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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 197-223

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Geographies of Paradise

Patricia McKee
Dartmouth College

I am waiting for them to stop talking about the "Other."

—bell hooks1

We are not, in fact, "other."

—Toni Morrison 2

PART OF TONI MORRISON'S ONGOING REVISION OF AMERICAN HISTORY, HER novel Paradise (1997), replaces within the historical record a past that has been excluded from it and raises questions that it has avoided about the exercise of freedom in American cultures. As characters attempt to construct a new world of freedom within North America, Morrison's history of African American life also participates in the re-examination by late twentieth-century cultural critics of the spatiality of social meaning. In what follows, I want to explore the radical geographical imaginaries at work in Paradise, especially the spatial revisions the novel makes necessary to practices of freedom.

In her essay "Home," also published in 1997, Morrison discusses the need for spaces "free of racial hierarchy":

I want to imagine not the threat of freedom, or its tentative panting fragility, but the concrete thrill of borderlessness—a kind of out of doors safety where [End Page 197] "a sleepless woman could always rise from her bed, wrap a shawl around her shoulders and sit on the steps in the moonlight. And if she felt like it she could walk out the yard and on down the road. No lamp and no fear. . . . Nothing for miles around thought she was prey."

The quotation within this passage appears, with some variation, in Paradise. 3 It is meant, Morrison says, "to suggest contemporary searches and yearnings for social space that is psychically and physically safe." 4 Although a world "free of racial hierarchy . . . is usually imagined or described as dreamscape—Edenesque, utopian, so remote are the possibilities of its achievement," in Paradise as well as "Home," Morrison's thinking "moves the job of unmattering race . . . to a manageable, doable modern human activity."

Situating freedom at home and around the house, as she "domesticate[s] the racial project," 5 Morrison resists the tendency to locate modernity and its freedoms in open and public spaces. As Rita Felski has argued, "the vocabulary of modernity is a vocabulary of anti-home. It celebrates mobility, movement, exile." And "the discourse of contemporary feminism," too, "speaks enthusiastically of migrations, boundary crossings, nomadic subjects." 6 But Morrison does not restrict freedom to movements beyond boundaries. She locates freedom in what may be imagined as multiple occupations of space. The liberating potential of her "borderlessness," of both conceptual and practical kinds, lies within as well as outside of places. Morrison's spatializations of freedom reenforce revisions of modernity proposed by numerous theorists of African American cultures, who argue that concepts and experiences of home cannot be separated from discourses of freedom. 7

Morrison's multiple occupations of space are produced as replacements of occupants who have been displaced by the epistemologies that underwrote European migrations to North America. In those migrations, Morrison has argued, Europeans' freedom of movement depended on the construction of imaginary borders between Europeans and non-Europeans, in order to divide European migrants from parts of themselves they wanted to escape. Emptying themselves of internal conflicts, Europeans located their own rejected parts in "others," identified as enslaved Africans, who [End Page 198] became black in European eyes in order for Europeans to become white. 8 These racializing constructions of character cleared the European subject of internal differences. But they also emptied African subjects of cultural and subjective complexity as they positioned African subjects within, or as, the projected otherness of Europeans.

In her fiction, Morrison fills in emptied spaces within and between persons that have been evacuated by European epistemologies. This reconception, like the borderlessness Morrison imagines in "Home," requires "new space . . . formed by the inwardness of the outside, the interiority of the 'othered,' the personal that is always embedded in the public." 9 "The inwardness of the outside" and "the interiority of the 'othered'" become especially apparent, for example, when Morrison redescribes the place of black people on whites' epistemological and...


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