The colour of life – with Toni Morrison

My latest column in the Christian Courier.

There are a few instances of colour that stand out in my life and memory. The warm red of a steel wagon that was a childhood gift to me; the deep indigo of a Fula shirt my wife (girlfriend at the time) sent to me from West Africa; the myriad blossoms of Springtime annuals in the greenhouses of my late uncles.

Colour has been especially on my mind since I went back to the writings of Toni Morrison several weeks ago. Morrison, who passed away on August 5th, this Summer, wrote as an African American woman and wrote for a specifically African American audience. While she acknowledged the presence of a non-African American, white readership, she worked hard not to let the questions, concerns, or judgments of that audience determine the shape of her craft. That is, she wrote as a woman of colour for people of colour. She was, as the New York Times put it recently, “an iconic author of the black experience.”

Toni Morrison

Photo by Maggie Hardie/REX/Shut-terstock (490822g) Toni Morrison, 2004.

So again, colour has been on my mind. Yet it has been on my mind not only in terms of the acute questions of identity that Morrison raises, but also in terms of the simple reality of colour (blue, orange, violet) as she weaves it within her work. For example, in Morrison’s unfolding of the difficult and compelling narratives of Sethe and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, in Beloved, colour finds a place of subtle prominence. For Baby Suggs, in the last years of a life marked by violence, oppression, and slavery (a life equally marked by her articulate and faithful resistance), colour becomes central.

When fatigue has gotten the better of her, Baby Suggs speaks to Sethe: “What I have to do is get in my bed and lay down. I want to fix on something harmless in this world.” When her daughter-in-law insists there is nothing that is finally harmless, Baby Suggs replies: “Yes it is. Blue. That don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither.” Somehow this tired, articulate woman longs for the beautiful innocence of colour in her final days.

Later, Sethe will offer the following reflection on her mother-in-law’s relation to colour: “Now I know why Baby Suggs pondered color her last years. She never had time to see, let alone enjoy it before. Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green. She was well into pink when she died. I don’t believe she wanted to get to red and I understand why…”

In that last comment we discover there is no naïvete about colour in either Toni Morrison or her characters. Throughout Beloved, red speaks of life but also of pain and blood and death. Morrison knows both the gentle neutrality of colour (lovely simply to behold) and also the power of colour to carry experiences, memories, joys, and griefs. That is, colour bears meaning within our lives and minds and emotional landscapes, and does so in ways often beyond our control. And this is to say nothing of the human power to invest colour with meaning and thereby shape human life for good or ill—often, for ill.

Think of the way we line up behind our ‘colours’ to demonstrate our allegiances. Here in Canada we are the cusp of a Federal election campaign, when Conservative blue, Liberal red, NDP orange, and Green party green will become markers of identity and of ideological allegiance. In this politicization of colour, we know, there is more than a hint of the ways we also align ourselves behind colours/flags on the way to conflict and war; of the way that colour itself can become an exercise of power leading to calamity and grief.

It is not possible, finally, to live in relation to colour in any way other than that revealed by Toni Morrison in Beloved: A beautiful gift of grace set within the good creation for our contemplation. A gift through which our lives are narrated and find meaning. And a gift that we so often turn toward violence and control of others. Colour.


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