Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ancestors in Women of Brewster Place

Toni Morrison’s “City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction” offers a perspective on black and white experiences and perceptions of the city and village. She claims that white writers abhor the city because the city curtails individualism (Morrison 36). They see the city as a restriction on freedom. Meanwhile, the affection of black writers for the city “seems to be for the village within it: the neighborhoods and the population of those neighborhoods” (Morrison 37). Black writers seek the ancestor, who is seen as present only in villages (Morrison 39). Morrison’s claim that the absence or presence of ancestors determines the success of the protagonists (Morrison 43) is true of black American authors, but is not true of many of the authors we studied in class. Albert Wendt is Samoan, Chinua Achebe is Nigerian, and Edwidge Danticat is Nigerian by birth, but immigrated to the United States as a child. However, Gloria Naylor is American and her novel titled The Women of Brewster Place demonstrates Morrison’s claims (Morrison 43).

Naylor’s novel demonstrates Morrison’s claim that the “ancestor is the matrix of [the black writer’s] yearning” (Naylor 39). When the role of “advisor, competent protector” (Morrison 40) is filled, the characters are satisfied and at ease. For example, Mattie Michael finds an ancestor figure in Eva Turner and Lucielia finds such a figure in Mattie later in the novel. Kiswana struggles to find an ancestor figure; she reaches for the strong African figures of her people’s past and even assumes an African name in an attempt to connect with this heritage. Lorraine finds an ancestral figure in Ben, but when he (and the neighborhood) lets her down and fails to protect her, she destroys him. He fails as a “competent protector” (Morrison 40) and thus fails to allow Lorraine to flourish. Protagonists cannot be successful without the protection and guidance of an ancestor; Lorraine could not exist when her ancestor figure failed to protect her (as he had failed before to protect his daughter).

Naylor is one of what Morrison calls “a dispossessed people, a disenfranchised people, a people without orthodox power [who] views the cities that it inhabits but does not have a claim to” (Morrison 35). This made me wonder what it takes to become a person who has a claim to a city. How long must one live in a city to have a claim to it? Black Americans and Native Americans have been in this country much longer than many white immigrants, yet according to Morrison they are a “dispossessed people” who do not have a claim to the American cities. Morrison charges that the emotions of black writers towards the city—whether those emotions be positive or negative—cannot be compared with those of white writers because their “sources are not the same. Collectively, they have not contributed to the major decisions in founding or shaping the city” (Morrison 37). Morrison believes that a people can claim a city when it is a participant of the city—not merely a victim, patient, ward, or pathology of that urban setting (Morrison 37).