Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Morrison compared to Naylor

Toni Morrison’s essay, “City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction,” completely opposes the points that Gloria Naylor makes in her The Women of Brewster Place. The specific points of contention regard the authors’ views on the involvement of African American citizens in their cities and on the role of the ancestor.

One of Morrison’s first points in her article is her belief that the African American residents in cities do not feel tied to their regions because they were left out of the process of their development. Morrison is quick to generalize that none of the authors has influenced the founding of cities: “Collectively they have not contributed to the major decisions in founding or shaping the city…For Black people are generally viewed as patients, victims, wards, and pathologies in urban settings, not as participants” (Morrison 37). Morrison completely ignores the fact that the ideas of these writers inspire those who build cities and wish to recreate the utopias about which they have read. She also disregards the abilities of the African American population to take a vital role in providing ideas for the rebuilding of a city. Naylor, on the other hand, acknowledges the active role of African Americans, specifically when she highlights Kiswana Browne’s many efforts to begin the Brewster Place Block Association. Although she is told by Cora Lee that her efforts will be in vain (Naylor 116), Kiswana is determined to take action in order to change the conditions of the apartment buildings: “You know, all of these buildings are owned by one man and if we really pull together, we can put pressure on him to start fixing this place up. Once we get the association rolling we can even stage a rent strike and do the repairs ourselves” (Naylor 115). Kiswana knows that her community can positively influence the condition of their street by asserting themselves and by taking the initiative to make changes. One sees these changes taking place when the women bond together to destroy the wall that has separated them from the other neighborhoods in the area: “Women flung themselves against the wall, chipping away at it with knives, plastic forks, spiked shoe heels, and even bare hands…The bricks piled up behind them and were snatched and relayed out of Brewster Place” (Naylor 186). The citizens are actively changing the condition of their area in order to provide a better place for the future generations. Naylor’s women take charge of their lives and of their neighborhood in order to shape its future. Although Morrison states that the African American communities do not feel tied to their surroundings because they have not made major contributions to the areas, Naylor highlights the abilities of a bounded community to change the way that their city has been constructed.

Morrison also states that cities lack ancestors, thus the reasoning for an African American person’s lacking a connection to a city. She is adamant that the only place to truly commune with one’s ancestor is in the setting of a village: “What is missing in city fiction and present in village fiction is the ancestor. The advising, benevolent, protective, wise Black ancestor is imagined as surviving in the village but not in the city…Writer after writer conceded explicitly or implicitly that the ancestor is the matrix of his yearning. The city is wholesome, loved when such an ancestor is on the scene, when neighborhood links are secure. The country is beautiful—healing because more often than not, such an ancestor is there” (Morrison 39). Morrison implies that an ancestor is difficult to contact in the city because the city does not mirror the life of the ancestor that a writer may be trying to reach. Morrison then goes on to qualify the ancestor, stating, “Contemporary Black writers seem to view urban life as lovable only when the ancestor is there. The worst thing that can happen in a city is that the ancestor becomes merely a parent or an adult and is thereby seen as a betrayer—one who has abandoned his traditional role of advisor with a strong connection to the past” (Morrison 40). Morrison complains that it is difficult to find an ancestor in the city, and yet goes on to set limitations for this ancestor. If there are so many limitations, how is one supposed to contact an ancestor in any location? Naylor, on the other hand, provides the reader with Mattie Michael, who is present in almost all of the stories in the novel. Mattie is maternal (Naylor 104-105), the voice of honesty (Naylor 96 and 123), and is an example of a strong woman who is trying to rebuild her life while retaining the wisdom that she has gained from the past. Although Mattie is not related by blood to everyone on Brewster Place, she is related to them in their common experiences, such as encountering sexual situations, raising children at a young age, and finding that the men in her life were not as stable as she had thought; thus, making her an ancestor that can be found in the city. Contrary to Morrison’s statement, Mattie’s role as a parent ties her to the children of Brewster Place and enables her to share her wisdom of the past – being a parent and being an ancestor are linked. Mattie’s past experiences live with her and provide her with a wealth of knowledge about the truth of life. This truth is the only guidance that the people of Brewster Place have. Mattie is a living ancestor because she is an advisor to those around her and she is tied to the past because of her experiences. Yet, Mattie also fulfills one aspect of Morrison’s definition of an ancestor: “The ancestor must defy the system, be cautious of Chartres, provide alternate wisdom, and establish and maintain and sustain generations in a land” (Morrison 43). Mattie has ruptured stereotypes by raising a son on her own, has provided the wisdom that she has gained through her own experiences, and has helped raise the future generations of Brewster Place by giving them advice and by caring for the children. Naylor’s Mattie Michael disproves Morrison’s close-minded definition of an ancestor.

One is able to see that Morrison’s assumptions about the African American population are completely incorrect in that there are many thriving African Americans all over the United States that have made great contributions to their communities. There have been many inventors, actors, artists, writers, and musicians that have used their experiences in the city as a springboard for their work. Morrison does not realize that the future of the city lies with the new generations who see that there is the potential for change all around them. There are living ancestors everywhere that can give one advice from their personal experiences. The youths can see the value of this advice and use it to change their neighborhoods for the better.