Toni Morrison, 1931-2019: On the origins of prejudice

We aren’t born prejudiced in the womb but learn to treat strangers differently by example
August 11, 2017

We still played on the floor, my sister and I, so it must have been 1932 or 1933 when we heard she was coming. Millicent MacTeer, our great-grandmother. An often quoted legend, she was scheduled to visit all of the relatives’ houses in the neighbourhood. She lived in Michigan, a much-sought-after midwife. Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.

Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.” My mother objected (strenuously), but the damage was done. My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.

Learning so early (or being taught when one doesn’t know better) the ingredients of being lesser because Other didn’t impress me then, probably because I was preternaturally arrogant and overwhelmed with devotion to myself. “Tampered with” sounded exotic at first—like something desirable. When my mother defied her own grandmother, it became clear that “tampered with” meant lesser, if not completely Other.

Descriptions of cultural, racial, and physical differences that note “Otherness” but remain free of categories of worth or rank are difficult to come by. Many, if not most, textual/literary descriptions of race range from the sly, the nuanced, to the pseudo-scientifically “proven.” And all have justifications and claims of accuracy in order to sustain dominance. We are aware of strategies for survival in the natural world: distraction/sacrifice to protect the nest; pack hunting/chasing food on the hoof.

But for humans as an advanced species, our tendency to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and the deficient needing control, has a long history not limited to the animal world or prehistoric man. Race has been a constant arbiter of difference, as have wealth, class, and gender—each of which is about power and the necessity of control.

One has only to read the eugenics of the Southern physician and slaveholder Samuel Cartwright to understand the lengths to which science, if not politics, can go in documenting the need for control of the Other.

“According to unalterable physiological laws,” he writes in his “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851), “negroes, as a general rule, to which there are but few exceptions, can only have their intellectual faculties awakened in a sufficient degree to receive moral culture, and to profit by religious or other instruction, when under the compulsatory authority of the white man... From their natural indolence, unless under the stimulus of compulsion, they doze away their lives with the capacity of their lungs for atmospheric air only half expanded, from the want of exercise... The black blood distributed to the brain chains the mind to ignorance, superstition and barbarism, and bolts the door against civilisation, moral culture and religious truth.”

Cartwright pointed to two illnesses, one of which he labelled “drapetomania, or the disease causing slaves to run away.” The other illness he diagnosed as “dysaesthesia aethiopica”—a kind of mental lethargy that caused the negro “to be like a person half asleep” (what slaveholders more commonly identified as “rascality”). One wonders why, if these slaves were such a burden and threat, they were so eagerly bought, sold. We learn at last their benefit: the forced “exercise, so beneficial to the negro, is expended in cultivating... cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco, which, but for his labour... go uncultivated, and their products lost to the world. Both parties are benefited—the negro as well as his master.”

These observations were not casual opinions. They were printed in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. The point being that blacks are useful, not quite like cattle, yet not recognisably human. Similar diatribes have been employed by virtually every group on earth—with or without power—to enforce their beliefs by constructing an Other.

*** One purpose of scientific racism is to identify an outsider in order to define one’s self. Another possibility is to maintain (even enjoy) one’s own difference without contempt for the categorised difference of the Othered. Literature is especially and obviously revelatory in exposing/contemplating the definition of self whether it condemns or supports the means by which it is acquired.

How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.

It was probably universally clear—to sellers as well as the sold—that slavery was an inhuman, though profitable, condition. The sellers certainly didn’t want to be enslaved; the purchased often committed suicide to avoid it. So how did it work? One of the ways nations could accommodate slavery’s degradation was by brute force; another was to romance it.

In 1750, a young upper-class Englishman—a second son who probably could not inherit under the laws of primogeniture—set out to make his fortune first as an overseer and then as an owner of slaves and his own sugar plantation in Jamaica. His name was Thomas Thistlewood, and his life, exploits, and thoughts are carefully researched and recorded by Douglas Hall as one of a series of scholarly texts, in Macmillan’s Warwick University Caribbean Studies Series. This particular volume contains excerpts of Thistlewood’s papers along with Douglas Hall’s comments and was published in 1987 as In Miserable Slavery.

“Race has been a constant arbiter of difference, as have wealth, class, and gender— each of which is about power and the necessity of control”
Like Samuel Pepys, Thistlewood kept a minutely detailed diary—a diary minus reflection or sustained judgment, just the facts. Events, encounters with other people, weather, negotiations, prices, losses, all of which either interested him or he felt required notation. He had no plans to publish or share the information he recorded. A reading of his diaries reveals that, like most of his countrymen, he had a seamless commitment to the status quo. He did not wonder about slavery’s morality or his place in its scheme. He merely existed in the world as he found it and recorded it. It is this, his divorce from moral judgment, not at all atypical, that sheds light on slavery’s acceptance. Among the intimate marks of his exhaustive note-taking are details of his sexual life on the plantation (not different from his youthful and primarily casual British exploits).

He noted the time of the encounter, its level of satisfaction, the frequency of the act, and, especially, where it took place. Other than the obvious pleasure were the ease and comfort of control. There was no need for seduction or even conversation—just a mere notation, among others about the price of sugarcane or a successful negotiation for flour. Unlike Thistlewood’s business notations, his carnal record was written in Latin: SupLect for “on the bed”; SupTerr for “on the ground”; In Silva for “in the woods”; In Mag or ParvDom for “in the great” or “small room”; and, when not satisfied, Sed non bene. These days, I suppose, we would call it rape; those days it was called droit du seigneur, right of the lord. Sliced in between his sexual activities are his notes on farming, chores, visitors, illnesses, etc.

An entry from 10th September 1751, reads in part: “about 1/2 past 10am Cum Flora, a congo, Super Terram among the canes, above the wall head, right hand of the river, toward the Negro ground. She had been for water cress. Gave her 4 bitts.”  The next day, in the early hours of the morning, he writes: “About 2am Cum Negroe girl, super floor, at north bed foot, in the east parlor, ‘unknown.’” And an entry from 2nd June 1760, reads in part: “Cleaned about the works, threw up the wood hoops, carrying out pond earth, &c PM Cum L Mimber, Sup Me Lect.”

*** Different, but no less revelatory, are the literary attempts to “romance” slavery, to render it acceptable, even preferable, by humanising, even cherishing, it. Control, benign or rapacious, may ultimately not be necessary. See? Says Harriet Beecher Stowe to her (white) readers. Calm down, she says. Slaves control themselves. Don’t be afraid. Negroes only want to serve. The slave’s natural instinct, she implies, is toward kindness—an instinct that is disrupted only by vicious whites who, like Simon Legree (significantly, a Northerner by birth), threaten and abuse them. The sense of fear and disdain that white people may have, one that encourages brutality, is, she implies, unwarranted. Almost. Almost.

Yet there are in Uncle Tom’s Cabin signs of Stowe’s own fear, literary protection, as it were. Or perhaps she is simply sensitive to the reader’s apprehension. How, for example, do you make it safe in the 19th century to enter Black Space? Do you simply knock and enter? If unarmed, do you enter at all? Well, even if you are an innocent young boy, such as Master George, going to visit Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, you need excessive, benign signs of welcome, of safety. Tom’s house is a humble shack, small and right next to the master’s home. Yet for Stowe the white boy’s entrance needs obvious signs of safe passage. Therefore Stowe describes the entrance as outrageously inviting:

In front [the cabin] had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front... was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multi-flora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o’clocks, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors...

The natural beauty Stowe is at pains to describe is cultivated, welcoming, seductive, and excessive.

Once inside this tiny log cabin where Aunt Chloe is cooking and managing everyone, following some gossip and compliments, they all sit down to eat. Except the children, Mose and Pete. They are fed under the table, on the floor. With chunks of food thrown toward them, and for which they scramble:

[Master] George and Tom moved to a comfortable seat in the chimney-corner, while Aunt Chloe, after baking a goodly pile of cakes, took her baby on her lap, and began alternately filling its mouth and her own, and distributing to Mose and Pete, who seemed rather to prefer eating theirs as they rolled about on the floor under the table, tickling each other, and occasionally pulling the baby’s toes.

“O! go long, will ye?” said the mother, giving now and then a kick, in a kind of general way, under the table, when the movement became too obstreperous. “Can’t ye be decent when white folks comes to see ye? Stop dat ar, now, will ye? Better mind yerselves, or I’ll take ye down a button-hole lower, when Mas’r George is gone!”

That, to me, is an extraordinary scene: the young master has declared himself full, and you—a slave mother—hold your infant in your arms and feed him and yourself while your “husband” eats also, but you throw food on a dirt floor for your two other children to scramble for? An odd scene designed to amuse, I think, and reassure the reader that everything in this atmosphere is safe, even amusing and especially kind, generous, and subservient. These are carefully demarcated passages intended to quiet the fearful white reader.

Harriet Beecher Stowe did not write Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Tom, Aunt Chloe, or any black people to read. Her contemporary readership was white people, those who needed, wanted, or could relish the romance.

For Thistlewood, rape is the ownership romance of droit du seigneur. For Stowe, slavery is sexually and romantically sanitised and perfumed. The relationship of little Eva and Topsy—in which Topsy, an unruly, simple-minded black child, is redeemed, civilised by a loving white child—is so profoundly sentimentalised that it becomes another prime example of the romance of slavery.

*** In a profound way, I owe a debt to my great-grandmother. Although she had no intentions of being helpful—she had no remedy for our deficiency—she nevertheless awakened in me an inquiry that has influenced much of my writing. The Bluest Eye was my initial exploration of the harm of racial self-loathing. Later I examined the concept of its opposite, racial superiority, in Paradise. Again in God Help the Child I looked at the triumphalism and deception that colourism fosters. I wrote about its flaws, arrogance, and ultimately its self-destruction.

Now (in my current novel-in-progress) I am excited to explore the education of a racist—how does one move from a non-racial womb to the womb of racism, to belonging to a specific loved or despised yet race-inflected existence? What is race (other than genetic imagination) and why does it matter? Once its parameters are known, defined (if at all possible), what behaviour does it demand/encourage? Race is the classification of a species, and we are the human race, period. Then what is this other thing—the hostility, the social racism, the Othering?

What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, or economical)? Is it the thrill of belonging—which implies being part of something bigger than one’s solo self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans toward the social/psychological need for a “stranger,” an Other in order to define the estranged self (the crowd seeker is always the lonely one).

Lastly, let me quote from The Romance of Race, Jolie A Sheffer’s excellent rendition of the means by which “belonging,” that is, creating a coherent nation out of immigrants, took place during the great immigration from southern and eastern Europe:

[S]ome 23m immigrants, mostly from eastern and southern Europe, and overwhelmingly Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox, arrived in the United States in the period between 1890 and 1920, challenging the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) majority. Such “infusions of alien blood,” in turn-of-the-20th-century parlance, transformed US national identity, but... did not fundamentally challenge white hegemony; rather, European ethnics soon became, at least nominally, part of the “white” majority.

The scholarship on this subject is deep and wide. These immigrants to the United States understood that if they wanted to become “real” Americans they must sever or at least greatly downplay their ties to their native country, in order to embrace their whiteness. The definition of “Americanness” (sadly) remains colour for many people.