Pressure from the Outside: Infiltrating Black Narratives
Richard Wright and Toni Morrison are considerable influences within the African American canon, authoring works that reflect the expansion of the human condition to the conditions of the oppressed. Both authors highlight, within their narratives, the intermediate pressures surrounding their characters, pressures which dictate their lives and control their expectations. Characters such as Shadrack, Eva, Plum, Sarah, and Silas have a clear overwhelming force placed upon them which is environmental, social, and in some cases polarizes their bodies. Through Richard Wright’s “Long Black Song” and Toni Morrison’s Sula it is evident through death, American institutions, and progressive ideologies that the actions of the characters are the result of outside societal pressures which demonize and eventually destroy them.
Eva takes conscious action in order to alleviate her son of the immense pain caused by his inability to persevere post-WWI but it is through this action that love is erroneously disguised as evil. As a young mother Eva was unprepared for the hardships of motherhood. She was unable to provide for her children, especially Plum, whom she loved the most. She left, and presumably sacrificed her leg for a better life for her family, before she returned after eighteen months ready and able to provide. Plum’s addiction causes him to regress back to that of an infant, weak and pathetically laughing through the depths of his own pain. By lighting Plum on fire Eva, actually, makes the ultimate sacrifice choosing to rid her son of all of his pain and allowing him to go out in peace. This evil act, is an act of true love, one that is meant to save both Plum and Eva. Morrison describes, “Quickly, as the whoosh of flames engulfed him, she shut the door and made her slow and painful journey back to the top of the house” (Morrison, 48). Plum’s addiction caused them both to regress rapidly and Eva’s regression means that she will lose her ability to take care of her son and to save him. Her choice was between him dying in pain, like the stool blockage of his youth, or dying in pure bliss. She is emotionally compromised through the loss of her son but the act that she took was an act designed to regain power from outside pressures. The war, a nation-sanctioned ordeal, affected Plum to the point where he could no longer live in his own community. Eva, sensing this, decides that she should and does have the power to control her life and that of her son, not the government.
Plum’s baptism by fire is seen through two different lenses, one is through his participation in the war and the other is through his death at the hands of Eva. Many African American men fought for America in the war because they believed that in sacrificing their lives they would finally gain a significant role as citizens and not just disposable bodies. Plum desires freedom, which he neither loses nor gains through war, but it’s his post-war drug addiction that is a true reflection of the pressures he faces upon his return. Plum’s desire to transcend the turmoil of the world are not just indicative of his war experiences or seen just through his character. It is evident that other black people in the town desire some sort of metaphysical uplifting due solely to the fact that they wanted to live in a place that was call The Bottom of Heaven. Plum’s drug use is a direct result of him fighting for the U.S. military yet another institution that systematically oppresses blacks. Morrison describes the death of Plum as, “some kind of baptism, some kind of blessing, he thought” (Morrison, 47). The spiritual nature of Plum’s death, shows that there was no socio-economic or even physical forms of escape for Plum and thus his life yielded tragedy due to forces outside of his control.
Shadrack further emphasizes the desire for control that the black townspeople hold, but more notably, he demonstrates the unconditional yearning for agency over one’s own body through his own holiday: National Suicide Day. Upon his return Shadrack feels that he, like many other soldiers, fought for a country that continues to abandon them. However, Shadrack is just one of three representations of the underlying destruction of the black male bodies in The Bottom. Chicken Little, Shadrack, and Plum all become disposable bodies. Chicken Little is innocent and lacks a real identity. Plum’s name signifies the consumption of his mind, through the war, and his body through drugs and the fire. Chicken Little and Plum are reminiscent of the soldier whose head gets blown off in the war, they are nameless and faceless and they signify the loss of innocence through death. Shadrack is one of very few characters who maintain hope but he only does so until Sula dies. Sula’s death is a turning point in his life because he realizes that he cannot deviate from the norm and survive, his blackness will lead to his downfall despite his nationalistic endeavor and despite his push for agency. Shadrack’s most poignant suggestion to Sula is simply “always”, a suggestion that is an attempt to instill within the young girl a sense of permanence after she took away the life of Chicken Little. It is not until years later that Shadrack realizes that always was a false ideal that he placed in his head. National Suicide Day, is an annual representation of power or the agency to choose to live or die, but a freak accident turns to day into one of destruction. The lives of the townspeople are destroyed by the New River Tunnel, a tangible sign of progress. On National Suicide Day Morrison describes Shadrack actions as, “not heartfelt this time, not loving this time, he no longer cared whether he helped them or not” (Morrison, 158). Shadrack’s hopelessness stems from the overwhelming power of death and the loss of innocence in the text. The loss of innocence, predominantly, stems from outside sources: the war, society, and expectations of youth. The end of the novel shows the breaking point of Shadrack’s ideals and he, the last one with hope, leads the townspeople to their deaths.
In “Long Black Song” the graphophone man infiltrates the lives of Sarah and Silas, and his intrusion stunts their life and ultimately leads to loss. After Sarah and the graphophone man engaged sexually there is an aura of satisfaction surrounding her. Wright explains, “She said nothing. In her mind she saw the box glowing softly, like the light in the baby’s eyes. She stretched out her legs and relaxed.” (Wright, 1426). The unnamed white man gives her a physical representation of progress. She is filled with hope, like one images a baby would be despite their nativity. Ruth, Sarah’s child, seems to have a rhythmic presence, constantly banging on the old clock as if the infant has a deeper understanding of the dangers of outside influences; in this case the outside influence is time. The constant banging of the clock by Ruth symbolizes the unpleasant force of time entering into a timeless world. Sarah’s contentment is, as the reader soon realizes, false. Sarah is trapped the moment she engages with the white man and she is doomed the moment she takes his gifts, gifts that construct unnecessary order within her life. It is reminiscent of the Adam and Eve creation myth, Sarah is tempted by the white man, but she ultimately flees the scene into nature to survive. The graphophone itself is designed to play music. By connecting the graphophone to the long black song, or a song that reflects a funeral march, it is evident that the white man displaying his power within Sarah and Silas’ realm could only lead to their demise. The graphophone man represents more than just the infiltration of whiteness, he represents American ideals that are used to institutionally oppress blacks. Sarah is asked for monetary payment for the gifts she’s received. Not only does the man symbolically or literally rape Sarah, but he institutes capitalism on the formerly content family of three.
Silas represents a stronghold of black masculinity as he builds a life of his own and is a farmer who uses the land to sustain his family and independence. Silas protects his family and his home, becoming a martyr of black men going at war with the white pressures and infiltration that slowly begins to affect his life. When Silas and the graphophone man face off Wright describes, “Then Silas got up and they faced each other again; like two dolls, a white doll and a black doll, they faced each other in the valley below” (Wright, 1432). Silas and the white man become instruments of their races, pitted against one another due to their own inescapable places in the world. The white man remains nameless for a reason, all the white perpetrators remain nameless in the text as well. This is because Wright is trying to emphasize the power of faceless entities that systematically repress blacks and the struggle it takes to fight back against these powers. The language used to describe the battle between Silas and the white men further polarizes them into two separate categories. Wright describes:
She saw two white men on all fours creeping past the well. One carried a gun and the other a red tin can. When they reached the back steps the one with the tin can crept under the house and crept out again. Then both rose and ran. One fell. A yell went up. Yellow tongue of fire licked out from under the back steps. (Wright, 1435)
The white men, therefore, become animalistic no longer retaining their humanity as they both crawl around the house and desire solely to murder Silas for their own unjustified pleasure. Their cowardice and strategic tactics show the intention of remaining a hidden threat as they light the house on fire in order for Silas to come out into the open and regain their advantage. Like many black narratives, specifically ones that involves violence, black families are placed in the crossfire of their white oppressors. Silas and Sarah were ultimately unable to retain their sense of independence and self-sovereignty because their home was infiltrated and destroyed by outside forces.
Richard Wright and Toni Morrison demonstrate through their works the distinct polarization of black individuals and the power that infiltrating white ideology has on their lives. For all of these distinct characters who grappled with war, capitalism, and white progressivism their lives ended in hopelessness, fear, or an unstable exodus into the wilderness. There is a slow-building initiation of these characters into a world where their community cannot survive or withstand the pressures of outside influences. The actions of these characters, drug use, sex with a white man, desire for agency, and martyrdom are all the result of a significant power struggle between blacks and whites. Wright and Morrison are not demonstrating that all blacks will eventually crumble under the pressure of white infiltration but they are suggesting that the power of these outside forces yields uncharacteristic actions that do not reflect the morality of these black individuals. Furthermore, these writers use their characters to demonstrate how the polarization of their bodies becomes a battleground for sovereignty, and it is a battle that still rages on.
Gates, Henry Louis, and Nellie Y. MacKay. “Richard Wright.” The Norton Anthology of
African American Literature. New York, NY: Norton, 1997. 1419-1436. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.
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