Addison Gayle, Jr. wrote in the late sixties that works of art should be explicated in terms of the work’s contributions to the alleviation of problems like racism and sexism which have confronted humanity for too long a time. According to Gayle, “the Negro must demand that the Negro writer articulate the grievances of the Negro in morals terms” since the critic should be dedicated “to the proposition that literature is a moral force for change as well as an aesthetic creation” (Gayle, xiv-xv). In Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison, author and English professor Susan Neal Mayberry articulates Toni Morrison’s contributions to “the alleviation of those problems which have confronted humanity for too long a time” by providing an analysis of the male characters in all of Toni Morrison’s first eight novels. Unlike any other literary critic of Morrison heretofore, Mayberry does an outstanding job of piecing together Morrison’s non-linear narratives in order to provide a complete portrait of her male characters. Mayberry’s criticism exposes the ways that Morrison’s novels alleviate the societal problems of racism and sexism ultimately by suggesting that African Americans “confront their traumatic heritage in order to escape the cycle of violence that plagues their communities” (Mayberry, 305; Reed, 539). An adequate discussion of Morrison’s male characters should include some discussion of their traumatic heritage. Mayberry’s most poignant exposures of these societal problems were in the endnotes of this book when they should have been in the original text, suggesting an unnecessary division that Mayberry sees between literary and social criticism. For example, she writes in endnotes that The Bluest Eye implies alternative worldviews apart from those of the dominant white male, Western worldviews; and that schoolteacher’s “straight lines” in Beloved were fatal to black manhood. Both these points should have been included and elaborated upon in the original text since these realities govern the lived experiences of most of Morrison’s male characters. Morrison said that when she began writing, she “wanted to write about what it was like to be a subject of racism” (Dreifus, 74). In creating Pecola Breedlove, Morrison creates her father, who like Pecola and most other male characters in Morrison’s novels, are subjects of racism. Since Morrison is mainly concerned with black communities in the United States, most of her black male characters are subjects of racism. As such, how they view the world, as opposed to just being mere subjects, evolves in a much different way than those of the dominant white population. Thus, their worldviews need serious considerations that are not relegated to endnotes. This division between literary and social critique that Mayberry creates weakens Morrison’s own assertion as a novelist that art must critique society; that art “must be political.” Morrison writes that novelists provide in their stories “the people, habits, and customs that one should approve of” (Morrison, 1984; 344, 340). And even Mayberry writes that Morrison “intends no diminution of political activism—simply the opportunity to be more discriminating” (Mayberry, 136). Mayberry seemed overly discriminating in delegating very important social critiques to her endnotes section. What Mayberry also seems to miss is the trauma in the traumatic heritage of Milkman and the Morgan twins. This could have been done by an adequate consideration of J. Brooks Bouson’s look at Morrison in Quiet As It’s Kept.
In piecing together Morrison’s often fragmented novel forms, Mayberry functions like a quilt-maker, whose weaving together of scattered yet crucial information yields a tapestry that provides key information about how to alleviate the scourge of sexism and racism. Mayberry devotes each chapter of this book to each of Morrison’s eight novels thus far except her very first, where she provides an introductory review of masculine identity, and quotes Maurice Wallace’s important assertion about the need to “abandon all references to a singular black masculine identity for an increasingly nuanced plurality” (Wallace, 12). The title of this work comes from the character of Guitar who tells Milkman in Song of Solomon: “Can’t I Love What I Criticize?” Mayberry reveals that the subject of criticism in this quote is not black men, as the title suggests with its subtitle including “masculine,” but black women for their demanding love.
Mayberry calls The Bluest Eye a masculine manifesto because it connects Cholly Breedlove, Mr. Henry, and Soaphead Church who use sex as a vehicle of communication and turn it into “a weapon of mass destruction” (20). Mayberry singles out other Western-imposed weapons of mass destruction in The Bluest Eye by exposing the destructive effects of repressive sexuality seen in Soaphead Church; competitive ownership seen in Mr. Henry and Cholly Breedlove; physical beauty which plagues the novel’s protagonist in Pecola who seeks Soaphead Church; and romantic love in Pauline Breedlove who “indulges her ugliness, introduced to her by white male movie directors” (32). Perhaps Mayberry’s most striking observation about The Bluest Eye is her point and overwhelming evidence that Cholly “has no frame of reference in which to comprehend a parent-child relationship” (38). This constitutes ultimately for Mayberry a warning about “the destructiveness of certain white codes” (50). Confronting these white codes, according to Mayberry, helps alleviate the problem of racism. In Mayberry’s second chapter on Sula which she titles “The Beautiful Boys in Sula,” she adequately establishes three main masculine models: passive, adventuresome, and mad. The passive model is seen in Jude who Mayberry writes is “whiny”; the adventuresome is seen in Ajax and his departure from Sula which precipitates her affair with Jude; and the mad seen in Shadrack’s celebration of National Suicide Day. These models, Mayberry writes, “collapse preconceptions about gender” because they could each easily “be represented by its women—Nel [as passive], Sula [as adventuresome], and Ajax’s conjure mother [as mad] (70). This reaffirms Mayberry’s early point about all of Morrison’s characters: “to single out her men is not to negate the preeminence of her women. It means, rather, to recognize their interconnectedness along with the balance between them” (14). Mayberry proves this by providing Sula’s retort to Nel as evidence at this chapter’s end: “I’m a woman and colored. Ain’t that the same as being a man?” Mayberry’s analysis of male characters in this chapter proves that “most African Americans are not ready to assign a man’s freedom to a woman” (Mayberry, 51). Understanding this confrontation in Sula helps alleviate the problem of sexism. In Mayberry’s fourth chapter, “Flying without ever Leaving the Ground,” she provides a complete portrait of the implication that Morrison’s Milkman provides about ways to alleviate both sexism and racism. Mayberry writes that Milkman “needs two sets of information in order to become a complete man” (79). Milkman is a man who has a “feminine masculinity, connected to women, anchored by delicately balanced dualities, and based on flying without ever leaving the ground” (73). From Guitar, he learns the ABCs of urban male survival which he uses to defend himself when going to Shalimar, and from Pilate he learns he learns his ancestral heritage which helps him fly: “Milkman unites Guitar’s playing, rapping, hunting, fighting with the complex rhythms of the woman who has been teaching him her tunes all his life” (114). We are shown how to confront the traumatic heritage which helps, in this novel, alleviate the evil of both racism and sexism in Milkman’s choices at its end.
Mayberry’s fifth chapter on Tar Baby is perhaps most lacking in valid critique because of its omission of Son’s overall influence on Valerian Street’s household. Mayberry titles this chapter “Nigger in the Woodpile,” but fails to engage it fully by not elaborating on how and why Son’s presence was problematic, particularly in this novel’s sixth chapter when Son, who “had been silent” until this moment, calls Yardman by his real name, Gideon (Morrison, 1981; 201). A more complete analysis would also discuss the dynamics of Son’s relations with Sydney and Thérèse: Mayberry misses the complex relations between blacks from the United States and those from the Caribbean that are prominent in this novel; she also misses the implications Morrison makes on such relations by Son’s relations with Valerian and Margaret. Mayberry shows us how Jadine, limited by her racism, and Son, limited by his sexism are unable to remain a couple. In Son, we see a masculinity that prefers a “perpetual fraternity” more than a committed relationship. This fraternity is explored through Paul D in Mayberry’s sixth chapter. What Mayberry shows us in this sixth and most powerful chapter of the book about Beloved is a community of caring black male characters in Halle, Sixo, Paul D, and Stamp Paid, who rearrange masculinity in order to alleviate themselves and others from the scourge of slavery. If Halle at his core is so caring that he is broken after seeing his wife Sethe raped, Sixo fills the father role and becomes, according to Sethe, “the biggest help of anyone at Sweet Home” (Mayberry, 170). We get from Mayberry that Halle and Paul D have a more “feminine masculinity” that differs from Sixo’s which is more daring and willing to die for family freedom. Mayberry writes that Stamp Paid “incorporates the feminine masculinity like a griot…[being one who helped transport Sethe and Denver across the Ohio River], he observes human nature like Halle and like Sixo he communes with nature” (177). While Halle runs away, Sixo is burned, Paul D survives and is mentored by Stamp Paid, who each become stronger men by learning humility in their own way. Mayberry shows us that Morrison presents these characters to show how men can be humble even in one of the most racist and sexist institutions of human history.
In her seventh chapter on Jazz, Mayberry describes a kind of masculinity seen in Joe Trace as one that, like jazz music, will continually re-make oneself in order to survive: “Joe is an old cock made New Negro seven times to survive. If his female counterpart hits upon the one and final thing she had not been able to endure or repeat [seeing Joe in a parade, then] the black male changes ‘once too often’” (218). Her questions at the end of this chapter about whether African art or Greek influence came first beg a complete reading of George G. M. James’ Stolen Legacy. This chapter includes incisive analysis of Joe Trace, however like the novel and the jazz art form lacks formal structure and leaves Gayle’s “problems of humanity” unaddressed. The seventh chapter about Paradise is titled “Putting Parking Lots Out There” and is one where Mayberry necessarily compares “parking lots” to represent the rigid paternalism of the Ruby Men which precipitate their murder the women in the Convent. Mayberry deals impressively with the traumatic heritage of her male characters most in this chapter by her assertion that the sins of the father are “certainly visited on their sons,” especially in their tendency to “tie manhood to capital” (246, 312). We learned that Steward “[bolted] the house as though it were a bank too” (Morrison, 1998; 90). This issue of tying manhood to capital could have been more thoroughly explored in the original text and not in endnotes, especially since all other male Ruby characters besides Deacon and Steward Morgan are profoundly influenced by these twins in some way who have these financially based definitions of manhood. According to Lone, “Harper, Sargeant, and certainly Arnold wouldn’t lift a hand to these women if Deek and Steward had not authorized and manipulated them” (288). The character of Reverend Misner serves as an important foil to the Ruby men and according to Mayberry, manifests “griot androgyny, he embraces duality and allows disagreement, including that between spirit and science” (Mayberry, 258). Ultimately, to alleviate the problem of black male paternalism and sexism, Mayberry writes that Morrison suggests we affirm “the significance of language as agency and the importance of generations and genders listening carefully to one another” (248). In her final chapter on Morrison’s 2003 novel Love, Mayberry writes that in Morrison’s “obsession with love and its excesses,” she wrote this novel to widen this net to examine, literally and figuratively, love of (the) Man” (261). This “Man” is Bill Cosey who is obviously governed by a masculinity that is subject to Western codes yet powerful in its control of the female characters despite his scant presence: “never speaking directly but always talked about” (273). Mayberry analyzes this novel according to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and like traditional European literary criticism, makes too strong a division between literary and social criticism in this chapter when she refuses to call the names of “perverse white law Administrators” that Morrison critiques in her 1992 work. She also unnecessarily names a state home (Florida) of the Up Beach community when Morrison doesn’t (270). Her exposure of Morrison’s suggestion to alleviate problems of intergenerational conflict (as in Paradise), is “talk,then, respectful but serious” (287). Mayberry writes that alleviation of these problems is a two-way street between generations. The younger generation must “listen to the voice of his decent daddy [like Romen does, in order to] save his own life and sometimes that of others” (292). Overall, each chapter of this important book of literary criticism provides an important exposure of the problems of our society, some of which are related to a traumatic heritage that must be confronted to curtail cycles of violence. Mayberry shows us that Morrison’s novels are integral in alleviating these kinds of problems, however Mayberry may make an even stronger argument by stripping her artificial division between social and literary criticism.
Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,” The New York Times Magazine (September 11, 1984), p. 74.
Gayle, Jr. Addison, ed. Black Expression. New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969.
Mayberry, Susan Neal. Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia, 2007.
Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. New York: Random House, 1981.
Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor As Foundation,” in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Mari Evans, ed. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
Morrison, Toni. Paradise. New York: Random House, 1998.
Reed, Andrew. “’As if word magic had anything to do with the courage it took to be a man’” Black Masculinity in Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” African American Review 39.4 (2005): 527-40.
Wallace, Maurice O. Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture, 1775-1995. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2002.