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Keith ByermanKeith Byerman is a professor of English at Indiana State University and author of several books on African American fiction, including Fingering the Jagged Grain. A frequent presenter at seminars and institutions for high school and college teachers, he is a leading scholar on contemporary African American literature, especially Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman.

Novel Discussion

Dr. Keith Byerman: I teach at Indiana State University where I've been teaching Morrison in one form or another for about fifteen years. We're going to do Paradise this morning. Teaching Paradise is like dealing with an overachieving parent with an underachieving child. It's painful. It's difficult and complicated. Think about the first line: "They shoot the white girl first." Now are we going to have fun with that or what? And the last line, "Now they will rest before shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in paradise." Show that to religious conservatives and see how they respond. This is, I think, the most difficult and complicated of Morrison's books. For a lot of people, it is very confusing, and they run away from it. Sula is wonderful; Song of Solomon is great. Jazz is fun once you get past the murders and things like that. Jazz is a soap opera. Read it like a soap opera, and it works. Paradise is so problematic a book that Oprah's book club didn't like it, and they like everything.

There are so many subtleties that only crop up after reading and re-reading the book. For example, there's food in this book from the beginning to the end. I hadn't thought about that until I read it through this time. Time after time they would be making things or gardening, eating things, or smelling food. There's food everywhere.

Point of View. The point of view keeps changing. In the chapter entitled “Divine,” I identified eleven shifts in point of view. I may not have gotten them all, but that's a good example of what is going on in the book. In the chapter “Seneca,” for example, the title character doesn't appear until the last five pages of this chapter. What kind of sense do we make of that? Morrison is good at getting within a point of view. This complicates things even more. When Consolata is having her relationship with Deek, she doesn't know his name. He's constantly referred to as "him." We have unclear pronoun reference. To complicate it even further, at one point in that chapter, she meets his twin; only she doesn't know he has a twin. We don't know that they're identical twins. She sees Steward and thinks it's Deek and is upset by his reaction to her. But we don't know who it is. Point of view is in one sense very effective here in that Morrison can get inside the mind of a character as completely as any writer. She does it so successfully that sometimes it's disorienting for readers.

Time shifts. I'm still trying to figure out—and I don't think I have enough years in my life to do this—the exact sequence of events in this novel. Supposedly the time of the novel is 1976. Thematically, it's interesting because it's the Bicentennial. That year was supposed to be the 200th anniversary of U.S. democracy, with “liberty and justice for all.” This is an ironic notion for an African American writer to wrestle with: 1776 did not mean freedom for all people—African Americans were still enslaved; indigenous peoples were having their land taken away and about to be thrust onto reservations; women did not possess the right to vote. At other times in the novel, it's 1948 plus 25 years. Some things seem to happen in 1973 followed by things that happened in 1968 followed by things that happened in 1974. At one point Mavis has been there for three years and at another point she's been there for eight years. If you have a good computer, try to work out the sequence of events. This is not just an intellectual puzzle, because we tend to assume that time has to do with cause and effect. If we can put events in their proper order, we maybe can figure out how things are related to each other. We don't want to assume automatically that because something happens before something else that it causes it. At least we know that it happened before it. We can speculate whether it caused it. In this novel you're all over the place from chapter to chapter and page to page and moment to moment. It's even worse because Morrison is often precise about the time. Somebody is referred to as doing something in 1948; then the next sentence says, "Now 25 years later." You do the math and you think you know something. Probably not. This happens throughout the novel.

Names. Then there is the problem of not naming characters in that opening sequence. You go along in the chapter, page after page, reading about various characters and their relationships. They aren't named. At some point they will be named, and you have to go back and say, "This one is Steward. This one is Deek. This one is Dovey. This one is Soane.” Later in the novel you will get situations where characters will be named, but you don't have context for the name.

Every time I teach this I have to make sure I remember who is married to whom, who is related to whom, and write it down, because I'm not going to remember. Soane will be talking about her husband and then she'll be talking about Steward, so you'll assume that she's married to Steward, but then you find out that she's not; in fact, he's her husband's twin brother. Then you have to go back and figure out what exactly were these relationships.

Morrison's Math and Magical Realism

Maybe it's a higher-level math, I'm not sure. Maybe it's a magical realist math. This whole business with years, for example, adding and subtracting in order to figure out when events take place. The beginning of the second paragraph of the book is, "They are nine, over twice the number of the women they were obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement . . . " (3). "They are nine." What would nine be more than half of? Four. How many women are there? Five. Who are we missing?

Then, of course, we have the disappearing women who don't disappear exactly, because they turn up again a few pages later, some place else. We see them being shot. Consolata is shot in the forehead. The white girl is killed. First thing that happens. He kicks open the door. There's the white girl. He shoots her. Steward did that. We have a victim. We have a perpetrator. We are eye witnesses to a killing. Where's the body? Consolata is not only shot in the head, but also she is picked up by Deek and laid on the kitchen table. The other three—you know the funny math—run off into the field. They are all shot down. They're down in the grass. These are marksmen. They know what they are doing.

A few hours later Roger comes by with his ambulance. He finally gets to use it. He's counting on it. This is the biggest event ever for his ambulance service. But no bodies. Where did they go? There's speculation about them. What we do know is that they mysteriously appear to people who are associated with their personal pasts. How did they get there? We don't know. This is not exactly the same thing as the ghost in Beloved. This is a disappearing act. This is the magic side of magical realism.

Magical realism is a concept that's often associated with Latin American writers. There's some debate about whether this actually applies to Morrison. It is a freeing up of notions of time and space in what appear to be realistic events or a realistic novel/narrative. Characters live to be hundreds of years old. For example, Circe in Song of Solomon is ancient. She apparently has lived well over 100 years and is just waiting to die, so the dogs won’t eat her. She's in a strange environment of a former plantation mansion. The Colombian magical realist writer Gabriel García Márquez does a lot with people never dying and with radical shifts in time and space. People in his stories assume that it is ordinary that somebody would live to be a couple of hundred of years old. Of course, characters appear and disappear, and it's not worth much commentary. For us living in an ordinary world, such things seem unbelievable and magical, but they're not presented in the books as magical. They're presented as ordinary. The writers who engage in this practice want us to question the bounds of reality. What is logical and “real” for people in one culture is not necessarily so for people in another—especially a colonized or oppressed one.

Think about how in Paradise, for example, the community of Ruby deals with the disappearance of the women. Roger goes out, sees no bodies, and reports there's nobody out there. People are puzzled at first and try to come up with rational explanations. Quickly they start thinking about their self-interest. If there aren't any bodies, then we don't have to report anything. We don't have to bring the police into this. If there are no bodies, our men are not criminals. Instead of a profound mystery, it becomes a part of the luck of Ruby. One of the other issues in this book is immortality. If the women didn't die, then people can still claim the immortality of an Eden-before-the-Fall for their town—until, unfortunately, Save-Marie dies at the end. Does that make sense in terms of the concept of magical realism? Read the García Márquez novel 100 Years of Solitude.

Complications of Race

Let's go back to that first quote. "They shoot the white girl first." We can do all kinds of interesting things with that statement. We can talk about issues of race and gender, and we can suggest how Morrison in that first statement is involving us in those particular kinds of issues, as well as issues of violence.

I have a simple question for you. Who's the white girl? How do you know? I've been looking for markers of race in this book. Morrison provokes us. She asks us to identify a character in terms of race. Then she doesn't identify the race of any of the characters that we're talking about. Is it Pallas, Seneca, Mavis? Is it Gigi, otherwise known as Grace? Consolata we know about. We know that she isn't white. She is South American—Brazilian—and we read that “Nobody questioned the Sisters Devoted to Indian and Colored People paying cut-rate passage for three certainly non-white urchins in their charge” (223). She wouldn't be identified as the girl in any case. If you can find me clear evidence of who the white girl is, I'll give you one of my copies of the first edition of Paradise. I don't know. I've taught this novel three or four times.

There's a Morrison short story called “Recitatif.”(Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif” (1983). Calling the Wind: Twentieth-Century African-American Short Stories. Ed. Clarence Major. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. 438-53.) In this story there are two young women, Twyla and Roberta. One is black, one is white. Their mothers show racial prejudice, especially toward each other. The puzzle I give to my students is—because it's important to the story that they are racially different—which one is which? This is part of what complicates things in Morrison. She offers us what seems to be an answer, but we don't know what the question is. "They shoot the white girl first" is an answer. We would assume that one question would be, Is Mavis the white girl? Is Seneca the white girl? Is Pallas the white girl? Is Gigi the white girl? Those are some of the problems. You can find more, I'm sure.

Here’s another problem: I would like you to identify for me the hero of this book. We have lots of characters to choose from. We know who the villains are. Who's the hero? Who's the character who is some sort of model? Who's the character with whom we sympathize? Who is the character who does something worthy in the book? I want a justification for it as well, not just a name.

Participant: Consolata would be the obvious choice, but I think Consolata is too easy. But she influenced some of the women and men who then went out and influenced other women and other men in the community. Because of that, she would be the starting point.

Dr. Keith Byerman: So you would pick the old, blind, alcoholic as your hero?

Participant: I don't think we see the growth in her. Deek, maybe? With Deek we see a kind of change, public penance. I don't know if he's going to influence Ruby or not.

Participant: I picked Lone. Lone is the one who identifies what's going on with the men. She takes the step to try to go out to the Convent to intervene ahead of time. More importantly, she's the one left with the bodies when everyone disappears from the Convent. She's the only one there with the bodies. I think that's significant.

Participant: And the fact that she's a healer. I really like that you mentioned Consolata and the fact that she's an alcoholic. For all of the characters, it's difficult to choose a hero, because they are so complicated. Morrison never allows you an easy answer. She allows very flawed heroes throughout a lot of her work.

Participant: I want to trouble the question in the first place, because locating the hero is definitely going to be somewhere in the community of women, but the notion of a hero seemed very masculine.

Dr. Keith Byerman: What does that say about our assumptions of our notions of hero? How are we then defining the notion of a hero?

Participant: I think it's changed. Before, heroes were always men—strong, brave, etc. I think that we're now saying that heroes don't have genders. We're looking at the activity first then saying this person is a hero no matter what the gender.

Dr. Keith Byerman: Heroism is based on behavior and implicitly on choices that people make.

Participant: I thought the hero was the narrator. The narrator confirms what happens and says it's important that it happened.

Dr. Keith Byerman: How would you identify the narrator? For example, in Jazz we have an interesting notion of a narrator. We have an unnamed but clearly individualized narrator. That is, we have this gossip. It's someone who sits in a window, watches the street, and picks up bits of information. It is not a character that is named or clearly identified but a distinctive voice. Here it's trickier, I think. There is a constantly shifting of point of view. We can be entirely in Consolata's head when things are going on—so much within Consolata's head that we don't know often what she is talking about. Her references are not clear to us. There's always movement. That's why I think the question of the identity of the narrator is an important one to address.

Participant: It's an important one to address, but also, because of the shifts, the story is more representative. These people are shown for good and bad—more objectively than one person’s biased viewpoint. If someone from Ruby were telling the story, you wouldn't get parts of the story that we do get. The shifting point-of-view allows us to get the whole story, from all segments of the community, not just the people who are in charge—the official story.  When you're asking about heroism, I don't think that the identity of the narrator is as crucial as the actual relating of the story, making sure the story gets told, not erased, because it’s not in the best interest of those in power.

Dr. Keith Byerman: That's a device I often use when teaching not only this book, but also other books. Imagine what the story would be like if a particular character were telling it. Imagine what this book would be like if Lone were telling the story.  Lone seems to me, among other things, slightly paranoid and has the possibility of seeing conspiracies in all kinds of places. We are told that she has largely lost her healing powers. That's why she goes and gets Consolata. She says, "I can't do this anymore."

If Steward were the narrator, imagine what the story would be like. It would be about five pages long. (Although we might be grateful for that!) We wouldn't have these kinds of quandaries I've been talking about in dealing with the book. Also, there would be no insights in the book. The question of narrator and how the narrator influences how we get the story is crucial, especially in a book like this that has all of these complications.

Does anybody else buy narrator? Does anyone want to question or challenge that?

Participant: It seems to me that the men hate the women of the Convent. Everyone is against the women of the Convent, but they're content with themselves in the community. They serve as a model, because they are working on themselves instead of leading people on a march and dragging people along.

Dr. Keith Byerman: So you would have the women as a collective hero.

Participant: We could also think of the Convent being the hero. It takes on a character too with the description of the architecture and what remains and what's been changed.

Dr. Keith Byerman: So architecture as the hero. The house has dealt with the sacred and the profane. The house has undergone changes but maintains an identity. The house is one of the only characters—if we want to think of it as a character—that is physically described with care. Try to visualize the characters in the book. We can know skin color. We can sometimes know generic things. Richard Misner is described as very handsome, but what does that mean in terms of actual physical qualities? We have this whole business with Consolata's eyes, but is she blind? Does she have some physical problem that has to do with the light and the fact that she wears sunglasses and has all these different shades of sunglasses? Is it a willed problem of her sight, or is it an actual physical problem?

There are basic things in terms of the descriptions of the characters that we don't get much information about. Try to think about this book as a film: what the characters would look like, what their height would be, what their physical shape would be, and what their voices would sound like. The characters talk a lot, but what would they sound like? It's often very vague. In part because I kept trying to identify them as distinct characters, I initially missed that Deek and Steward were identical until Consolata confuses them.

Participant: It's on page 12. "The brothers approaching the cellar were once identical. Although they are twins, their wives look more alike than they do." It goes on to describe their personalities and how they're different. It tells you they were identical.

Dr. Keith Byerman: I missed that. We associate “identical” with genetics. Morrison has immediately qualified the notion of identical. "They were once identical." How can this be?—they're either identical or they're not. Yes, they can have modifications of personality, but . . . . It's a curious notion.

Who are other heroes? So the Convent itself is a hero.

Participant: If you're looking for someone who has done something worthy, I thought of Misner, because he is someone who is in a position of power and respect in the town and gives young people a voice. He feels they should listen to the younger generation.

Participant: Deek goes to him at the end after the barefoot walk and that puts Misner up in the moral ranks.

Dr. Keith Byerman: Other thoughts about Misner? I wrote a forthcoming essay on preachers in the works of Morrison and James Baldwin. Misner is one of the characters that I focus on. One of the problems regarding Misner that I dealt with in that essay is that, despite all of his clear virtues--his willingness to listen to the young, his interest in doing things that are right, in trying to negotiate conflicts rather than allow them to linger (when he's trying to negotiate, for example, between the Morgans and the Fleetwoods)--he doesn't realize that Arnette is pregnant. This is a key bit of information! He thinks this is solely about physical violence. When he asks K.D. if Arnette aggravated him, “He expected this forthright question to open up a space for honesty,” but instead it causes a surprising “sudden quiet” (59). The next morning, he's satisfied with the way the two families had resolved things. In many ways, he's an innocent. He thinks things can be done through reason and good will. Another crucial thing for me is the fact that the leading members of his congregation are the ones that lead the massacre. What good is his righteousness or his virtue if key people in the community can listen to his messages of love week after week and then go out and murder unarmed women and, except for Deek, not take responsibility for it?

Participant: Isn't that a theme that Morrison's trying to convey?

Participant: Religion is a major theme—the ineffectiveness of traditional religion—in this book. The fact that this was a convent and then fell apart. The ministers were ineffective. I wouldn't have been in their congregation.

Dr. Keith Byerman: They were unforgiving and intolerant.

Participant: People have been killing each other in the name of religion since the beginning of time. Morrison points out the difference between religion and righteousness.

Participant: Or maybe organized religion and spirituality.

Dr. Giselle Anatol: Interestingly, Morrison claims to have been inspired to write this novel by an event she heard about while traveling in Brazil: several black nuns were murdered by a group of local Catholic men because the women were rumored to be practicing candomblé—an Afro-Brazilian religion that blends aspects of Judeo-Christianity with traditional West African beliefs. The story turned out to be a myth, but Morrison was captivated by the idea of this assault on the feminine, on the black, on the African, on the anti-establishment.

Dr. Keith Byerman: Are there any other heroes or heroic characters?

Participant: Can we talk about Pat Best? To me she's the hero.

Dr. Keith Byerman: She's the one who keeps the history. What about the fact that she burns it? One of the other places that that happens in African American literature is in David Bradley's Chaneysville Incident, where he burns all the note cards. It says something about the notion of history, what counts as history, and how we make sense of history.

Pat is assuming that if you can document everything, then you've got the answer, but simply documenting, writing down the information, gathering the facts, isn't enough. History has to be experienced. It has to be felt and lived through, even if you have to do that through imagination. That's one of the reasons why these writers keep turning to the past. It's not enough to do what historians do. Historians can tell us, for example, generically about slavery, but in order to understand slavery, we have to imagine the life of a slave. What is it like to live day to day in that life? Why are the eight-rock people the way they are? Because the world is a dangerous place. They want to construct their own paradise--a place where their women and children will be safe from abuse. It is a masculine world. They imagine the possibility of safety and the possibility of security. They imagine that they can be free from history and that's their flaw.

In James Baldwin's Sonny's Blues, the narrator promises his mother that he will keep his younger brother, Sonny, safe. The mother, in her wisdom, says, "You can't do that. All you can do is be there." It's a wonderful story about music, religion, and family relationships.

Coincidentally, my students always talk about how much they know about the Bible, so I ask them where the ending in the Baldwin story comes from. They never know. I tell them to go back and read Isaiah 51:22—“Thus saith … the Lord … Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, [even] the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again.”

Dr. Giselle Anatol: We can connect this to Paradise as well: the women in the Convent have suffered, but then, before the onslaught from the men of Ruby, they experience spiritual redemption. I mentioned the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé before. In this religion, there is a preference for female devotees who live together in a “House.” The leader is called the “Mother of Saints”; she represents a line of communication between the material world and the spiritual world. A key concept of this belief system is the idea of “axé” (pronounced “ah-shay”). It is one’s own vibrant, central energy, held within oneself versus an external divine power. In the orixás (or “orishas”) ritual to invoke axé after a traumatic life event or illness, participants isolate themselves for a time; they then shave their heads, remove their clothes, and dance. A psychological separation from the body is supposed to occur—it is a type of spiritual relief from the weightiness of the physical world and the trauma it has inflicted. Morrison seems to be drawing heavily from this tradition in Paradise. Consolata serves as the Mother of Saints; she tells the women “If you want to be here you do what I say. Eat how I say. Sleep when I say. And I will teach you what you are hungry for” (262). She leads them in the ritual of painting their bodies’ shapes on the floor of the cellar, and they have out-of-body experiences where each can “step easily into the dreamer’s tale” (264). Eventually, the Convent women become un-haunted by the ghosts of their pasts. During a long-awaited rain, the women “let it pour like balm on their shaved heads,” and experience “the rapture of holy women dancing in hot sweet rain” (283). The rain is a cleansing bath—a baptism of sorts, and they all find what Morrison has identified as the beloved within each of us.

Dr. Keith Byerman: I have put this list of terms on the board: Violence … Race … Color … Purity … Gender … Sexuality … Class … Family … Community … Religion … Ritual …
Let's work through a number of these things. I want to lay them out for you and have us discuss them. Don't assume that because we can separate out these things, you can then point to them individually and say you've figured out a piece of the book. One of the things going on is that these things get connected in all kinds of ways. None of them exist independently of the other elements. This is why teaching this book is a high-risk proposition.


One way to think about what happens at the Convent with the killings of the women is that it is like a mini-holocaust. The women are identified by the men in Ruby as almost a racial group. The characteristics that they assign to those women are characteristics that are often associated with oppressed groups of people: their corruption, their sensuality, their irrationality, their animal-like behavior. These are the same kind of terms that the British have used historically to talk about the Irish. This is how Spanish populations in Latin American have talked about the native populations, how whites have talked about blacks, and men have talked about women. Don't forget that the goal of the attack on Ruby is to eliminate the women. It's to erase them from that space. This suggests a holocaust. In the epigraph at the beginning of Beloved, Morrison refers to the 60 million and more, a number that, as a multiple of 10, compares to the six million of the holocaust. You'll notice this initial act of violence is also associated with the notion of racial superiority. To be eight-rock is to be superior. One of the goals of eight-rock is to remain pure. In the name of group purity you wipe out what you identify as an impure population that threatens your purity and contaminates you.


One of the key themes in African American literature and specifically in Morrison for a number of years is this notion of community. This grows out of the 1960s Black Nationalist thinking, but it can be traced back earlier than that. We have given this a gender emphasis with notions of communities of women. Community is generally taken in these commentaries as a positive. I would argue that in Morrison, and especially in Paradise, it's much more problematic than that. What creates the community of Ruby? Rejection. Death. Violence. Repression. Suppression. You create community in this book out of a need for self-protection and survival in a desperate world. That community always feels the threat of the outside world but sometimes replicates that threat.

One of the things that Pat Best accomplishes in trying to track the history of Ruby and Haven is that she recognizes that these kinds of exclusion and intolerance that we see reflected in 1976 in the attitudes toward the Convent women have been there virtually from the beginning. There have been other people who they—the Old Fathers and the New Fathers—have shunned and kept out.

We are like each other, we need each other, we take care of each other: this is the notion of a cooperative community. The people of Haven were people who worked together. If your neighbor had a problem, you helped take care of it. Ruby is different. Ruby seems to be much more about power and control. Those who feel the draw of power are the ones who are the most concerned about creating the community in a certain kind of way and insisting on those rules.

Morrison is adept at describing how collective groups ritualize and symbolize the notion of community. There is the oven, for example, and all the issues around the oven. By the time the oven is located in Ruby, it has ceased to be functional. It has become a symbol of the community.

The other issue is the slogan. It was there all of their lives. How could they forget? The younger generation is contending over the meaning of the slogan, and they are contending with the elders over the meaning of Ruby. The symbol of the community is the identity of the community. The oven is not an arbitrary thing. It's what holds the community together and therefore important to be contended over. The oven is the emblem of community in the sense of something shared. This is where they cooked things together. They didn’t have to have a stove in their homes, because they had the oven. Members of the community, not individuals, worked together to cook the meat that they hunted. It's a symbol of sharing in its original form, and it was built for that purpose. Remember that they moved to Ruby after World War II, not in the 1890s. They take the oven apart. They load it on a truck. Morrison comments that the women fuss about taking up so much truck space with this oven. They move it, but they no longer need it as an oven. Its original functional purpose no longer exists. But for the men of the community especially, it is the thing that their ancestors built and is a sign of community. They want that to be the organizing principle. What they want to do is replicate and improve Haven—by taking a literal piece of Haven and transplanting it. Maybe what you get is Haven again if you do that. Of course, the oven has lost its connection to reality and necessity in the community. It has a different function now.

Let’s also look at the Christmas ritual, the playing out of the Disallowing. In this version of the community’s history, seven pairs of adults look for a room at the inn with their children and are refused. This replays the legend that is associated with the community that also gives meaning to the community. The rejection of this original group of pilgrims—not by whites, because they expected that, but by a group of light-skinned blacks—becomes the central myth of Ruby and gets dissolved into the Christmas story. The meaning of the Biblical Christmas story is that the divine comes into the world, but it's the child, right? Think about this. The parents are human. The children are divine. That means the people retelling the history, ritualizing the story of the Disallowing, are in effect claiming divinity for themselves. We are the new order. We are the divine order. That ties into this notion of immortality. What's the deal that is made? Nobody dies in Ruby except, inconveniently, Ruby herself. And actually, she doesn't die in Ruby itself.

Recasting Stories

There are stories of sacrifice and a version of the Mormon narrative--the angel who leads them to finding the original home and a sacred text, as well as a journey that deals with rejection until they end up in the West. Regarding cultural/historical elements, one way to think about what Morrison describes here is that it is the story of Mormonism recast. Writers use whatever works for them. As I heard somebody say the other day, "Shakespeare never had an original idea for a story. He stole everything." Writers steal. Writers lie. That's their business. Morrison takes whatever she needs from wherever she gets it. You could pull apart Paradise and find all those different frames of reference. There's some John Milton here. There's some Dante, William Faulkner, and Melville. Pick your source. Don't assume that because you identified the source, you've therefore solved the puzzle. Don’t assume that if you can pick up the Mormon references, then you can make sense of Paradise. No! Morrison used a particular kind of source in a particular kind of way. She's always doing it for her own purposes.


Family is unquestionably linked to community. You are family because you are part of a community in a particular way. This is a community with insiders and outsiders. Who gets to be family? It makes a difference. The Best family—Roger, Pat, and Billie Delia—doesn’t count as a real family in the eyes of eight-rock community members. They're presented as a family that doesn't hold together. Roger Best made the mistake of picking a woman who was the wrong color in eight-rock terms. Therefore, any descendant of Roger Best—even though he was eight-rock—is not quite legitimate. On the other hand, although he has no parents, K.D.—because he is eight-rock, or very dark-skinned—gets to be family regardless of his behavior and his character. His mother dies. He gets everything he wants. We see this notion of purity played out over and over again. Family is what is permitted by the community. We can easily argue that the women at the Convent create a family. It's not in any sense, as far as Ruby is concerned, a real family. It's the antithesis of family.

Race and Colorism

It is important to understand the concept of "colorism" for this novel. Colorism might be called—this isn't accurate, but it's a place to start— intragroup racism. Group members are distinguished on the basis of relative skin color. Historically in America, the lighter you are the better you are. Relatively straight hair is called “good” hair in the black community. The first black woman millionaire was Madam C.J. Walker, who made lots of money with hair straighteners and skin bleaches. There's a history within the group of the value of the lightness of skin.

This is codified in New Orleans, where the Creole population historically has wanted nothing to do with African Americans. They refuse to marry African Americans. I had a student once who was from eastern Texas. She was from a Creole family. They would have family reunions every year. One of the functions of family reunions was to match up distant cousins so that they wouldn't have to marry blacks. They were, in fact, by the one-drop rule, black. It didn't matter. By law, in some places in the South, if you have any identifiable black ancestor, you are considered black, which tells you the power of blackness. One black ancestor beats out thirty-one white ancestors every time. That's power!

In Paradise this ideology is inverted: the darker you are, the better you are. The idea is to pass dark skin color from generation to generation. This links to gender, because the eight-rock men believe the women threaten this colorist order. It is these women of mixed racial ancestry who tempt the eight-rock men into—to use the language of racism—contaminating the blood. It's not the men who are the problem, according to the men. It is always the women who are the problem. The town founders shun those men who presume that they can violate this rule by going out into the world and marrying or bringing back the “wrong” women. That's why it’s important that K.D. marry Arnette, so they can perpetuate eight-rock.

Before DNA testing, you could always know your mother, but you could never know your father for certain. That's why there is so much emphasis on controlling women. God knows what they might have been doing nine months earlier! This is a notion that has a very long history. It's been in literature forever. It's been in culture forever. There are all kinds of ritual practices associated with it to make sure that men have some reasonable chance to control descent, to control genealogy, to control family. It's a basic kind of anxiety. Is that my kid? Who knows? Is it the milkman's? Is it the grocery boy’s? Is it the preacher's? He doesn't know. You still run into problems, because women are a royal pain! According to this point of view, they're deceitful, sensual, and unfaithful. You need to exercise as much control as possible to make sure that your son is your son. This is why in the South during slavery there were clear-cut laws which said that the condition of a child, slave or free, followed the condition of the mother—not the father. This was a way to control women.


This is a book called Paradise. That invites all kinds of possibilities for us in terms of religion. We've got that final statement, "Building a paradise down here," which is obviously problematic to religious people. Paradise is supposed to be someplace else—someplace high and elevated; one’s soul is supposed to rise. One of the ironic things that Morrison is doing is confirming that notion. You can't have paradise here on earth if by paradise you mean a place of ultimate security, and perfect moral order. Paradise has to be somewhere else. It doesn't stop us from trying. In this book religion also is about the politics of religion. This is where Misner and Pulliam play key roles. They hate each other in the name of love. It's not just that they are members of different denominations; rather, they have fundamentally different views of that moral order. There's contention back and forth. Remember Pulliam's remarkable sermon about love at the wedding in which he says there really isn't any. Misner stands there with the cross making everybody uncomfortable. That's about power as much as it's about faith. Over and over again in this book, we see power being played out. Who's in control?

I think it's a very contentious book in terms of religion. We should keep in mind that, for example, the function of the Convent as a convent was to teach Arapaho girls to forget. To forget what? Being Arapaho. Morrison is Catholic. But she questions religion and questions its practitioners and its lessons constantly. Consolata, for example, is an alcoholic and a woman who's waiting to die. Yet her name means “consolation.” Gigi’s true name is Grace, and yet she is the most promiscuous of the characters. Two of the characters, Steward and Deacon, are guilty of ultimate irresponsibility. Think about the roles of stewards and deacons in churches. Nothing is simple. This is a contentious book. There is no simple agenda to it. That's why Morrison is a great novelist.

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