Home: a refuge or a place to be yourself?

 

Where is home? Is it the place you come from, or a refuge that you run to? Is it a real place or an imaginary constructToni Morrison, Wall Mural founded on wishful thinking, or both? In Home, Toni Morrison explores these questions through the experiences of two young people who grow up in rural Georgia after the Second World War. Cee is Frank’s younger sister, and when he leaves with his two friends to join the army she too tries to escape. But marrying the no-good Prince creates more problems than it solves for Cee. The story begins where it ends, with a war-damaged Frank returning to rescue Cee from her unscrupulous employer and bring her home to Lotus, Georgia. There she is saved by the women of the community who nurse her back to health using traditional medicine.

Frank and Cee are the children of African Americans hounded out of Texas and forced to live in a suffocating no-hope town in Georgia. Their difficulty in setting up home elsewhere is compounded by racism and exploitation. The solution seems to be a return to roots and traditions. The women who nurse Cee back to health come from a nostalgic vision of the past and of women’s history which leaves me skeptical. Cee’s health has been destroyed by modern scientific experimentation, but is the antidote to that ‘traditional’ medicine? People who couldn’t afford doctors didn’t have any choice but Cee still has a greater risk of bleeding to death at home than in a hospital bed. Community values are presented as an antidote to the alienation and oppression of life. This overlooks the fact that rural communities are just as stratified on class and racial lines as urban ones are. People who leave don’t usually go back. The narrator asks why Cee, surrounded by so many strong women, has done so badly in life. The answer is that firstly, her own mother didn’t love her, and secondly, that she didn’t love herself: ‘If she did not respect herself, why should anybody else?’ In order to change, she has the model of the older women to follow:

As she healed, the women changed tactics and stopped their berating. Now they brought their embroidery and crocheting, and finally they used Ethel Fordham’s house as their quilting centre. Ignoring those who preferred new, soft blankets, they practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life. Surrounded by their comings and goings, following their instructions, Cee had nothing to do but pay them the attention she had never given them before. They were nothing like Lenore, who’d driven Salem hard, and now, suffering a minor stroke, did nothing at all. Although each of her nurses was markedly different from the others in looks, dress, manners of speech, food and medical preferences, their similarities were glaring. There was no excess in their gardens because they shared everything. There was no trash or garbage in their homes because they had a use for everything. They took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them. The absence of common sense irritated them but did not surprise them. Laziness was more than intolerable to them; it was inhuman. Whether you were in the field, the house, your own backyard, you had to be busy.

Cee has found a refuge in her home town. I’m not convinced that, at the end of the story, she has found a home where she can be herself.

— Catherine Vigier, Contributing Writer


References

Toni Morrison, Home, London, Vintage Books, 2012.
Photo: Toni Morrison wall mural by Zarateman/Wikimedia Commons

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