Race and Parenthood in Toni Morrison's 'Sweetness'

Black, White, and Shades of Gray

Statue of mother and child.
Image courtesy of Jacob Boetter.

American author Toni Morrison (b. 1931) is responsible for some of the most complex and compelling literature regarding race in both the 20th and 21st centuries. The Bluest Eye (1970) presents a protagonist who longs to be white with blue eyes. In 1987's Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, an escaped slave is haunted by the daughter she murdered in order to free her -- however brutally -- from slavery.

Though Paradise (1997) opens with the chilling line, "They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time," the reader is never told which of the characters is white.  

Morrison rarely writes short fiction, so when she does, it makes sense to sit up and pay attention. In fact, 'Recitatif,' from 1983, is considered her only published short story. But 'Sweetness,' an excerpt from Morrison's novel God Help the Child (2015) was published in The New Yorker as a stand-alone piece, so it seems fair to treat it as a short story. As of this writing, you can read 'Sweetness' for free at The New Yorker.

Blame

Told from the point of view of Sweetness, the light-skinned mother of a very dark-skinned baby, the story opens with these defensive lines: "It's not my fault. So you can't blame me."

On the surface, it appears that Sweetness is trying to exonerate herself from the guilt of giving birth to a daughter "so black she scared me." But by the end of the story, one suspects she might also feel guilty about the rough way she has treated her daughter, Lula Ann.

To what extent did her cruelty arise from a genuine concern that she needed to prepare Lula Ann for a world that would, inevitably, treat her unfairly? And to what extent did it arise simply from her own revulsion toward Lula Ann's appearance?

Skin Privileges

In 'Sweetness,' Morrison manages to position race and skin color on a spectrum.

Though Sweetness is African-American, when she sees her baby's dark skin, she feels that something is "wrong …. [r]eally wrong." The baby embarrasses her. Sweetness is seized with a desire to smother Lula Ann with a blanket, she refers to her with the derogatory term "pickaninny," and she finds some "witchy" about the child's eyes. She distances herself from the child by telling Lula Ann to refer to her as "Sweetness" rather than "Mama."

Lula Ann's dark skin color destroys her parents' marriage. Her father is convinced that his wife must have had an affair; she responds by saying that the dark skin must come from his side of the family. It's this suggestion -- not her perceived infidelity -- that results in his departure.

Members of Sweetness's family have always been so pale-skinned that many of them have chosen to "pass" for white, in some cases cutting off all contact with their family members to do so. Before the reader really has a chance to be appalled at the values here, Morrison employs second-person to cut such thoughts short. She writes:

"Some of you probably think it's a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color -- the lighter the better …"

She follows this with a list of some of the indignities that accumulate according to the darkness of one's skin: being spit on or elbowed, being forbidden to try on hats or use the restroom in department stores, being required to drink from "Colored Only" water fountains, or "being charged a nickel at the grocer's for a paper bag that's free to white shoppers."

Given this list, it's easy to understand why some members of Sweetness's family have chosen to avail themselves of what she refers to as "skin privileges." Lula Ann, with her dark skin, will never have the chance to make such a choice.

Parenting

Lula Ann leaves Sweetness at the first opportunity and moves to California, as far away as she can. She still sends money, but she hasn't even given Sweetness her address. From this departure, Sweetness concludes: "What you do to children matters. And they might never forget."

If Sweetness deserves any blame at all, it might be for accepting the injustice in the world instead of trying to change it. She is genuinely surprised to see that Lula Ann, as an adult, looks striking and uses her blackness "to her advantage in beautiful white clothes." She has a successful career, and as Sweetness notes, the world has changed: "Blue-blacks are all over TV, in fashion magazines, commercials, even starring in movies." Lula Ann inhabits a world that Sweetness hadn't imagined was possible, which on some levels makes Sweetness part of the problem.

Yet Sweetness, in spite of some regrets, won't blame herself, saying, "I know I did the best for her under the circumstances." Lula Ann is about to have a baby of her own, and Sweetness knows she is about to discover how the world "changes when you are a parent."