If you are intersted, you can read Kirsten Shands’ response to Maxine Montgomery’s talk on Home HERE
Dr. Maxine Lavon Montgomery, Professor of English , Florida State University
Listen here, you from Georgia and you been in a desegregated army and maybe you think up North is different from down South. Don’t believe it and don’t count on it. Custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous.
Toni Morrison, Home
As much as any other novel in Toni Morrison’s multiple-text canon, Home (2012) engages a range of human rights issues in foregrounding the unjust conditions confronting the mid-twentieth world and the ways in which race or difference not only places individuals at a greater peril for such abuses, but also offers the communal responses essential to overcoming oppression. Frank “Smart” Money, the novel’s amnesiac, drug-addicted Korean War veteran, suffers from more than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Childhood memories of racial violence emanating from a dreadful southern past prove equally as debilitating as the terrors of war. While the challenges Money faces following his return to the United States are resonant with those of a global citizenry, Morrison’s contribution to the conversation on basic rights and freedoms rests upon her skill in recovering a harrowing southern history, distilling from it both the tragic consequences of slavery and the strategies that have allowed black Americans to survive whole.
Morrison’s reliance upon rhetorical structures of repetition, revision, and mimesis directs attention to the role of “rememory” as a medium for reconstructing past occurrences.1 The disjointed narrative moves freely between stream-of-consciousness and first-person point of view, between past and present, destabilizing written, extant, or ‘official’ history in an inventive retelling of anterior events. Home invests Money’s testimonial account with unprecedented authority in re-inscribing 1950’s America, a little-known period, along with the individuals and ideological beliefs defining life during and after the Korean War. The ghostly images that haunt Money direct attention to the invisible constructions of racialized oppression and the insidious nature of those systems in the lives of black Americans. Whether through policing practices, housing regulations, or health care, custom or law, the institutional practices of the modern world frustrate the achievement on the part of raced citizens, complicating the search for an idealized home free of externally-imposed limits. Tropes of doubling reflect the psychic and physical wounds of war, race, class, and gender oppression, lending emphasis to the intersectional nature of trauma and the need for healing apart from conventional methods and traditional spaces.
Reminiscences of a mare, zoot-suited man, dismembered body parts, and Korean girl are reminders of the lingering effects of trauma in a New World setting. Memories of deaths on the battlefield exist together with recollections of an altercation involving a black couple on board a train en route to Chicago and merge with Money’s guilt over his failure to save the lives of his war comrades. The troubled veteran’s insecurities surrounding his ability to rescue his younger sister, Cee, emerges as the most salient challenge the protagonist faces in his attempts to reclaim the manhood white society seeks to erase. Money’s sister falls victim to Beauregard Scott, a deranged Orwellian physician whose foray into eugenics summons the ambivalent role of science and technology in relation to black bodies. Scott’s presence brings to mind a host of human rights abuses, including the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, medical experimentation on Henrietta Lacks and Harriet Washington, and, more recently, forced hysterectomies on immigrant women in United States/Mexican border detention facilities. Such atrocities link fictional characters in an ever-widening circle of human rights abuses engulfing diasporic subjects across a cross-national geography.
Home is strewn with a host of bodies – in transit, scarred, marked, dismembered, and vanished – in a rehearsal of a dreadful trans-Atlantic history with Money’s return to Lotus, Georgia assuming mythic dimensions as a heroic quest into the underworld. Billy, the youthful Math whiz that Money meets outside of Portland, is the victim of a drive-by shooting at the hands of a police officer. That the young boy’s chief aspiration is to be a man signals Morrison’s awareness of the threat of state-sponsored violence for black masculinity and the need for police reform. Money’s arrest for vagrancy following his release from an army hospital, no less than Reverend Locke’s reminder that hospital doctors experiment on black bodies, points to the failure of traditional institutions in addressing the complex issues among the inner-city poor and the practicality of diversity training as a means of creating a more equitable social system.
If the abuses Cee suffers underscore the challenges of finding a safe space apart from physical and psychic violence, her recovery in the company of a community of southern women points to home as a contested site, at once both a place of trauma and a locus for transformative change. Readers familiar with Morrison’s fiction recognize Ethel Fordham as one in a long line of indomitable mother figures. Fordham is closely associated with the unscripted folk practices that have allowed diaspora subjects to persevere in the face of unrelenting abuse, and in a curious act of doubling resonant with novelistic arrangements of trans-human constructions, she becomes the mother that Cee no longer has. Cee, essentially childless, recovers her lost childhood in a symbolic restoration of the ruptured historical continuum underlying the mother-child dyad. Through the ceremonial practices associated with an agrarian homestead — cooking, quilting, gardening, and homeopathic cures – Cee achieves a new subjectivity apart from the wounds she has endured.
Morrison’s tenth novel frames mirrored accounts of the return to an abandoned southern field as a literal and symbolic journey home, refigured mnemonically as a metaphysical site linked with ancient beliefs about the continuity of life and the sacredness of death, a place where the parts torn as a result of the trans-Atlantic journey are mended. Much like Song of Solomon’s Milkman Dead whose quest for self-identity culminates at Solomon’s Leap where he inters his grandfather’s bones, Frank and Cee go back to the site of an originary trauma in a gesture acknowledging the vibrancy of a recovered past in constructing an alternative future – one where the dignity of each individual is an inviolable right.
- Like “post-memory,” “rememory,” a term Morrison coins in Beloved, functions as a narrative and rhetorical strategy which carries the sense of re-membering a past memory – one that exists apart from an originary scene, character, or place. While Marianne Hirsch offers a definition of “post-memory” in terms that differ from Morrison’s “rememory,” she also asserts that “’post-memory” always risks sliding into “rememory” within the context of the mother-daughter relationship. See The Generation of Post Memory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
The Korean War
Home tells the story of Frank Money, a 24-year-old African American veteran of the Korean War (1950-53), a ferocious and brutal conflict that killed over four million people in three years. For North and South Korea, the conflict was a civil war, a struggle with no possible compromise between two competing visions for Korea’s future, with China and the Soviet Union supporting North Korea and the United Nations, drawing its principal force from the United States, supporting South Korea. Morrison does not overlook the war crimes committed against soldiers and civilians alike by both sides. Some scholars estimate that 70% of the casualties were civilians, with episodes like the Nogun-Ri Massacre not coming to light until years after the war. While the war unofficially ended on 27 July 1953 in an armistice, the surviving soldiers and civilians would grapple with the long-term effects for years to come.
Green Books and Jim Crow America
While in the States, Frank makes use of a “Green Book”, part of the essential series of travelers’ guides for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. Green Books were created and published by New York City mailman Victor Hugo Green from 1936 to 1966 as guides to services and places relatively friendly to African Americans. He eventually expanded his coverage from New York to much of North America, and founded a travel agency. African-American travelers faced hardships such as white-owned businesses refusing to serve them or repair their vehicles, being refused accommodation or food by white-owned hotels, and threats of physical violence and forcible expulsion from whites-only “sundown towns.” This radio documentary includes stories from people who lived through the Jim Crow period, and this short video explores the importance of the Green Books.
Medical Experimentation on Black Americans
Frank’s sister Cee is subjected to involuntary medical experiments by her employer Dr Beauregard Scott, who believes in eugenics. These experiments leave her traumatized and infertile. The United States’ history and involvement in unethical human experimentation is longer and more extensive than many know. The “Tuskagee Study” is perhaps the most famous instance. In 1932, 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama were enlisted to partake in a scientific experiment on syphilis. The infamous 40-year study’s goal was to observe untreated syphilis in black populations. The subjects were unaware of the experiment and were told instead that the treatments they were receiving were for bad blood. In a lesser-known history of experimentation, more than 60,000 people were sterilized without their consent in the US in the twentieth century, including a disproportionate number of women of color.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Despite the immense number of casualties, the Korean War remains relatively absent from most accounts of mental health and war trauma. Ignorance at home contributed to widespread misunderstanding of veterans´ condition, and they were often deprived of the public space in which to grieve, as well as the emotional support and understanding they sorely needed. Home mainly focuses on Frank Money´s inability to transition from the war to the racially divided US. He has seen both of his friends die during the war and has himself committed a horrible crime. Confined in a “nuthouse” after police pick him after a violent blackout, he only remembers “the free-floating rage, the self-loathing disguised as somebody else’s fault.” Frank continues to struggle with what we now recognize as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and through Frank, Morrison directs attention to a great number of veterans who did not receive the treatment they needed, a global problem that sadly persists today. PTSD has finally gained recognition in the US, but about 20 American veterans still kill themselves every day.
Children in War
As mentioned, Frank and his fellow soldiers are not the only ones who suffered from the war. Frank, in a moment of guilt and panic, shoots a young Korean girl offering sexual favors for rotten food. While this event speaks to the larger issues of war crimes, it also directly depicts the reality that children are especially vulnerable in times and places of combat. UNICEF reports a three-fold rise in attacks on children in conflict zones since 2010. Around 30 million children remain displaced due to conflict. Life-threatening hunger in war zones, which motivates the girl, now threatens 4.5 million children under the age of 5.
Frank and Cee endure systematic racism, ranging from denied access to public places, to Cee being taken advantage of while in a position of financial and emotional vulnerability. Systematic racism continues to produce inequalities in homeownership and segregated communities. Police disproportionately kill black people. While only 13% of the US population is black, 28% of people killed by police are black, even though they are less likely to be armed. Bias in healthcare algorithms and race-based inequalities in health-care access continue to make black patients more vulnerable.