“On the Lip of Lake Erie”: Toni Morrison’s Ohio Aesthetic
By Dustin Faulstick
In an interview with Claudia Tate, Toni Morrison had this to say about her home state of Ohio:
The northern part of the state had underground railroad stations and a history of black people escaping into Canada, but the southern part of the state is as much Kentucky as there is, complete with cross burnings. Ohio is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base. It was also a Mecca for black people; they came to the mills and plants because Ohio offered the possibility of a good life, the possibility of freedom, even though there were some terrible obstacles.
In Ohio, there’s a distinct feeling of being in the middle—not only in the physical middle, mostly landlocked near the center of the country, but also in the ideological middle, politically, morally—having been on the right side of history regarding the question of slavery, but, even during the same time period, often in the wrong on questions of justice: at least as supportive of fugitive slave laws as of the underground railroad. Morrison not only grew up in this contradictory state, it pervades her fiction. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,” she once told an Ohio audience, “the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.”
In their emphasis on a non-linear historicity, their cyclicality, and through her comprehensive storytelling, Morrison’s novels are intimately tied to her Ohio roots. The distinct seasons of northern Ohio—its agricultural rhythms and proximity to the eternal crash of recycling Lake Erie waves—inspired an aesthetic insistent upon return. Central to that aesthetic is Morrison’s initial refusal to reveal everything straight away. Early in her novels, readers are left momentarily confused, uncertain we have what we need. And often, we don’t, yet. This aesthetic style models a return to history that Morrison encourages—both in her novels, where she flashes back to revisit stories and add details from characters’ pasts to illuminate their complex realities, and in our own worldview, where we’re encouraged to look again at our own stories and the injustices that are never merely past. Ohio’s specific place in United States history and its natural rhythms inform Morrison’s style—which we can see from a brief look at her widely explored Ohio novels The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Moreover, the spirit of Ohio—its promise and precariousness—is so strong in Morrison’s work that it extends to later novels set outside of Ohio as well, particularly her slightly less appreciated Great Migration novel Jazz.
In The Bluest Eye, set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, Morrison employs agricultural metaphors inspired by her home state but does so for her own purposes. Having divided her first novel into four sections following the four seasons, she subverts Western symbolic meanings, as she does throughout The Bluest Eye, to draw attention to the fact that not everyone flourishes under a hegemonic worldview. The protagonist, Pecola, who desires blue eyes, is raped and impregnated by her father, Cholly, in the springtime—resulting in a baby doomed to death and a child doomed to insanity. All of this is set against the expected rains of rebirth. Likewise, the novel borrows its closing metaphor from gardening, but it evokes sterility not fertility: “it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear.” The soil’s hostility toward narrator Claudia’s marigolds provides an immediate metaphor for Pecola’s stillborn baby, but it’s also a metaphor for Ohio’s inability to welcome Pecola or her father, and for a country whose people and systems continue to perpetuate racial humiliation.
In the Pulitzer–Prize winning Beloved, this time set in Cincinnati, Morrison uses the seasons to deepen our investment in her characters. She writes, “In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it. When Paul D had been forced out of 124 into a shed behind it, summer had been hooted offstage and autumn with its bottles of blood and gold had everybody’s attention.” Like the Ohio seasons, Morrison’s characters are tempestuous and demand attention. Even her secondary players are full enough to remind readers that everyone’s story is central to herself—that no one, fictional or otherwise, deserves to exist perpetually on the margins. “The fact that I chose to write about black people means I’ve only been stimulated to write about black people,” Morrison has explained elsewhere. “We are people, not aliens. We live, we love, and we die.”
In Beloved, Baby Suggs urges her congregation in the Clearing toward a similar realization: “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.” “This here place” might not represent the totality of Ohio, but it is in Ohio: “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose,” Paul D reasons, “well now, that was freedom.” “Yonder,” on the other hand, certainly represents parts of the South, but it’s also the Ohio just beyond the Clearing, which can turn on you as fast as the Sweet Home slave catchers arriving on horseback. And when the imperfect protection offered by Cincinnati can’t keep “the bloody side of the Ohio River” on its own side, Sethe—in one of the most heartbreaking moments in contemporary literature—kills her daughter, Beloved, and tries to kill her other children. Sethe, like Margaret Garner, the real-life woman on whom the story is partially based, knows—at least in her panic—slavery to be worse than death.
Although her Ohio novels are some of Morrison’s most celebrated, they’ve also faced severe scrutiny. The Bluest Eye and Sula were originally met with dismissive criticism, and they, along with Beloved, have been banned and challenged by censors. Now widely viewed as the United States’ greatest living novelist, Morrison called reading early reviews of The Bluest Eye a “depressing experience.” For instance, a 1970 New York Times reviewer asserted, “Morrison has gotten lost in her construction.” And in a now infamous 1973 review of Sula, Sara Blackburn initially responded to The Bluest Eye by writing that “socially conscious readers—including myself—were so pleased to see a new writer of Morrison’s obvious talent that we tended to celebrate the book and ignore its flaws.” Blackburn even went on to suggest that Morrison should turn her attention away from “the black side of provincial American life” toward more “serious, important” topics. And as recently as 2013, the president of the Ohio Board of Education tried to remove The Bluest Eye from an 11th-grade Common Core reading list. Many people defended the book—most notably Morrison herself: “To be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio, having been born in Lorain, Ohio, and actually relating as an Ohio person, I resent it.” To ban a Morrison novel in Ohio feels like banning Ohio in Ohio, like keeping Ohio history from Ohioans: this is our past, such a move insists, but we don’t want to look at it.
Through researched historical description and intense aesthetic beauty, Morrison forces us to look. In her 2019 essay “Peril”—a preface to her newest collection of writings, The Source of Self-Regard, which was released this February just before her 88th birthday—Morrison highlights the power censorship tries to conceal: “the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place.” One of the many important things taking place in Morrison’s Ohio novels is their investment in history. Seeing no memorial to slavery, she dedicates Beloved to “Sixty Million and more.” She creates Sula in rural Ohio and charts the capitalistic displacement of black communities. She sets The Bluest Eye in her hometown and chronicles the internalized effects of centuries-long racism. And she does so in sentences you never want to stop reading. “My sensibility,” Morrison has insisted, is both “highly political and passionately aesthetic.”
Michael Hill’s 2013 book The Ethics of Swagger argues that a compelling aesthetic experience is capable of opening ethical paths that might otherwise remain unopened—that prizewinning black authors, especially Morrison, accelerated the canonization of African American literary texts, thereby increasing their visibility and making more people more aware of black histories and black realities. Hill evokes, as a foundational example of the ethics of swagger, basketball legend Julius Irving and the introduction of the dunk: “Dr. J’s dunks embraced black styles and revised the agendas of basketball’s white creator. This combination of cultural affirmation and institutional critique showed his expressive authority. [. . .] Swagger here involves more than just ego; it entails cultural recovery.”
Born just fifty miles from Morrison’s hometown, the current best basketball player in the world, LeBron James, has been forced to navigate some of the same issues as Morrison. For example, a 2010 Bleacher Report article began with this sentence: “LeBron James is the most hated player in the NBA.” This came just after the Akron native left Cleveland—the first time—when he announced on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Even though James donated the six million dollars the broadcast generated to charity, drawing special attention to himself hurt his reputation, especially among white fans. The Midwest is a place where the fundamentals are preferred to the flashy, where modesty and humility are exalted, in particular and unjustly for women and people of color.
I was living in Ohio when James made his announcement and I personally know people who burned his jersey in 2010. More interesting, though, is that some of these same people also shared this meme in 2018: “Excellent father. Greatest player on the planet. Same dude, same maturity, same family. Reputation intact. Ladies and Gentlemen, LeBron James.” As with the literary world’s eventual embrace of Morrison, we might be inclined to see progress in these Cleveland fans’ change of heart—a change of heart inspired not least because James returned to Cleveland and led them to their first NBA championship before leaving—the second time—to play in Los Angeles. But I think it speaks instead to an unhealthy conformist mentality: one reflected in the reception of both James and Morrison. If a black person doesn’t fit mainstream ideals for what it is to be a writer, a leader, a role model—if, essentially, she doesn’t please white people on white people’s terms—then it doesn’t matter how talented she is, she’s likely to be marginalized and her abilities downplayed. That is, until it’s impossible to ignore her talent and charisma, and only then is she championed by the mainstream and tokenized as misleading evidence that a person’s reception is based solely on merit and not at all on race. The answer for icons such as James and Morrison has been striving to be better than everyone else, regardless of reception: “I am giving myself permission to write books that do not depend on anyone’s liking them,” Morrison has insisted, “because what I want to do is write better.”
And writing better for Morrison is always grounded in Ohio—even when she’s writing novels set in other parts of the United States. Jazz (1992) is this sort of Ohio novel. Set in Manhattan in 1926, Jazz offers insight into the psychology of moving from the South to the North, a journey both of Morrison’s parents made when settling in Ohio in the early 1900s. In her forward to the novel, she recalls one of the first things she did as she began to imagine it: “I remembered. My mother was twenty years old in 1926; my father nineteen. Five years later, I was born. They had both left the South as children, chock full of scary stories coupled with a curious nostalgia.” Although few of Jazz’s plot points parallel Morrison’s real-life family, the novel explores the fresh, expansive hope provided by moving away from the Jim Crow South, while at the same time acknowledging the South’s clutches. It encapsulates both nostalgic memory and the South’s destructive foundational histories, pulling characters back into a painful past they can’t totally escape.
We learn on the first page of Jazz what other novelists might reveal on the last: Joe Trace has killed his much younger lover Dorcas, and his wife Violet has tried to disfigure Dorcas’s face at her funeral. What follows is a thorough exploration of the immediate and distant past that helps to unearth how the protagonists came to be who they are. Employing a storytelling strategy owing its origin to her Ohio–derived aesthetic of return, Morrison digs deep into Joe and Violet’s arrival in the North, their histories in the South, and the histories of their parents and grandparents. As she revisits the same stories over and over, we learn, piece-by-piece, more about the characters and ultimately understand their struggles a little better each time we look.
When Violet and Joe first arrive in New York, the North is bliss:
They weren’t even there yet and already the City was speaking to them. They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. [. . .] When they arrived, carrying all of their belongings in one valise, they both knew right away that perfect was not the word. It was better than that.
The North offers Violet and Joe a chance to “dream tall and feel in on things,” it provides streets where black people “owned all the stores,” and it gives them a place where they feel “top-notch and indestructible.”
In its hopefulness for a new start, Jazz is a migrant story: like the story of Morrison’s parents, like that of people waiting right now to cross the Mediterranean Sea, like the story of many in Mexico and Central America. But the promised land is not paradise; not everything is made perfect for migrants even if they arrive at their desired destination. The Cincinnati of Beloved offers a loving community and a passionate life, but only until the slave catchers come searching for Sethe. Lorain in The Bluest Eye ends up not as a place of infinite opportunity, but as a land where the “soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers.” Consequently, when Morrison’s young, excited narrator exclaims early in Jazz, “History is over,” we—author and readers—know better. History is not over for Violet and Joe: “Twenty years after Joe and Violet train-danced on into the City, they were still a couple but barely speaking to each other, let alone laughing together or acting like the ground was a dance-hall floor.” Like other Morrison characters, they are haunted by their incurable southern histories.
Initially, Violet fears becoming her mother, who threw herself down a well after the men evicting her family from their southern home dumped her out of her chair and onto her face, degrading and breaking her: “the biggest thing Violet got out of that was to never never have children.” When she changes her mind about children, she tries, in her loneliness, to steal a neighbor’s baby and begins sleeping with a lifelike doll. Her fixation on the past—having no children, remembering her mother’s death—causes mental lapses and hallucinations that limit further and further her human interactions: “Over time her silences annoy her husband, then puzzle him and finally depress him.” Even her decision to remain with Joe after his infidelity is couched in Violet’s southern foundations: “Everybody I grew up with is down home. We don’t have children. He’s what I got. He’s what I got.” Joe, for his part, claims he shot Dorcas because he didn’t “know how to love anybody.” Raised by an adoptive family in Virginia, Joe learns that his biological mother seems to be a woman nicknamed Wild, who lives in the woods and doesn’t talk to him or to anyone. Violet offers Joe a new family and the North offers him a new place, but the move furthers the institutionalized separation he and Violet face. Joe has to give up his best friend and adoptive brother Victory, whom he never sees again and whose memory casts a shadow on all of his future relationships: “since Victory, I never got too close to anybody.” And although the North—New York, Ohio, and elsewhere—offers an escape from the South, it’s also foreign and potentially alienating. This is a heavy consequence of the Jim Crow South: beyond its sanction of bodily violence and humiliation, it drove millions to leave behind the people they loved.
And yet, despite the novel’s violence and pain, Jazz ends with a surprising resolution inspired by the improvisatory nature of the jazz music evoked in its title. The disarmingly honest narrator—perhaps, here, reflecting Morrison’s own process—admits, “I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. [. . .] I was so sure, and they danced and walked all over me. Busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human, I guess you’d say.” Joe and Violet stay together, become supplemental parents to the children in Harlem, and venture occasionally into other parts of New York City: “A lot of the time, though, they stay home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear again and again.” Morrison remarks, in her forward, how she was struck by jazz’s “unreasonable optimism. Whatever the truth or consequences of individual entanglements and the racial landscape, the music insisted that the past might haunt us, but it would not entrap us.”
The contradictions evidenced in Jazz—the highs and lows, the hauntings and hopefulness—relate to the way Morrison sees Ohio as both “ideal” and “base.” It’s not exactly that New York stands in for Ohio, but that Jazz as a novel reflects the Great Migration experience, what we might call the Great Ambivalence. As it was written after the civil rights movement, the novel comments also on the American experiment as a whole, and if Jazz engages the American experiment, jazz music represents the best version of that experiment. As a metaphor for the promise of the United States, jazz music acknowledges difference and relationality, improvisation, originality, invention, pain, and struggle. Morrison wanted Jazz not just to be about these elements; she hoped “the novel would seek to become them.” The fullness of Morrison’s novels and, all too consistently, the social realities of our world reveal that we’re not there yet—and that maybe we never will be. But if experience tempers the “unreasonable optimism” of jazz music, experience even further recommends the spontaneous, transformed hopefulness of Jazz. It’s a hopefulness grounded in history and in the promise and peril of Morrison’s Ohio: a petrified promised land whose soil may not always support marigolds but has helped to produce the essential literature of the United States.
Dustin Faulstick is a Senior Lewis Lecturer in the Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky. His critical essays have appeared in Studies in American Naturalism, Literature and Belief, Edith Wharton Review, and Religion and the Arts. He is working on a book about Ecclesiastes and early-twentieth-century U.S. literature.