Erasing the Color, Wiping Out the Humanity

In Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills, the vignette of Ruth and Norman’s lives on Wayne Avenue serves as a stark contrast to the tales of the inhabitants dwelling in the adjacent, more affluent neighborhood of Linden Hills. Naylor uses this couple to illustrate that, despite their crippling poverty, Ruth and Norman comprise one of the few families in the book who have real goals and dreams. At first glance, the Anderson couple seems far from impressive; upon the reader’s first sighting of her, Ruth is described as “a young woman pressed against [Norman’s] arm, her body turned slightly in toward his for warmth because the thin beige coat afforded her very little” (31). We immediately realize that this is not a financially well-off family. Later on this point is underscored when we witness the couple entertaining Willie and Lester — rare guests — using their three prized Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons, and paper napkins. Ruth and Norman proceed through an almost laughable ceremony of setting the inexpensive utensils and pouring the coffee. Content with what they have, the couple looks “around their apartment as if the warm and cool air that filled up the empty rooms were all that mattered” (33). Yet, what these two people lack in pecuniary resources they seem to more than make up for in a powerful bond that not even the greatest hardships can dissolve. Naylor introduces us to the Anderson dwelling by stating that “it was difficult to notice what wasn’t in the Andersons’ apartment because so much care seemed to have gone into what was there” (33). We can perceive that this apartment — albeit comprised of only three rooms and located in a dilapidated building — is truly a home in its own right. Each and every one of the few objects in this apartment seems to have its own intrinsic value (in addition to its material significance), playing a necessary role in the integrity of the home. This attribute can be contrasted with the luxurious twelve-room stone Tudor of Ruth’s friend Laurel Dumont on 722 Seventh Crescent Drive in Linden Hills. This imposing dream-mansion is equipped with everything one can possibly want in a house: four bedrooms, three and a half baths, a diving pool, and an acoustically perfected music room. Nonetheless, the reader soon sees that the Dumonts’ sumptuous material accommodations only detract from their marriage: the music room is conveniently designed to only have room for a single chaise, and the deep pool is hostile to the children they will never have, the untimely killer of their mother. The sad fact remains that “Laurel’s pool and music room hadn’t turned 722 into a home; they only gave her an excuse to return there” (233). Ruth and Norman, like any other couple, certainly have their problems. Unlike so many couples in Linden Hills, however, they are not overwhelmed by crisis, guided in the end by their devotion to each other. Although Norman is, to the average passerby, an ideal husband, one who gives Ruth every paycheck and dotes over her, the reader discovers that he is plagued by a disturbing psychological ailment every twenty-one months: the “pinks.” With the onset of this distinctive malady, Norman believes that the skin on his body is literally being eaten away by the pinks; he then desperately attempts to purge his body of the horrifying parasite using all means in sight, from his teeth and fingernails to “jagged sections of plates and glasses, wire hangers, curtain rods, splinters of wood” (34). In this senseless frenzy, Norman devastates his home, obliterating the possessions he and his wife have so carefully amassed over the previous months. At one point Ruth is ready to leave Norman, sick of the cycle of destruction and disappointment and afflicted herself by inflamed ovaries that cannot be treated because there is no money. Though Norman then enters a full-blown attack of the pinks, he wills himself to keep control to get his wife aspirin and water when she collapses from pain in her side. On the cusp of a breakdown, Norman still senses that Ruth needs him and is willing to sacrifice himself (he can see the pink slime digesting his body before his very eyes) for her well-being. In turn, Ruth sees that he is about to break down and finally herself urges him to combat the pinks, taking the ultimate step of accepting this ailment as a part of her husband. Norman later assesses and explains eloquently that “love rules in this house” (38). Through love, Ruth embodies the literal meaning of her name: compassion and mercy toward the man with whom she has pledged to spend the rest of her life in sickness and in health. With a traumatic calamity like the pinks overcome, one would expect that relationships should thrive in the face of lesser conflict. Unfortunately, this assumption proves tragically wrong when applied to many couples in Linden Hills. A prominent example is the Dumont couple, whose abundance of material wealth only contributes to their dearth of true love. A telling and ominous image illustrates their house literally tearing them apart: in the ordinary act of walking up the stairs, “slowly, deceptively, the steps slanted until the couple’s fingertips could just barely meet across the chasm” (232). Similarly, material concerns end up shattering the relationship between Winston Alcott and his true love David. Winston ultimately chooses to leave behind David and marry a woman, caving to pressure from his father to conform and bury his true self. For his efforts, Winston receives the reward of a pristine bride, along with an upgrade residential package bestowed by Luther Nedeed himself. The dear price for this gain in social status, however, is the abandonment of his soulmate and a final rejection of his true identity. Luther Nedeed, the driving force behind the perpetuation of Linden Hills (ironically a place in which families are meant to reside and thrive), epitomizes the worst in relationships. Marriage for him and his predecessors has only had the single significance of producing an exact copy, a replica Luther Nedeed, to take up where the previous one leaves off. The Nedeed wives are, for the large part, chosen for their lighter skin color almost as if they were an exotic prize to be flaunted along with the rest of Linden Hills. Even a place as intimate as the marriage bed is defiled and reduced to a perversely calculated, methodical means to the selfish end of producing another Luther. And having served their sole purpose as vessels of the next Luther, these women are then emotionally neglected and left to drag out the rest of their days alone, slighted by husband and child alike. It is clear that the couple living in the decrepit building on humble Wayne Avenue is far more emotionally wealthy than so many of their counterparts who are much more comfortably situated in Linden Hills. In their obsessive need to acquire material glory, it seems that the residents of Linden Hills are “devoured by their own drives” not even leaving “enough humanity…to fill the rooms of a real home” (18). These “drives” are, at the base level, fueled by the original Nedeed dream of getting back at whites, exacting revenge on them for scorning and doubting the potential of blacks to succeed – and what better way to defeat the enemy than to do exactly what he does, be exactly what he is, except better. Thus, at the very root of Linden Hills is the ambition, the vision, “of a true black power that spread beyond the Nedeeds…children who would take this wedge of earth and try to turn it into a real weapon against the white god” (11). Here it becomes interesting to note that Norman’s strange ailment is called the pinks, a likely reference to the relatively rosy Caucasian complexion. These pinks can in fact be the whiteness that the people of Linden Hills have striven so hard to embrace, the whiteness with which their humanity has been so thoroughly wiped away. In this respect, Norman is desperately fighting to prevent the consumption of his own soul by this contagious pathogen, this misled conception of self-amelioration through self-destruction. Naylor uses the portrait of the Andersons’ modest life on Wayne Avenue to exemplify everything that Linden Hills is not. They sacrifice the extravagance and money which one expects from Linden Hills but they more than make up for these material comforts through the indissoluble bond they share with each other. Their marriage is able to survive and thrive when those of couples in Linden Hills collapse under far less pressure. Ultimately, they retain their humanity by refusing to give in to the pinks, refusing to conform to the venomous lifestyle of wealth fueled only by desire for more wealth and the negative motivation to finally take vengeance upon whites. The inexhaustible source of success and thriving for Ruth and Norman is the love that rules their home and the humanity they derive from each other.