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Angelyn MitchellAngelyn Mitchell, associate professor of English at Georgetown University, earned her PhD from Howard University, her MA degree from North Carolina Central University, and BA from North Carolina State University.

Dr. Mitchell's teaching and research interests are American, African American and Caribbean literatures; critical theory; cultural studies; critical race studies; women's studies; African-American studies, and American studies. She is particularly interested in the work of Toni Morrison.

Dr. Mitchell's publications include articles on William Wells Brown, Harriet Wilson, Kate Chopin, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler. She is the editor of Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present (Duke UP, 1994). She is the author of The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, & Gender in Contemporary Black Women's Fiction (Rutgers UP, 2002). She is the coeditor of the Cambridge Companion to African American Women's Writing (Cambridge UP, forthcoming). She is currently working on two projects—Centers of the American Self in Toni Morrison's Fiction and Understanding Toni Morrison: A Cultural Concordance.

Dr. Mitchell is the founding director of the Georgetown University African American Studies Program; she also directs its Minority Mentoring Program.

Novel Discussion

Dr. Angelyn Mitchell: Love is an important concept in many of Toni Morrison’s works. She often questions idealized notions of love: maternal, paternal, fraternal and sororal (whether biologically or in terms of friendship), sexual, passionate, platonic, self, racial, etc.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes that “Love is never better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly” (206). That novel deals with self-love, and the absence of self-love for Pecola and other African Americans who buy into white standards of beauty. It also deals with family love. Think about the name of Pecola’s family: Breed–Love. In Sula, Hannah asks Eva, “Mamma, did you ever love us?” (67). It is rumored that Eva has sold her leg out of love for her kids. . . . Note that the family she leaves the children with when she goes off is named Suggs. In Beloved, it is Baby Suggs who preaches about self-love in the Clearing. She urges the newly freed slaves to “love your heart. For this is the prize” (104). Paul D asserts that Sethe’s love is too thick; she responds that “Thin love ain’t love at all” (194). Love for the race causes the Seven Days to kill white people in Song of Solomon; in Paradise Pulliam argues that love is difficult always and also divine. Love causes Joe Trace to hunt his mother Wild as well as Dorcas in Jazz; is it love that keeps Dorcas from revealing the name of her killer? On page 63 of Love, L considers the topic of infatuation. She calls sex “the clown of love.”

What do you think the “L” stands for? Might her name be Love? Is she the essence of love?

So, is this novel a love story? If so, who are the lovers?

Why did Bill Cosey marry Heed the Night? To save her? To control her? Is he a pedophile? Did he love her? And why do all these women love Bill Cosey? He is a patriarch who envelops the lives of these women, even in death. His widow, Heed, and his granddaughter, Christine, once close friends, now battle each other at every turn because of him. Vida Gibbons, who previously worked at the resort, still idolizes him. In an interview with the African American novelist Gloria Naylor, Morrison talked about women who love others so much that they sabotage themselves—they do not value themselves. This is a key point for our understanding of the novel.

The relationship develops in an interesting way between Christine and Heed. You want to weep for them or slap them, because they have let their entire lives be shaped by this narrow aspect of their existence—their relationship to Bill Cosey. He becomes like a god to them—they vie for his attentions, his love, his blessings. Note that he is also like a god in his striking physical absence; in that he has a son who has died; in that he shapes the thoughts of those who believe in him. Perhaps Morrison is engaging in a criticism (not necessarily condemnation, though) of Christianity. There have been instances where folk have used Christianity in a similarly narrow way. In a capitalist context, we become so possessive that we'll hide everything in the house, denying ourselves, because somebody else might profit from it. We take off on destructive paths, because we didn't get what we thought we should get from a particular encounter. The love, the affection, whatever it is—we turn on others because of what has happened or not happened in this relationship with this god figure. This is just something to think about; I'm still playing with that myself.

I want you to think about that question of what “love” or the desire for love can make one do as you are rereading Love. What exactly does the love between Bill Cosey and Heed the Night entail? Remember the scene where Christine vomits because of what she's seen occur between Cosey and Heed. Think about this in conjunction with Sula. My students get upset about what happens between Nel, Sula, and Jude—it's okay that they become upset. Those that love Sula are like, "You go, Girl," and those who don't like the character are like, "Let's take her out back and shoot her today, because she is immoral and reprehensible. Who would ever do her friend that way? I hate her. Let's kill her!" Morrison gets that one right in terms of what she is trying to do—get you to pick between who is good and who isn't and then work with and challenge that quick assumption.

Historical Context

It's interesting to pick out historical and cultural pieces to better understand what is being done on a more abstract level in the novel. Most students are good with the concrete as far as setting and plot. But what does it mean and what is Morrison doing in terms of the historical and cultural work? She uses numerous literary and historical allusions to create more depth to what we are given, knowing that the next time around when we read this it may be very different. "Narrative is radical," as Morrison tells us in the Nobel lecture, "creating us as we create it." I love that. It is so the truth.

Bill Cosey is right in the center of the novel and of many of the characters’ lives, and yet we never quite grasp who this man truly is. He constantly lurks beneath the surface. When the novel begins, he is already dead. It’s interesting that Morrison edited James VanDerZee’s Harlem Book of the Dead, a collection of memorial photographs of people who had died. VanDerZee was one of the principal figures of the Harlem Renaissance—he took the photograph of the girl in the coffin that inspired Jazz. One of the principles of these photos was to bestow dignity in death, especially if the subjects could not have it in life, because of racism.

Early in Love is an example of how literary allusions work nicely. On page 7, "Foxglove grows waist high around the gazebo, and roses, which all the time hate our soil, rage here, with more thorns than blackberries and weeks of beet red blossoms." There are so many things I think about. My mind is like a collator, particularly when it comes to Morrison's works. Immediately, when I first read that, I thought of Sula, because it's in the prologue of that novel, in the description of the Bottom, that we see nightshade and the blackberry patches. You could spend a semester on one novel, if you did it with the kind of deliberation that one should, but we all know that that's not always the case. Nightshade and blackberry—these two types of vegetation that we have here—are fascinating because nightshade is poisonous, and blackberry can provide sustenance. We have “bad” and “good”; these are emblems of the community that was there; these are emblems of the way the people of the Bottom perceive Sula and Nel. Here in Love we have "foxglove grows waist high." When we get to the roses, I think about Sula with the nightshade and blackberries; I also think of another canonical text: The Scarlet Letter.

One of the courses I teach is “Reading Race in American Literature.” In that course, I pair contemporaneous texts. For example, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) with Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). My students ask, "What do these have to do with each other?" That's what I want them to do. I want them to read the texts to see what these texts might possibly have to say to each other.

The Scarlet Letter evokes a subtle consideration of the racial discourses of the time when one reads it in this moment of intertextuality; there are these echoes, these sites of memory. Hester Prynne was equally as enslaved in her society as was Frederick Douglass. I also ask why is Nathanial Hawthorne going back to the seventeenth century to talk about morality in a Puritan context? The novel was published in 1850. He's living in the midst of the greatest moral dilemma—one that gave rise to the Civil War, and yet he sets his novel back in time in order to talk about issues of immorality and good and evil. Let's think about that for a moment. Then let's go back to Hester and how she's enslaved. She's free to move about, but is she really? She has these specific places in which she can move about. When we meet her, when she comes out from the prison with the roses by the door, she comes out and stands on the scaffold. Sounds to me like a slave auction. It's so much fun to do this, isn't it? Let me now blow you away. The "A" is a brand. We're supposed to believe it stands for adultery. What if it stands for abolition?

We got all of that from foxglove and roses. What's foxglove? It's a medicinal, deadly plant. We get digitalis, a cardiac medication, from it. This is an early, subtle key about what happens to Cosey. When Morrison puts something in a novel, there's a reason. Later on, we find out what that reason is when L tells us what she couldn't let happen: she couldn’t let Cosey leave everything to Celestial. She couldn't let that happen. These women—May, Christine, Heed—had given their lives to him.

We can interrogate that as well. Agency does have something to do with this. We don't reward them for doing this. That's not what Morrison's suggesting. Do you remember in Sula, when Sula and Nel have the conversation at the end about loneliness? I don't think Morrison is suggesting that this is what people should do—what Heed and Christine do. At the same time, I think she's talking about justice. How are we going to define justice in terms of what L does? How does her action shape what happens next? You might ask, did she really improve things? After Cosey’s death, they start contesting this will on the menu, and they have a fifty-year debate about what it meant and who's going to get what. It's hell on earth.

Another example of a reference that would be interesting to research would be First Corinthians, which Morrison has engaged not only here but in other texts as well, for example, Song of Solomon. In First Corinthians, Chapter Thirteen, we learn more about love, specifically about what it is or should be. Love is patient. Love is kind, not jealous, and all of those things. If we take that text and read it in thinking about Love, what happens then?

The Black Panthers, Huey Newton, and Black Nationalism are evoked as well in this novel. It helps for us to locate the history of that movement in Love; it allows us to see why May is May, the paranoia that exists there, and what the stakes are.  May must learn to cope: she doesn’t understand what’s going on “out there,” so she needs to manage and control what’s right here, in front of her. We think about the 1960s in an idealized way even now without thinking about the gains and the losses. Morrison moves us out of thinking about African American history in a simple “Slavery – Civil Rights – Present” schema. Here she examines segregation and the implications of integration.

This one's going to blow you away, but one might consider if indeed integration was the best path or if integration was what we got, we as a people. Think about the thriving Up Beach community that existed in Love and what happened to it after. Cosey’s resort, exclusively for African Americans, corresponds to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard (Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island by Jill Nelson), and the highly fashionable Idlewild in Michigan (Idlewild: The Black Eden of Michigan by Ronald Stephens)—popular segregated beaches. Think about the type of safety that existed and how that was lost. Think about the economic empowerment that existed and how that was lost. What happened? Was that what we were trying to do as we moved closer to a more perfect union between blacks and whites in this country? Was that what was supposed to happen? From our current perspective, these are issues to consider.

What happened to the Cosey Resort? Morrison gives us this narrative of decline. What is she telling us about this? Was this progress? What was lost? Was anything lost? Community was lost. Also, earnings were lost, the economics of it, which shouldn't be the only value of life. Something about the quality of life was lost too. We see this in Jazz too. A sense of loss. Joe was okay down there on those farms hunting. He was one of the best. He brings that skill with him to Harlem, and it doesn't translate very well.

Along with the Black Panther Party, Morrison mentions the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). How does it play into this novel? She also refers to cultural specifics such as King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. King Oliver played jazz in New Orleans and became a legend. He checked out the Chicago scene in 1919 but eventually made it back south to play the Creole music he was famous for. He influenced Louis Armstrong, who we now know as one of the greats. Although King Oliver’s style was appropriated and copied by New York musicians, he got little of the recognition he deserved. That's a theme that we've seen occur too often, particularly in the context of American music.

We also have references to Negro Baseball League teams, such as the Birmingham Black Barons and Memphis Tigers, which were a source of great pride and advancement.

What about class issues? Those seem not to be teased out as well when most people discuss them. Somehow, class and race become synonymous in an interesting kind of way. There’s an assumption that all black people are poor and all white people are rich, which is the craziest thing in the world. It just doesn't work like that, unless you only watch "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and those kinds of shows, which I think help in a lot of ways to create that. We're talking about the 1980s, and that was a different time in a lot of ways. You can have so many conversations. The novel does open up that space for that very conversation about class. There are all of these wealthy African Americans who can afford to vacation at Cosey’s luxury resort; the life that Bill Cosey provides for Christine, and eventually Heed; the way that May and Christine react to Cosey’s choice: “Both of them, mother and daughter, went wild just thinking about his choice of an Up Beach girl for his bride. A girl without a nightgown or bathing suit. Who had never used two pieces of flatware to eat. . . .Whose family salvaged newsprint not for reading but for the privy. Who could not form a correct sentence; who knew some block letters but not script” (75). What does that mean in the context of what might be thought of as cultural homogeneity? We can talk about that in Paradise too. It had something to do with class too—about who can come and who can't. The allowing and the disallowing and how this gets defined. What are the cultural markers as well as the racial markers that exist as classes are being shaped? It's interesting to talk about this when you think of May, Huey Newton, and the Black Panthers in the context of class issues. I look at, for example, the Panthers' Ten-Point Plan: it had a lot to do with economic empowerment. I think it's not happenstance that Morrison brings this in to have that conversation.

Then there are other factoids. The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company is a symbol of Black Power as an African-American-owned and -operated business. This is the company for which Mr. Smith works, by the way, in Song of Solomon, before he takes that flight with his blue wings. It originated in North Carolina, which might offer something about how we think about the South. It is not as stereotypical as we think. This is not to suggest it was a perfect place in all ways, but think about a place in which black folks could establish a life insurance company and sustain it for at least a century.

The GI bill is mentioned on page 168. In the context of our own cultural history, we know that this is a marker of material promise for many. Generations of folk moved—as the Jeffersons' theme song would have it—“on up” as a result of the GI bill. And it was about rising and succeeding through education. That says something too. You might say there's too much emphasis on the economics and the empowerment thereof. In Song of Solomon there's a line, "money was freedom." However, in that book, Macon becomes too obsessed with money; he loses connections to his wife, his children, his sister Pilate, his sense of family. We can also move outside Morrison and look back at Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) to do some interesting critiques of capitalism. Again, by “critiques,” I’m not necessarily saying that we're going to overthrow the government and move to another type of government. I don't mean that. Simply, Morrison asks us to consider: What does it mean to be an individual in the context of capitalism? That's what slavery was about, capitalism and black folks as capital. The GI bill was a marker for material promise. There were many veterans who were able to afford Cosey’s resort.

We also have, as we had in Song of Solomon, a reference to Emmett Till as a historical/cultural icon on page 164. Morrison mentions this as a prelude for Christine's commitment to the groups that she becomes involved with. Till’s murder was a catalyst in many ways for the modern civil rights movement. There are those who mark that as one of the 1950s catalysts.

On page 56 we learn of Junior’s only friend at school—Peter Paul Fortas. The name might be ironic, since “Peter” and “Paul” are New Testament disciples of Jesus Christ, and “Fortas” might refer to Abe Fortas, U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1965-1969, who was Jewish. Fortas was nicknamed P.P., though! One of his key cases was Gideon v. Wainwright, where he and his legal team vigorously defended an indigent client, confirming the rights of all criminal defendants to legal counsel. On the Supreme Court, he was known for his liberal views. He supported the civil rights of children in an Iowa school—they wanted to be able to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

Morrison engages in this interesting play here with historical memory and its significance in the lives of her characters and in the lives of her readers. She evokes a memory here with the GI bill, with the lynching of Till, with the reference to Abe Fortas. It's not only about the characters; it's also about the readers and how they construct knowledge.

Here is another one to think about: sugar. Did you notice all the references to sugar? I'm talking about the white stuff. I'm convinced it's a poison, but you know we all pick our poisons. I like chocolate as well as the next person, but I'm convinced it's a poison, because everyone's telling me that. They give credible reasons for all of this. There's so much in Love about sugar. Junior calls Romen Sugar Boy. The sand on the beaches is described as sugary, and results in the name Sooker Bay—the Spanish “Sucra” (sugar) is changed to Sooker by local whites (8). Sugar is the method by which L puts out the fire set on Christine's bed. (they needed some help, didn't they?! It's interesting to see the dynamic there and how they are destroying each other). Sugar threads its way throughout the narrative.

We know that sugar as a plantation crop drove the slave economy, particularly in what was known as the West Indies. There's some interesting work coming out, particularly in British literary and cultural studies, or as they like to refer to it now, Anglophone literary and cultural studies. Philip Lawson looks at the economics of sugar as commodity in A Taste for Empire and Glory: Studies in British Overseas Expansion, 1660-1800 (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1997). That's one work about slavery and its connection to what we think of as Brittish cultural studies. [For a shorter, related piece on sugar production and empire building, see James Walvin, “A Taste of Empire: 1600-1800,” History Today 47, no. 1 (January 1997): 11-16.]

There are many references to sugar in Song of Solomon too. Sugar harvesting was deadly for black folks in all kinds of ways. Sugar cane was also grown in the South. I started with the West Indies to give you a sense of the magnitude of it. We could also think of it in terms of the color imagery too. The more the sugar is processed, the lighter it becomes, until it's in its “purest” form, the refined sugar. But that's supposed to be a toxin. In the historical context of slavery, sugar must be poisonous because of its relation to economic exploitation. Morrison is using this imagery in this novel to help us to think about the cultural work that sugar has done and is doing in terms of economics and African diasporic communities.

We discussed foxglove earlier. Dracaena is what the good doctor gives to Christine (p. 84). What's that about? Dracaena excretes dragon's blood, we are told. That's the name for the red resin obtained from a number of different plants. Early Greeks, Romans, and Arabs thought it had medicinal properties. This resin was once well known as a type of varnish for eighteenth-century Italian violin makers. Later, in folk medicine, it was supposed to heal wounds and stop bleeding if applied externally, and stop internal wounds such as post-partum bleeding if taken internally. Why do you think Dr. Rio gives this to his loved ones (wink, wink)? Apparently it was also used for cleansing the air of impurities.

Booker T. (Washington) and Malcolm X are mentioned on p. 80. This offers a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about those two incredible men that I hope will not be one of binary opposition. Why do we need to pick? Why can't we talk about what each offered and how that might be useful? For example, Booker T.'s interest in economic empowerment works nicely with what Cosey has done here with his resort. Certainly, we must also talk about them in conjunction with (W. E. B.) Du Bois's plan for racial uplift, which included civic possibilities like voting, as well as education. That's an interesting conversation to have, particularly in the context of a post-integration novel.

Also on p. 80 is a reference to Uncle Toms, and Uncle Tom's Cabin. This is May, who’s so worried about urban blacks. The text states that now she is “beyond discussion, assigning herself the part of the resort’s sole protector.” Interestingly, “Once she had been merely another of the loud defenders of colored-owned businesses, the benefits of separate schools, hospitals with Negro wards and doctors, colored-owned banks, and the proud professions designed to service the race. Then she discovered that her convictions were no longer old-time racial uplift, but separatist, ‘nationalistic.’" That word “merely” is important—it suggests a lack of genuine belief—someone who is more talk than action. I think that shift, or perceived shift, is fascinating, because how did that happen? How do those things that had to do with racial uplift all of a sudden turn into separatism and nationalism? Nationalism refers to Black Nationalism—the principles of Malcolm X and others: focusing on the black race as a “nation” of people who need to care for and look out for themselves (because those in charge have refused to do so for hundreds of years). May laments the shift from idolizing "sweet, Booker T.,” whose work focused on extending the hand of brotherhood between the races, to revering the “radical Malcolm X." She does not embrace the entire African American community, but rather envisions the nationalists as seedy blacks who “have already invaded Up Beach, carrying lighter fluid, matches, Molotov cocktails; shouting, urging the locals to burn Cosey’s Hotel and Resort to the ground and put Uncle Toms, the sheriff's pal, the race traitor out of business."

Remember that if Morrison’s talking about post-integration, she's talking about American society—that what happened with black folks involved everybody else too. I like that we look at Morrison as an American writer. However, I never want us to forget that she is an African American writer or that she is an African American woman writer. I don't want us to lose the cultural and historical specificity in terms of African American life, culture, history, and experience. Morrison and her novels serve as sites of memory. She's doing cultural conservation in some necessary and needed ways for all of us.

Here is one last historical reference: School busing is referenced on p. 37.

[Vida] had surprised herself at the supper table, bringing up that old gossip about Cosey's death. Hating gossip bred of envy, she wanted to believe what the doctor said: heart attack. Or what L said: heartache. [That's interesting after we know all the pieces to this]. Or even what May said: school busing. Certainly not what his enemies said: syphilis rampant. Sandler said eighty-one years was enough; Bill Cosey was simply tired.

Note that May claims that integration is a traumatic event—one leading to Cosey’s death—not inherently positive. This works in the context of what Morrison's doing through her critique of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as post-integration. The theme of civil rights and integration runs throughout the entire narrative. School busing might seem self-explanatory, but it's relevant not only to show what the character thinks is important but also that each character has an agenda and with that comes certain ideas of what is true.

This suggests that truth is subjective in some interesting ways. Looking up the historical references—the facts—is important, but we need to talk about not only what each one is but how it operates in the novel. That adds some richness. It also allows us to have some of those other difficult conversations. For example, busing. That is very difficult. Black people were not all in support of busing, for different reasons. For example, the writer Zora Neale Hurston was taken to task for an article that she wrote in the 1950s, because her position was anti-integration: she didn't see how black children sitting in classrooms with white children would somehow create “intelligence” and success by osmosis and help them learn better. Even someone as highly respected as Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was the president of Morehouse College for a long time, opposed integration and busing in the Atlanta public school system. Atlanta has its own history. Students today may not have been in the midst of white flight, but they live in particular places as a result of those kinds of issues.

Historical narratives are typically written by: 1) as Douglass says, those who win, and 2) those who have the most power. You may know about these things in your own lives, from your own experiences. Or you might have learned them from history books. We need to think about perspective, like who writes the history books, and what sorts of stories get privileged.

Participant: One review that I read of Love said that the word "love" was only spoken once by a living person. What do you think of the book in terms of the aesthetic?

Dr. Angelyn Mitchell: It doesn't matter to me if “love” is not on each page. In a Morrisonian world, what is important is not simply what is stated.

Participant: Yes, there is not just one type of love. We can see love as a constructive force, or love as a destructive force. One of the things I have my students do is keep a “media journal” over two weeks. They keep track of all the examples of “loving” acts and depictions of love they can find in newspapers, magazines, on the radio, TV, etc. It’s a really valuable exercise.

Participant: One of the forms of love I think that’s overlooked in the book is Bill Cosey’s love for his son. There is so much pain, such a sense of loss when he dies. This is a subtext for the entire book.

Participant: That’s important to keep in mind when you think about whether L’s murder of Bill Cosey was justified.

Participant: Of course it was justified! He was a pedophile! And an adulterer. He ruined people’s lives.

Participant: That’s true, but he also provided jobs to so many people, and a place where black people could go and feel respected. He gave his community hope, right?

Dr. Angelyn Mitchell: It’s very complicated as far as what she's doing with the concept of love in the novel. It's very Morrisonian to me. There’s no simple right or wrong. There are layers and layers of themes. If you had to pick the primary theme of each of the novels, there’s not just one. Even If you say, for example, that The Bluest Eye is about the brainwashing of African Americans to desire white standards of beauty, as I stated in the beginning, is it only that? Is it about incest? Or is it about a society that creates a man, Cholly Breedlove, so devoid of humanity, lying on the trash heap and being rejected by his father? Agency is a part of it. Morrison is not trying to depict some mythical or romanticized black experience. There are beautiful characters and ugly ones, happy experiences and sad ones. There is hate, there is love. And love comes in a variety of forms.

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