"What is really infinite is the past. The future always appears to me to be finite; but the past is infinite--and in that sense there's so much back there to mine from--and part of black culture has to do with this intimacy between the self and the ancestor. More than simply parental respect, I mean the ancestor fulfills a place no parent can.
It's a benevolent, protective, teaching--but not spoiling, not coddling--presence that's always accessible." (1)
WITH THE CHALLENGING REFLECTION JUST QUOTED, TONI MORRISON demurs from the modernist fires that rage through the thickets of much contemporary literary endeavor and criticism. Those who would spend lifetimes worrying if there is any such tool as a "usable past," who recite as dogma the belief that only flickering speculation is possible from a gaze backward, are greeted with Morrison's assertion that the past is more inviting and therapeutic than any present or future. While it is true that the quoted remarks were uttered during a televised interview, the comments are not minor considerations dropped hurriedly from the mind of an inventive writer. Toni Morrison has spent considerable energy preparing her readers, her various audiences, for a world view that makes such a claim--for the past and those who emerge from the past--altogether inevitable.
History and ancestors are the subjects of most of her writing. In her novels, Morrison sometimes confirms her assertion about the role of the ancestors by marking their absence. Choosing among many possible readings, one could suggest that because Pecola Breedlove, the crushed diamond of The Bluest Eye, has no ancestors to protect her, to teach her, she is subjected to the warping influence of the icons of the larger, imprisoning culture that hems in her entire family. Pecola's past is finite and the tragic, non-protective intimacy she experiences causes her future to vanish also.
The distorted, inverted world of Sula also proclaims the value of ancestors by their diminished presence--if not actual absence. There are figures from stories and myths, but immediately there is only a circle of damaged people, amputated spirits, who can instruct only through twisted and extreme lessons, not directly. It is only at the end of the novel that wisdom is learned and achieved. In some ways, because of the torturous journey into the past to make sense of her present depression and paralysis, Nel Wright has the revelatory vision that makes of her self an emerging ancestor, and thus enables her to tell Sula's story (and, therefore, her own story, finally seen as coherent) for the instruction of those who come after her--in this, as in all cases, the readers of the book.
The central and in many ways defining text of Toni Morrison's meditation on history and the ancestors is Song of Solomon. In this novel, Morrison shapes stories as a master weaver would develop strips of kente cloth. From the Bible, from American and world literature, from the caves of her imagination, from the stories and fables of the ancestral folk, Morrison plays with history, sending Milkman on a spiraling flight from death to life, from resistant uncertainty to a shouting assertiveness that heals the body and the soul, from his father's house to Solomon's Leap.
Closely reading Solomon, one may discern wheels within wheels of commentary upon and appropriation of substantive themes of American culture and literature. Toni Morrison offers a vision of an alternative use of history, in contrast to a widely accepted and admired approach to history as a literary theme, and in so doing, she engages one of the reigning patriarchs of twentieth-century literature, William Faulkner. Song of Solomon absorbs and not only appropriates the same biblical allusions of Absalom, Absalom/but gives strong voices to those black characters for whom Faulkner provides only whispers or howls, and establishes a reverence for the ancestors (and therefore a reverence for history) that wrestles Faulkner's fabulous demented ghosts into a humble submission. On a simpler, albeit deeply profound level, Toni Morrison offers Song of Solomon as a vision of life as comedy, in contrast to the tragedy dramatized in the extended soliloquies of Absalom, Absalom/
Before Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon can be confronted directly, it is important to spend some time becoming reacquainted with another song, one handed down by the ancestors. One of the great Negro Spirituals captures the "sense of intimacy between the self and the ancestor" that Morrison sees as a special mark of black culture. The song in question, "Wade in the Water," not only can provide a key to understanding the sense of intimacy but can also open several other avenues of insight into a vista of an African-American past that is liberating and redemptive.
Wade in the water, children (3X), God's a-going to trouble the water. See that host all dressed in white ... The leader looks like the Israelite ... See that band all dressed in red ... Looks like the band that Moses led, God's a-going to trouble the water. (2)
This song, used during a baptismal rite or during a worship service when it would be appropriate to remind the worshipers of their initiation into the community of believers, takes as its reference the act by which the Israelites gained an identity as a people: the Exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, led by a man chosen by a (divine) power outside of the normal limits of human experience. The world of politics (Pharaoh and his army) and the world of nature (the bank of the Red Sea) hemmed in the fleeing slaves. Power from outside of time and place intervened and rearranged the world and expanded the possibilities of meaning and coherence. Pharaoh's army got "drownded" in the sea; the waters parted and the Children of Israel crossed over. The contract (covenant) established by this action consisted of a promise: I will deliver you from bondage and you will be my people and I will be your God.
This mythic action repeats itself over and over in the scriptures of the biblical Israelites and their spiritual descendants. The same imagery can be found in one Negro Spiritual after another, from "Stand Still, Jordan," to "Roll, Jordan, Roll," to "Deep River" itself. Since it is an act of liberation, of redemption, of salvation, to step into the swirling threatening extreme limit of nature, the injunction to "wade in the water" implies an act of faith. Death is the logical outcome of being caught between the army of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. Death--of personhood, of humanity, and of self-esteem--is the logical outcome of slavery. To be a believer in this system of faith is to cry out for liberation, if not from the chains of slavery, then from the chains of sin. Confronting the death implied in such an immersion, the song speaks to the unspeakable and unimaginable horrors of the Middle Passage, …