- Can't I Love What I Criticize?: The Masculine and Morrison
At a time when it is commonplace to read that black males and black masculinity are under siege, Susan Neal Mayberry's Can't I Love What I Criticize?: The Masculine and Morrison is a refresher course on black men's long struggle against racial discrimination and oppression. To the ever-present lament for the growing number of African American men imprisoned, maimed, or killed by drugs, and violence, Can't I Love offers a sobering reminder of what is often at the root of black male violence and self-destructive tendencies. The book takes its title from Guitar Bains's response to Milkman, who in Song of Solomon accuses him of contradicting himself when Guitar says he "loves Negroes" while bitterly attacking them. Mayberry maintains that Toni Morrison's fictional portrayal of black men is engendered by love and understanding of these men's daily battles that have less to do with the men themselves and more to do with forces contributable to Western values and racial oppression.
Those searching for a comprehensive, sustained, nuanced examination of masculinity in Toni Morrison's novels will welcome Mayberry's Can't I Love. The book is a brilliant and delightful engagement with masculinity in Morrison's first eight novels. It is, to borrow one reader's adjective, a "fresh" look at a recurring theme and an important issue in Morrison's canon. Mayberry looks at Morrison's black men not just in the context of their daily lives but in the wider context of racism, gender and oppression. Beginning with the view that "all of Morrison's books explore masculinity and masculine types" (4), Mayberry proceeds to buttress her claim with cogency and clarity. In delineating the parameters of her study, Mayberry acknowledges Morrison's "even-handed approach to gender" (5), but reminds readers of Can't I Love that her [End Page 535] project "confronts the limitations and celebrates the power of authentic, multifaceted, African American masculinity" (14).
At the end of this project, Mayberry writes: "While the tales Toni Morrison tells on black men are too painful to pass on, they are equally too important to pass on" (298). But Mayberry could just as well have begun her book with that assertion since that is precisely what she does—"pass on" the complicated, conflicted, violent lives of Morrison's black men. Examining the black men in The Bluest Eye and Sula, for example, Mayberry explores at least three representative masculine types in characters such as Cholly Breedlove, Soaphead Church, and Mr. Henry in The Bluest Eye, and Jude Green, Ajax, and BoyBoy in Sula. She also notes that in Jazz Morrison "converts black-and-bluesmen into jazzmen" (193).
Mayberry stakes out the grounds for her argument with this statement: "Morrison deliberately places her black male characters into situations where their behavior becomes virtually unredeemable, yet she simultaneously urges us to forgive them" (13). While many readers may have difficulty forgiving the Cholly Breedloves, Soaphead Churches, Macon Deads, and Bill Coseys, among others, Mayberry persuasively argues that negative black masculinity in Morrison's novels "represent[s] as much a tribute to the marvelous coping strategies of black men as a lament for their bouts of self-destruction" (8). With specific references to Jazz, Mayberry also reminds us that African American men "learned long ago . . . how to transform what eats at them inside into blues songs" (155).
At the center of Mayberry's argument about the eruptions of misconduct and violence by black men is her contention that such behavior is rooted in Western values that black men seek to emulate but are never able to assimilate successfully. Mayberry repeatedly demonstrates that "often what keeps [Morrison's black men] off kilter is the intrusion of sterile, white, middle-class notions of property, propriety, and competition" and that often when black men leave their families it is because they "succumb to or spin their wheels against prestige and power" (73). Or, as...