Toni Morrison discusses 'skin privilege' in recent interviews about 'God Help the Child'

In one interview Morrison said that "when a white teenager is shot in the back by a cop running away ... we'll know something about race."

Bebeto Matthews/AP
"God Help the Child," Toni Morrison's 11th novel, published this week by Knopf, explores race, identity, and sexual abuse.

Toni Morrison's newest novel, "God Help the Child," is the first to be set in the present day, and in a country still reeling from the racial tensions of police killings across the country, it couldn't be more timely.

"Child," Morrison's 11th novel, published Tuesday by Knopf, explores race, identity, and sexual abuse, in a lyrical, almost mystical novel.

It begins with an African-American woman, Sweetness, who is dumbfounded when she gives birth to a very dark-skinned baby.

"It's not my fault. So you can't blame me. I didn't do it and I have no idea how it happened," she tells readers in the novel's opening line. "I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward the baby, Lula Anne, embarrassed me."

From the outset, Sweetness tries to distance herself from the baby, nicknamed Bride, who grows up craving her mother's attention.

"I used to pray she would slap my face or spank me just to feel her touch," Bride says.

Eventually, Bride grows up and into a successful life: She drives a Jaguar and works as an executive at a cosmetics company, surrounded by luxury. But her loveless upbringing continues to haunt her and she cannot shake the shame of being "midnight black," unacceptable to her lighter-skinned mother.

As USA Today reports, the remainder of the novel describes Bride's "halting rebirth from this shame. It takes the shape of a fable: she departs her life and goes in search of Booker, an enigmatic former boyfriend, and on her half-mythic journey begins to physically regress toward childhood, her breasts getting smaller, the hair disappearing from her body, her earring holes closing."

Within the realm of race, Bride's journey, and the book itself, specifically explores the issue of color, Morrison told NPR in an interview.

"Distinguishing color – light, black, in between – as the marker for race is really an error: It's socially constructed, it's culturally enforced and it has some advantages for certain people," she says. "But this is really skin privilege – the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is and the impact that has on people who are dedicated to the privileges of certain levels of skin color."

The writer used her novel's exploration of race to weigh in on police brutality against blacks in an interview with the BBC.

She told BBC's Radio 4 she would like to see people's reactions if the roles were reversed.

"I want to see two things – one, a white teenager shot in the back by a cop running away," she told Front Row. "Or a white man stands in a doorway, tries to pick out his key and is shot 44 times by police," she said, referencing the shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo. "Now, when that happens, we'll know something about race."

But while she explores painful topics in her writing – like racism, sexism, and abuse – Morrison told NPR she finds release in her writing.

"The writing is – I'm free from pain. It's the place where I live; it's where I have control; it's where nobody tells me what to do; it's where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I'm writing."

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