- “Trying to find a place when the streets don’t go there”: Fatherhood, Family, and American Racial Politics in Toni Morrison’s Love
Is it just me, or does the name “Bill Cosey” resemble “Bill Cosby”? There are, I’ll venture, certain similarities between the “Big Daddy” of Toni Morrison’s 2003 novel Love and the popular entertainer known as “America’s Dad” and closely associated with his Heathcliff Huxtable television persona.1 These similarities have to do with the models of masculinity around which hegemonic conceptualizations of family stability, secure homes, and socioeconomic ethics circulate. Morrison’s subtle connection of Bill Cosey to Bill Cosby critiques ideologies that situate the family as a national institution of patriarchal ownership, ideologies that have dominated and defined U. S. discourses on race. I will argue that with Love, Morrison offers a kind of historical parable which disputes the notion that the father-dominant model of home and family is a panacea for the problems afflicting many African American communities in the twenty-first century.
Morrison’s Bill Cosby/Bill Cosey connection functions as a hinge between earlier historical periods—the periods that shape the lives of her fictional Cosey family—and the ideologies that inform (or, perhaps, shut down) discourses on race in the contemporary U. S.—discourses articulated with varying degrees of humor, paternalism, and recrimination by Bill Cosby. Keith Byerman has shown that “the choice to write historical narratives itself must be understood historically” (5), and the family tragedy explored in Love is inextricable from the goals and expectations of the post-Reconstruction racial uplift movement. While Morrison does not explicitly address twenty-first-century debates about black families, she uses the Cosby/Cosey link to engage “the meaning of transformative moments” of our history and thus to “imply the truth of our moment” (Byerman 179). Her invocation of Bill Cosby in her character Bill Cosey suggests that Love draws a correspondence between contemporary debate about the nature of the present crisis in African American communities and earlier uplift discourses, both of which join man-making rhetoric with the language of socioeconomic hierarchy.
In his analysis of the ideologies informing racial uplift efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kevin Gaines notes that black Americans attempted to prove their Americanness by “demonstrating [their] affinity to the dominant ideals of civilization,” ideals formulated within and representative of the ruling centers of Anglo-American culture (449). In this sense, being American meant assimilating forms of citizenship that reflected white middle-class hegemony:
While the act of claiming for themselves the status and functions inherent in “civilization” was central to their struggle against the dominant “whiteness” implicit in bourgeois citizenship, the preoccupation of many black leaders with racial uplift ideology as a sign of respectability restricted possibilities for effective resistance and constituted a measure of ideological collusion with discriminatory ideologies and practices. . . . The racialized terms of civilization upon which racial uplift ideology rested marked a compromised, metaracist antiracism.(450)
Such ideological collusion—and the self-hatred of acceding to and basing identity in reductive and exclusionary models of civilization and respectability—can be seen [End Page 131] in “the class bias inherent in black Americans’ attempts to appropriate ‘progress’ ” (Gaines 450). Morrison has examined the roots and the consequences of this dynamic elsewhere in her fiction, as well as in Playing in the Dark, where she analyzes the white construction of an Africanist presence—a fabricated “other”—as “crucial” to the formation of Americanness (6). The “coherence” of the U. S. as an emerging nation, she argues, was facilitated by “a distancing Africanism” that “became the operative mode of a new cultural hegemony,” allowing the production of a national norm in opposition to an imagined blackness (8).2 Morrison identifies “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify” as “both a way of talking about and a way of policing matters of class, sexual license, and repression, formations and exercises of power, and meditations on ethics and accountability” (6, 7).
The term “racial uplift” serves to organize thinking about African American “ethics and accountability” in the terms of a class-related hierarchy...