In the Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s mother and father, the products of a racist society that created people without self-worth, had epic fights. They were poor and black. Yet those fights, “relieved the tiresomeness of poverty, gave grandeur to their dead rooms.” As a result her mother—Mrs. Breedlove—what a name—and Cholly her husband had an incredible relationship. They started out loving each other, but over time that love curdled into something contaminated. Yet, they needed each other. “If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would have never forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.
Yet Cholly needed Mrs. Breedlove just as much. They were not complete without each other. “No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires. Hating her, he could leave himself intact.”
That is what the impotent black man in America was reduced to. He could not fight back against his powerful white oppressors. He had to accept the domination and the hurt because as Toni Morrison said, there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he could do was turn on those who were less powerful than him. Even though he loved them—his wife and his daughter—he could only try to quench his abject self-hatred by hurting those he loved the most.
Half-remembered injustices that were “humiliations, defeats, and emasculations… could stir him into flights of depravity that surprised himself—but only himself. Somehow he could not astound. He could only be astounded.”
When Cholly was young he loved Darlene a lovely young black girl. One day they were having sex—loving sex—when they were interrupted by a group of young white men bent on harm. They forced them to continue the sex as they watched shining flashlights onto the bodies of the disgraced couple. As a result, Cholly came to hate Darlene instead of the white boys. That is the terrifying logic of racism. The victim comes to hate himself and those he loves the most, instead of the lethal white predators. Morrison described that process this way,
“Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed, men. He was small, black, and helpless. His subconscious knew what his mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up, like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was, in time, to discover the hatred of white men—but not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one whom he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.”
What Toni Morrison, like James Baldwin before her, realized, and so many of us, like me in particular have not realized, is the astonishing visceral power of impotent rage. It is helpless before overwhelming power so it turns on itself and those the victim loves the most. It is irrational of course, but that does not matter. Somehow, in some twisted pathological logic, it is better to hurt those you love than do nothing but accept the injustice.
In Canada we are often told, by the comfortable privileged, that the “aboriginal problem” is exactly that—an aboriginal problem. Most violence against aboriginals is inflicted by other aboriginals. It is entirely their fault. That may be, but that changes nothing! That is exactly the deadly awfulness of racism. It can impel the victim to turn on himself or herself and turn on others, even more vulnerable, loved ones, in a cruel metamorphism that bespeaks generations of abuse and imposed self-hatred. The vulnerable ones are then attacked from all sides. There is no refuge, no safe haven. Racism is much more powerful and much more awful than I ever imagined. It is thanks to writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin that I have come to realize that. Thanks.