feeding soon as I got home. My husband, Louis, is a porter, and

when he got back off the rails he looked at me like I really was crazy and looked at

the baby like she was from the planet Jupiter. He wasn’t a cussing man, so when he

said, “God damn! What the hell is this?” I knew we were in trouble. That was what

did it—what caused the fights between me and him. It broke our marriage to

pieces. We had three good years together, but when she was born he blamed me

and treated Lula Ann like she was a stranger— more than that, an enemy. He never

touched her. I never did convince him that I ain’t never, ever fooled around with

another man. He was dead sure I was lying. We argued and argued till I told him

her blackness had to be from his own family—not mine. That was when it got worse,

so bad he just up and left and I had to look for another, cheaper place to live. I did

the best I could. I knew enough not to take her with me when I applied to

landlords, so I left her with a teen-age cousin to babysit. I didn’t take her outside

much, anyway, because, when I pushed her in the baby carriage, people would lean

down and peek in to say something nice and then give a start or jump back before

frowning. That hurt. I could have been the babysitter if our skin colors were

reversed. It was hard enough just being a colored woman—even a high-yellow one—

trying to rent in a decent part of the city. Back in the nineties, when Lula Ann was

born, the law was against discriminating in who you could rent to, but not many

landlords paid attention to it. They made up reasons to keep you out. But I got

lucky with Mr. Leigh, though I know he upped the rent seven dollars from what he’d

advertised, and he had a fit if you were a minute late with the money. I told her to

call me “Sweetness” instead of “Mother” or “Mama.” It was safer. Her being that

black and having what I think are too thick lips and calling me “Mama” would’ve

confused people. Besides, she has funny-colored eyes, crow black with a blue tint—

something witchy about them, too. So it was just us two for a long while, and I

don’t have to tell you how hard it is being an abandoned wife. I guess Louis felt a

little bit bad after leaving us like that, because a few months later on he found out

where I’d moved to and started sending me money once a month, though I never

asked him to and didn’t go to court to get it. His fifty-dollar money orders and my

night job at the hospital got me and Lula Ann off welfare. Which was a good thing.

I wish they would stop calling it welfare and go back to the word they used when

my mother was a girl. Then it was called “relief.” Sounds much better, like it’s just

a short-term breather while you get yourself together. Besides, those welfare

clerks are mean as spit. When finally I got work and didn’t need them anymore, I

was making more money than they ever did. I guess meanness filled out their

skimpy paychecks, which was why they treated us like beggars. Especially when

they looked at Lula Ann and then back at me—like I was trying to cheat or

something. Things got better but I still had to be careful. Very careful in how I

raised her. I had to be strict, very strict. Lula Ann needed to learn how to behave,

how to keep her head down and not to make trouble. I don’t care how many times

she changes her name. Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my

fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not. Oh, yeah, I feel bad sometimes about how I

treated Lula Ann when she was little. But you have to understand: I had to protect

her. She didn’t know the world. With that skin, there was no point in being tough or

sassy, even when you were right. Not in a world where you could be sent to a

juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the

last one hired and the first one fired. She didn’t know any of that or how her black

skin would scare white people or make them laugh and try to trick her. I once saw a

girl nowhere near as dark as Lula Ann who couldn’t have been more than ten years

old tripped by one of a group of white boys and when she tried to scramble up

another one put his foot on her behind and knocked her flat again. Those boys held

their stomachs and bent over with laughter. Long after she got away, they were

still giggling, so proud of themselves. If I hadn’t been watching through the bus

window I would have helped her, pulled her away from that white trash. See, if I

hadn’t trained Lula Ann properly she wouldn’t have known to always cross the

street and avoid white boys. But the lessons I taught her paid off, and in the end

she made me proud as a peacock. I wasn’t a bad mother, you have to know that, but

I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her.

Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to

know who she was and just plain love her. But I do. I really do. I think she

understands now. I think so.Last two times I saw her she was, well, striking. Kind of

bold and confident. Each time she came to see me, I forgot just how black she

really was because she was using it to her advantage in beautiful white clothes.

Taught me a lesson I should have known all along. What you do to children matters.

And they might never forget. As soon as she could, she left me all alone in that

awful apartment. She got as far away from me as she could: dolled herself up and

got a big-time job in California. She don’t call or visit anymore. She sends me money

and stuff every now and then, but I ain’t seen her in I don’t know how long. I

prefer this place—Winston House—to those big, expensive nursing homes outside

the city. Mine is small, homey, cheaper, with twenty-four-hour nurses and a doctor

who comes twice a week. I’m only sixty-three—too young for pasture— but I came

down with some creeping bone disease, so good care is vital. The boredom is worse

than the weakness or the pain, but the nurses are lovely. One just kissed me on the

cheek when I told her I was going to be a grandmother. Her smile and her

compliments were fit for someone about to be crowned. I showed her the note on

blue paper that I got from Lula Ann—well, she signed it “Bride,” but I never pay

that any attention. Her words sounded giddy. “Guess what, S. I am so, so happy to

pass along this news. I am going to have a baby. I’m too, too thrilled and hope you

are, too.” I reckon the thrill is about the baby, not its father, because she doesn’t

mention him at all. I wonder if he is as black as she is. If so, she needn’t worry like

I did. Things have changed a mite from when I was young. Blue-blacks are all over

TV, in fashion magazines, commercials, even starring in movies. There is no return

address on the envelope. So I guess I’m still the bad parent being punished forever

till the day I die for the well-intended and, in fact, necessary way I brought her

up. I know she hates me. Our relationship is down to her sending me money. I have

to say I’m grateful for the cash, because I don’t have to beg for extras, like some

of the other patients. If I want my own fresh deck of cards for solitaire, I can get

it and not need to play with the dirty, worn one in the lounge. And I can buy my

special face cream. But I’m not fooled. I know the money she sends is a way to stay

away and quiet down the little bit of conscience she’s got left. If I sound irritable,

ungrateful, part of it is because underneath is regret. All the little things I didn’t

do or did wrong. I remember when she had her first period and how I reacted. Or

the times I shouted when she stumbled or dropped something. True. I was really

upset, even repelled by her black skin when she was born and at first I thought of .

. . No. I have to push those memories away—fast. No point. I know I did the best

for her under the circumstances. When my husband ran out on us, Lula Ann was a

burden. A heavy one, but I bore it well. Yes, I was tough on her. You bet I was. By

the time she turned twelve going on thirteen, I had to be even tougher. She was

talking back, refusing to eat what I cooked, primping her hair. When I braided it,

she’d go to school and unbraid it. I couldn’t let her go bad. I slammed the lid and

warned her about the names she’d be called. Still, some of my schooling must have

rubbed off. See how she turned out? A rich career girl. Can you beat it? Now she’s

pregnant. Good move, Lula Ann. If you think mothering is all cooing, booties, and

diapers you’re in for a big shock. Big. You and your nameless boyfriend, husband,

pickup—whoever—imagine, Oooh! A baby! Kitchee kitchee koo! 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. Good luck, and God help the child.


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