Toni Morrison's Vision of Justice Was an Ethos of CareRoundup
tags: African American studies, literature, Toni Morrison, literary history, American literature
Farah Jasmine Griffin is Chair of African American and African Diaspora Studies; Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies, and the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. She is also Affiliate Faculty of the Center for Jazz Studies. Her most recent book is Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II.
It was at a summer cookout that I recall first seeing the scars, dark brown, raised, and thick, that poured down Uncle Pitt’s back. He sat on a folding chair, laughing. He laughed a lot, and occasionally danced, grabbing my mother’s hand and twirling with her in what seemed to me an old-fashioned partner dance. Having been raised as a proper Black child, I neither stared nor pointed, but I was transfixed by the scars and kept the image at the forefront of my mind until I could ask my mother about them. “Mommy, what is that on Uncle Pitt’s back? Is he hurt?” She responded, “No, he is fine. See how happy he is?”
Later she told me that sometimes when people were imprisoned, scientists and doctors conducted experiments on them in exchange for things like cigarettes. Uncle Pitt had been “experimented on.” She said this as a matter of fact, if with a tinge of sadness. She said it in that same tone she used whenever she had to reveal something harsh. It was as if the tone would soften the blow of the knowledge she revealed.
I knew Uncle Pitt had been incarcerated. Aunt Eartha wrote letters to him and to her oldest son, who was in the military. On our side of the family, each generation had at least one young man who had “done time” and at least one who went to the military. My maternal grandfather served in the military. Daddy was in the Navy and later did four months for drug possession, before I was born. Uncle Pitt had been in the Army. Of my male cousins, one had done a little time for gang fighting with a BB gun; his brother had gone to Vietnam. Of my two nephews, one served time for manslaughter before he turned twenty and the other went into the Air Force right out of high school. All of them, whether on the right side or wrong side of the law, had encounters with the police, who stopped and questioned, sometimes harassed, and at least once brutally beat them. It was a hated but almost expected occurrence in our lives. At any given time, we were helping fund someone’s bail, or offering support at court, paying lawyers and bail bondsmen, receiving and writing letters to our loved ones there. That was the plight of our men. None of them spoke to the women or children about their time in prison. I hope they spoke to each other.
As a girl, I knew that men I loved sometimes ended up in prison. I knew that some of them might have done something to be there, but incarceration didn’t have to be an indication of guilt. There were many innocents behind bars. Interestingly, though we all knew someone who had done or was doing time, we also knew that many of our neighbors who had been victims of crime rarely even bothered to call the police.
If I was haunted by the sight of Uncle Pitt’s scars, other incidents haunted me more: the frequent occurrences of sexual assault, including gang rape. When such instances transpired, families rarely called the police. They feared girls would be further victimized by them and were almost certain her assailant would not be convicted.
Although the failure to report sexual crimes was presented as an effort to protect the victim, I also understood it as a failure to fully value the lives of Black girls. I believed one of the only things standing between me and such victimization was the protection of the men in my family. If I had been assaulted, I assume but am not sure my family would have called the police; they too doubted the ability or willingness of the police to deliver justice. However, this I knew, deep in my bones: if my assailant were known to my family, he would have been maimed or murdered.
In her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou reveals that in all likelihood, her uncles murdered the man who molested her as a girl. Although separated by time and location, I recognized that moment as one that could have been mirrored in my own life. In the world in which I was raised, prisons rarely offered rehabilitation and courts did not serve justice. Whites didn’t do time for harming Blacks; Blacks were unjustly imprisoned. Justice as we understood it was Divine—God would take care of it; or it was retributive, meted out by gangs, friends, and family members.
What is the nature and possibility of justice for the crimes of racism, slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration that Black people have experienced in the United States? What does justice look like for centuries of systemic abuse and violence enacted by a society built upon withholding justice from Black people? In all of her novels Toni Morrison contemplates the nature and practice of justice.
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