Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Place to Call Home

They say home is where the heart is. Green Day says, "home is where the heart is, but what a shame, 'cause everyones' heart doesn't beat the same." I would agree with Green Day on this one, and I think Toni Morrison would too. In her essay, "Lity Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction," Morrison addresses the issues that African Americans face with regard to urban life, including the sterotypes associated with urban culture and the associated ostracized feelings. She makes the valid point that there are, in fact, no "black cities," and that all African Americans who live in cities, are living in places that were created by a white society. They had no say in it's planning, and at the time of the cities' creations, probably had little say in the running of the city. Essentially, they are living in a place that is foreign to their culture and lifestyle.
I think what Morrison is trying to convey, are her feelings of betrayal toward other African American writers who use these sterotypes in their literature and incorporate negative images into their witings, perpetuating the idea that African Americans are nomadic. She asserts that the closest America can come to a "black city," is Harlem. This is distressing, in that Harlem does not constitute a city, in any streach of the word. At best it is a neighborhood, dare I use the word "ghetto," of course, in its historic meaning, not what it has come to mean colloquially. But what I am trying to get at, is that Harlem is only a couple of blocks in Northern Manhattan, certinally not large enough to be a city in and of itself. Granted, Harlem has contributed vast amounts of culture and art to our society and African American society, (the Harlem Renaissance), it is unfair of Morrison to equate the importance of African Americans to a few measly blocks.
The time has past, in our country, for the creation of new cities; the fates of some of the ones that we already have are dubious, and our focus should go into keeping them afloat. What ever happened to urban renewal? I believe it is unfair and upsetting that African Americans feel as though they have no place to call their own, especially in this nation where everyone is equal, or at least, in this nation where everyone is supposed to be equal. The fact of the matter is, if we continue to view cities in terms of black and white, integration can never occur. There may never be a major city that is all African American, but what major city is completely homogenous these days? And more importantly, who would want to live in such a place?

Toni Morrison

Throughout the semester we have been asking the simple question of what is a city? And as we continue on with our reading, I feel that we are coming closer to actually understanding the meaning behind what a city is. It seems that actually understanding a city can only come about by knowing the individual, different aspects that are within the city. In Toni Morrison's article "City Limits, Village Values" she gives us yet another layer for understanding the city. She states at one point that, "The affection of Black writers (whenever displayed) for the city seems to be for the village within it: the neighborhoods and the population of those neighborhoods." [37] It seems that by having the Year of the City, this is exactly what we are out to achieve, we are trying to break out of the Loyola "Neighborhood" and experience the other ones so that we can actually say we understand Baltimore.
After reading The Women of Brewster Place I was struck by how Brewster Place was like a little village. Then Morrison goes on to say how a key part of a village are the community values and having your ancestors. In Brewster, the women are trying to develope community values but since Brewster is cut off from all the other "neighborhoods" it is hard for them to develop into a stable community. And it comes down to the character of Mattie to be the ancestrial ties for the rest of the people.
She is the character who bring the importance of the community to Brewster. The other characters are comfortable with Mattie and often turn to her for support. Mattie is the motherly figure who watches with a concerned unconditional love. She has made her mistakes and continued on, much like a city has to. She brings a connection for many people to their pasts, but is constantly urging them forward. A city, as we know, is constantly changing, but the connection to the past is necessary to show us how far we have come.

Originality

Toni Morrison's essay removed the lens that Naylor was trying to create. When reading Morrison's essay, I could not help but continuously relate everything that she was mentioning to the Naylor novel. And although it seems that Morrison’s article was supposed to enhance Naylor’s book, it made the novel seem somewhat common and a repeat of novels written by other African American authors.
For example, the introduction to The Women of Brewster Place discusses how the area was made. It had nothing to do with the people and what they wanted. The alderman and the councilman, no members of the town, created the little block area. The citizens did not have ownership of the town. This reflects perfectly in Morrison’s essay. African-Americans have no ownership of the areas that they are living in. They do not remark about the area that they live in the same way that others might, because they don’t feel like the city is theirs.
The ancestor is another example of how Morrison’s essay perfectly reflects Naylor’s work. The presence of Ben and especially Mattie prove that the ancestor in the story makes the story more complete. As each vignette in Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place holds a special section for Mattie, so do many novels written by African-American authors, according to Morrison. This makes Naylor seem very uncreative and overdone; she seems to be walking in the footsteps of those who came before her, not making her own mark in the world of literature, especially Africna American literature.
Although very well written and with beautiful stylistic prose, there was nothing out of the ordinary with Naylor’s plot. And it is proven through Morrison’s essay, that there really is very little that Naylor writes that no other author has written before. It seemed that Naylor could be read elsewhere, with only a different title and by another author.

All the Characters Matter

The question that always comes up is what makes up a city? It seems to haunt my blogs and journals and the discussions that we have in class. In Morrison’s article she begins to compare the difference between a “city” and a “village.” I wonder which of the two impacts relationships more and I wonder why a “village” developed at all? I also wonder if Morrison believes that this is an attribute of African American culture?
Morrison begins to discuss he idea of an ancestor and the importance that the ancestor plays in the community. Morrison believes that “what is missing in city fiction and present city fiction is the ancestor.” When Naylor wrote “The Women of Brewster Place” it is clear that both Ben and Mattie are the ancestors. In a previous class we asked whether or not Ben could be removed from the stories? I think both Naylor and Morrison would agree that it would diminish the quality of the story. Ben is a central character especially in the ‘village” of Brewster Place.
When I go to Our Daily Bread the men whom I interact with remind me of Ben. They may not have lived the best lives or made the best decisions but they are full of knowledge and guidance. Ben was a comfort zone for some of the characters in the stories and Mattie definitely was. Mattie played an incredible role in the lives of the women of Brewster Place. Whether we know it or not and whether or not we think these men like the men at Our Daily Bread are “good” people they play an important role in their “villages” in fiction and non-fiction. Villages are made up of all types of characters but I think we often forget that all the characters are essential to the existence and vibrancy of any city or village.

Ownership of the City

One issue that Toni Morrison tackles in “City Limits, Village Values” is the concept of ownership of a city. From the first page she begins to address whether African-American members of the city have had any real voice in the formation of the city, writing, “it brings up the question of how a dispossessed people, a disenfranchised people, a people without orthodox power, views the cities that it inhabits but does not have a claim to” (35). This lack of ownership is reflected in the opening epigraph of the essay, showing the marked difference between the viewpoints of the dominant group and powerless group. Morrison makes this divide all the more stark when she says suburbia is a part of “the constant effort to avoid unmanageable minglings with the lower classes” (37). That quote takes the absence of ownership to a new level, by attributing part of the disconnect to the lack of an overall community in a city.
Instead, Morrison theorizes, “the affection of Black writers (whenever displayed) for the city seems to be for the village within it: the neighborhoods and the population of those neighborhoods” (37). For Morrison, the value of the city is not in the celebration of differences, since those differences had stopped her community from exercising its rightful voice in the city. Instead, it is the sense of belonging in the smaller community and the history and identity that go along with that village. In this Year of the City, we are constantly reminded of the different smaller neighborhoods that make up Baltimore. Maybe these smaller neighborhoods are Baltimoreans’ attempts to feel a sense of ownership or belonging- or, as Morrison sadly said, to avoid mingling with other people that are dissimilar.

The Importance of Ancestry

In Toni Morrison's essay, "City Limits, Village Values", she examines white authors' tendancy, be it explicity or implicity to deplore the progress of cities, and view the village as representing personal freedom and privacy, in its simplicity and purity. This revelation is juxtaposed with her notion that black fiction writers' affinity for the city, or pro-urbanism is a result for a desire for opposrtunity and progress; a city is only disdained when it is missing one integral element, (which Morrison exemplifies through citing evidence on the importance of this element in the works of several black writers): the ancestor. "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"(39).
The ancestor is the voice of reason; the ancestor keeps the ideals of a people alive. "When the Black America writer experiences the country or the village, he does so not to experience nature as a balm for his separate self, but to touch the ancestor. When he cannot (because the ancestor is not there, or because he cannot communicate with him), then and only then is he frustrated, defeated, devestated, and unregenerated(39). The important word to note in this example is "regenerated": the ancestor provides a link to an identity that is shaped by the characteristics we have inherited from our kin. Understanding and revering your inherited characteristics leads one to an acceptance of the self, and subsequently the surroundings, rendering the city just as a wonderful a place as the village, as represented in black fiction, when that connection with the past can still be forged.
I absolutely agree with Courtney that in Naylor's "The Women of Brewster Place", Mattie, Ben and Miss Eva serve as the ancestoral links for the next generation of Brewster Place. Morrison notes that Harlem is, both in literature and reality, the closest thing to a "Black city" that still held a village quality. This is true of Brewster Place, though on a smaller scale. Brewster Place is the quintessential example of the "American Dream" as seen and lived through the lenses of Black Americans. Mattie represents the keeper of the village values for the women of Brewster Place; she a voice of reason, with her moral authoritiy resulting from her experience. She and Ben serve as the glue holding that neighborhood together, uniting the different women through a mutual relationship to themselves. Both characters are able to look at situations from the outside in, and serve as a guide to the generations who are experiencing life as they already have. I believe that Mattie's respect for the importance of such a person in the village comes from her time spent with Miss Eva, who was just such a guide to her in her young age and times of trouble. Brewster Place is a village that is its peoples' own, and the ancestors are the ones who teach its women to respect that: to appreciate the freedom that such resposibility and ownership entails, and what makes this black fiction uniquely pro-urban.

Morrison's View

In reading City Limits and Village Values I had mixed feelings on Morrison's points. I didn't like the fact she tried so hard to present evidence to divide White authors from Black authors. Those types of division, no matter what ethnicity the reader is can cause unease and cultivate prejudices. While I appreciate her take on Black and White writers as a Black female, I think her tone of writing could have been more open. She used such intense judgment which caused her to create vast generalizations about White versus Black literature.
Morrison writes, "the affection of Black writers (whenever displayed) for the city seems to be for the village within it: the neighborhoods and the population of those neighborhoods. The city itself was "a crypt down which heretics were hurled" (pg 37). While I agree with Morrison that neighborhoods and the unity of people are a very important part of a city, I do not agree that it is so rare a find in a city. Nor do I agree that it is mainly a value village within the city, because I think neighborhoods can be an actual element of the city, derived from the city bringing people together.
When Morrison speaks about the portrayal of Black people in cities through literature I found much truth in what she wrote. She wrote, “For Black people are generally viewed as patients, victims, wards, and pathologies in urban settings, not as participants” (pg 37). To me this quotation sums up what Naylor’s writings symbolically said through the existence of the brick wall. The brick wall cut the people of Brewster Place off from having the ability to be participants of the city. I think this is also true in parts of Baltimore. In particular slums, such as areas of Fells Point, when I am driving down to my volunteer sight I reach a certain point when I feel there is an invisible wall. Suddenly the streets become wide, abandoned and eerily quiet. At this point I know I have entered one of the poorer regions of Baltimore. It is cut off from the rest of the lively bustle of Fells Point and the rest of the city. The members of the project homes become silenced and separated within their own city. Yet it is in these people I have learned so much about Baltimore’s essence, in their stories or even their very personalities. I agree completely with Morrison when she writes, “It may be that the positive and negative aspects of urbanism can best be articulated by those who know it, but who have no vested political, cultural, or philosophical interests in supporting or rejecting it as it presently exists” ( pg 37).

Ben and Mattie: Naylor's Ancestors

In Toni Morrison’s essay, “City Limits, Village Values,” she explains the difference between black and white literature. She states that in black literature the focus is more on the social aspect where as in white literature it is noble to be independent and isolated. For blacks, the focus is on the group due to the fact that in order to overcome segregation they must stick together. Morrison names these small groups within a city to be “villages.” In a “village” there is one necessity, an ancestor. This ancestor is a tie to the past and is seen by the community as, “the advising, benevolent, protective, wise Black ancestor” (39.) These Black villages become, “frustrated, defeated, devastated, and unregenerated” when they cannot touch or be communicate with the ancestor (39.) Readers see evidence of this in Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place” with both the characters of Mattie and Ben.

Mattie serves as a piece of string in the novel, tying everyone’s stories together. Initially, the reader gets her story about the relationship with her father and the parallels that relationship has with the relationship between herself and her son, Basil. Mattie comes in contact with many characters initially, when they are growing up, such as Lucielia, and also later, she meets many new characters who move into Brewster Place. Mattie held the truth and honesty of the “village” of Brewster Place. The discussion between herself and Lucielia exemplifies that although the people of Brewster Place may not always agree with her opinions they know her opinions hold vast amounts of truth. Luciela states, “ You could take her words however you wanted. The burden of their truth lay with you, not her” (96.) Mattie was not the only ancestor seen in this novel. Ben represented and ancestor in that it was necessary for him to always be around but no one understood him.

The point is made very clearly that if Ben has always inhabited Brewster Place. Naylor illustrates, “Ben and his drinking became a fixture of Brewster Place, just like the wall. It soon appeared foolish to question the existence of either- they just were” (4.) The reader notes that the presence of this ancestor allows the people of Brewster Place to stay in their village without overcoming the boundaries of the wall. At the end of the novel, there exists a direct correlation between Ben and the wall. The women say that his blood is all over the wall and proceed to do everything to rip it down. This lack of ancestor brings a sense of frustration toward the outside world. They riot against the wall that has been holding them in for so long due to the fact that Ben, their ancestor, is dead.

Back to the City

Similar to the philosophy of Jane Jacob’s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Morrison explains, “collectively [urban Blacks] have not contributed to the major decisions in founding or shaping the city” (Morrison 37). This is brought to life in Naylor’s novel, where Brewster place was created by city men for the wrong reason. We have seen how such an occurrence leads to the decomposition of the community through Jacobs, Naylor, and throughout communities in Baltimore. After generations of decay, Brewster place is inhabited with the characters we are introduced to.

In addition to the women of Brewster place, “Black people are generally viewed as patients, victims, wards, and pathologies in urban settings, not as participants” (Morrison 37). In some ways, the city does not belong to them. Morrison continues with, “the hospitals, schools, and buildings they lived in were not founded, nor constructed by their own people” (38). In light of this thought, one can see why housing projects are subjected to such fast rates of destruction. Although inhabitants have new appliances and homes, it never really feels like it is there own. As seen in The Women of Brewster Place, the community, at first, seems very disconnected and distant. The citizens have stopped complaining to their landlord about broken windows, holes in the walls, or the lack of heat, because nothing is ever fixed—they are helpless. They have lost any sense they have of the control of the physical surroundings in their lives.

Morrison writes, “what is missing in city fiction and present village fiction is the ancestor” (39). Although the technical aspect of the ancestor is not present, Mattie can be viewed as the “ancestor” of The Women of Brewster Place. With her wisdom, she is the maternal figure and role model throughout the community. With the help of Mattie’s maternal role in Brewster, Kiswana’s commitment to fix Brewster, and the death of Lorraine and everything she stood for, the relationships between individuals were strengthened and fused together. As a result, the united community was created with the volition to tear down the brick wall, to bring their close-knitted village back into the city.

Discover yourself through your past

Morrison essay comments on the journey literature takes to find the self through individual liberation. White writers and black writers observe the city in different perspectives concerning the individual. He claims that American Black writer’s lack an ancestral connection in their writing. This claim is countered by the author Gloria Naylor.
Morrison claims that white writers are anti-urban and write about the individual freedom the city lacks. White writers observe and associate their characters with the country or nature. The character must be moved away from the urban surroundings and placed in the country to find himself. The primary objective for this character is to find satisfaction of self liberation in nature. Morrison claims, however, that this individual freedom cannot be fulfilled through the abandonment of the city. He claims the writers are not anti-urban, but rather anti-social. Morrison states the differences in black writers are in their observations with the city, but not as an urban setting, but rather a village.
The black writer’s view of the city differs. Morrison describes the writer’s intention and themes are based on the acceptance and integration of the black community into the city. He comments on Harlem as not a city, but as a village. He states, “ The hospitals, school, and buildings they lived in were not founded nor constructed by their own people, but the relationships were clannish because there was joy and protection in the clan” (38). It is through relationships the city becomes connective and alive.
Nature also has a connection to the Black writer as well. However, Morrison claims that unlike the white writers, the American Black writers lack an ancestral connection. He states, “ This missing quality in the city fiction is not privacy or diminished individual freedom, not even the absence of beauty…What is missing in the city faction and present in village fiction is the ancestor” (39). White writers believe that the self can be found in nature, but Morrison believes the self must be discovered in an ancestral character. There is a lack of connection to the root of the African America. Morrison claims that the wantonness of a character out of touch is the character out of touch with his ancestor (40). Morrison claims, “Contemporary Black writers seem to view urban life as lovable only when the ancestor is there” (40). This is not true, however, concerning the writings of Gloria Naylor
A counter to Morirson’s claim can be found in The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. In her novel the character Maggie serves as the ancestral figure. This novel is far from a loveable perception of urban life. It allows the reader to experience the gruesome and harsh surroundings of a part of th city which is cut off from civilization. Maggie serves as a form of guidance and motherly figure. She embodies the past of these characters and attempts to direct them from their treacherous situations toward better choices. She is the voice of truth to the characters. Along with this ancestral model, Maggie, Naylor does not depict the city or the experiences of the characters to be loveable. They are quite the opposite. The presence of Maggie’s character is the presence of the past, but the author does not describe a utopia urban setting as Morrison claims.
The white writers created their characters and observation through a journey in self liberation of the city and social surroundings. This is the opposite view of the Black writer who demands that in society one can find his own individual freedom through the connection and relationships with the people around you. To do so you must discover yourself through a connection with your past.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Value Village

In her essay "City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction", Toni Morrison explores white and black writers' different approaches to how characters relate to settings, specifically the city vs. the village. According to her observations, black writers describe the village in a positive light, praising tribal values, while white writers dismiss the city as mechanized and insert their characters in suburbs where they can be self-loathing, disillusioned individuals. Personally, I think this is a very narrow interpretation of contemporary literature, but it did make me reconsider my own beliefs about writers' preoccupations. The things she says about John Cheever made me laugh because they are true to a certain extent, but I don't think it's worth criticizing him for his choice of setting and characters. Are a writer's preoccupations always directly proportionate to his/her race?

Morrison writes: "When a character defies a village law or shows contempt for its values, it may be seen as a triumph to white readers, while Blacks may see it as an outrage." (38). This is a conflicting idea for me, especially considering Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place. At the end of the novel, the women revolt against the imposed isolation of the wall by taking it apart brick by brick by throwing it into the street to cause a traffic jam and numerous car accidents. I guess the point could be made that the women won't prove their point until they act violently against their oppressors, but Naylor spent many pages convincing the reader that certain characters who were victims of violence deserve sympathy. Should we view this incident as defying the "village law" or as preserving the "village law"? I guess Naylor wants it to be the latter, and I don't particularly agree with her solution. Is Morrison then right? Is it right for her to be right?

If this village of women lives within a city, then the city as a whole should be its village too. By throwing the bricks into the street, it could be that they were asking the city to become part of their village or to let them become a part of the city's village. I just don't think that throwing bricks into the street is a very inviting way to create a community. In addition, what the women share has been brewing so long among themselves that no one else will understand why the transformation is occuring. Aren't they isolating themselves even more? Morrison doesn't seem to think so.

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).

Morrison's Ideas in Naylor's Novel

As I was reading through Morrison's City Limits, Village Values, I immediately saw the connections between what she discusses in her essay and how Naylor writes and creates her characters. Morrison claims that the city has limitations for black people and therefore black writers have their characters do poorly in a city setting. This is interesting as the city is usually considered a place of prosperity and opportunity and the ability to do anything that one desires. But, what Morrison is saying is that white writers and white characters see and experience the city as such, but black writers and characters do not and can not.

This is seen among all the women of Brewster Place. They are stuck in this neighborhood, this city that has stifled their ability to dream and do anything else. We have discussed in class Langston Hughes's poem, What Happens to A Dream Deferred? We stated many times that the dreams don't die and disappear, that they are always doing something, but those actions may not always connote positive things. I saw every woman in the novel have a dream, but unable to reach it within the confines of the story. Even Cora Lee at the end admits to Mattie that she will never get over what happened to her daughter and that she won't even try, because she'll die before that happens, this happens immediately after she returns to Brewster Place from another city on the west coast. Naylor is proving what Morrison says, "for Black writers, the city has huge limits...".

Finally, I see a slight contradiction, or maybe something we never noticed before until Morrison's essay shined light on the situation. Kiswana is in Brewster Place because she wants to connect with her ancestry and she wants to learn what it is like to live like the average African-American woman. Morrison states many times in her essay that the city is not the place where the characters find their ancestry, or that voice of wisdom (although admittedly Mattie comes close), they are supposed to find it in a village setting. Maybe Naylor is trying to disprove what Morrison is saying, maybe she is saying that the ancestral type can be found and thrive in cities and that cities have become more of a hub for cultural history than they were before. But, what I'm also suggesting, is that in light of the argument we have been reading by Morrison, and if it's true that Black writers do not portray their characters as growing in the city, then Naylor never meant for Kiswana to achieve her goal and discover her ancestry. She would have to go to a village or rural setting, something she was closer to when she was in the suburban neighborhood.

Naylor and Morrison together further emphasize the discussion of the dream deferred. They are saying that Black writers can't write a black character to thrive in a city setting, because the opportunities and advancements that are usually associated within a city are put there for white people. So, even with the character Kiswana who has such a bright spirit and who tries so hard to achieve her dreams and goals, will not achieve them in Brewster Place and she will become like all the other women who's dreams were deferred, something we already started to see towards the end of the novel.

The Ancestor

As I read through Toni Morrison's essay, entitled City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction, I became aware of her emphasis on recurring themes contained in Black literature. She cites themes such as "individualism and escape" (38) and claims that there are indeed patterns in literature of both the village and city that define the two and make them unique. Morrison claims that the figure of the 'the ancestor' plays an important role in defining literature of the city versus literature of the village, among many other themes and characters. Ultimately, her conclusion is that "the city has huge limits and the village profound values" (43).

Morrison states that "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" (39). This bold statement seems an attempt to categorize Black literature of the ciy based on what is contained in literature of the village, and seems to be perhaps a generalization. She also states that 'The city is wholesome, loved when such an ancestor is on the scene...the country is beautiful" (39). She seems to trivialize the role of the ancestor when the setting is the city. Contrary to her views on urban literature, she states that when "the Black American writer experiences the country or the village, he does so not to experience nature as a balm for his seperate self, but to touch the ancestor" (39). According to Morrison, the village has a more solid connection with the ancestor than the city does. She seems to claim that any connection with the ancestor in the city is superficial and less meaningful than any connection in the village.

Morrison's critique of Black city literature is defeated by Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place. Naylor's character, Mattie, plays the role of the mother in the novel and is the ancestor that Morrison claims is lacking within literature of the city. She plays the role of mother when Ciel's baby dies, she is a friend full of wise advice for Etta Mae, and watches over all the other women of Brewster Place with an experienced pair of eyes. She is strong and courageous, a role model for all of Brewster Place, a mother that takes all women under her wings. Morrison states, "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" (40). This is certainly not the case for Brewster Place. Mattie's character as matron is not characterized by betrayal because she acts as a parent. Rather, the women of Brewster Place admire her for the role she assumes within the city. Morrison says a city scorns an ancestor who is connected with the past, but Mattie's connection with the past is what ultimately secures her connection with the women surrounding her; without it she would not be so full of wisdom. Naylor's novel seems to be revolutionary if the trends Morrison speaks of are true. However, it is my opinion that the role of the ancestor in the city is present, but perhaps overlooked or misinterpreted. Morrison's view on the limits of city literature seems to be limited in itself.

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.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Tainted Lenses = Skewed Truth

A recurring theme in our class discussions has been the different lenses we use to perceive literature, the city, and the world around us. In day-to-day life we use these lenses to make judgments and decisions, ultimately shaping who we are. Most times without realizing it, we automatically—sometimes with great bias—criticize our surroundings and situations. With such inclination and disposition, our lenses often are tainted, without even realizing. In Gloria Naylor’s, The Women of Brewster Place, this is no exception.

Ciel comments on such a lens after Mattie tells Ceil that she better teach her daughter her name, because she will be using it more than her father’s name. As a response, Ciel thinks, “It was useless to argue with Mattie. You can take her words however you wanted. The burden of their truth lay with you, not her (96).” This passage reflects how it is completely up to the individual to take in and analyze what they perceive. Since Ciel was thinking beforehand about how stationary Eugene was going to remain in her life. As a result, she first interpreted Mattie’s words—even though they might have been—to be hurtful and sarcastic. Quickly checking herself, Ciel realizes that the truth is in the eye of the beholder. With certain stereotypes and frames of mind, this vision of truth can ultimately be skewed.

In regard to our discussion in the last class about the perception of the “typical Loyola College student,” one can see how perception—especially in the case involving finding truth—can be altered from the real truth, by presuppositions of what is believed to be true in certain instances. For example, we believe that Loyola is filled with substantial numbers of students from rich, upper-class families, when in fact only 35% of the student body pays the full tuition. If we subconsciously believe something to be true, we will find a small degree of that assumption in something we are viewing—designer clothes, nice cars, and an expensive nightlife—in this example. We are ultimately exaggerating the truth to what we want to see. These preconceived notions, in effect, distort the lenses we perceive the world around us with.