- “Belated Impress”: River George and the African American Shell Shock Narrative
The whites had taught him how to rip A Nordic belly with athrust Of bayonet, had taught him how To transmute Nordic flesh to dust.
And a surprising fact had made Belated impress on his mind: That shrapnel bursts and poison gas Were inexplicably color blind.—Sterling A. Brown, “Sam Smiley” (1932)
Early in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973), a black World War I veteran finds himself in a hospital. The year is 1919, the place is Ohio, and Shadrack has been there more than a year. During his first engagement with the enemy, in 1917, he witnessed “the face of a soldier near him fly off ”; he watched as “the headless soldier ran on, with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back” (8). This scene of horror leaves him “blasted and permanently astonished” (7), and while these are the only combat experiences of Shadrack’s that the narrative exposes, they might easily account for the shell shock he suffers in the aftermath. When the narrative finally comes to a close almost fifty years later, in 1965, Shadrack remains “energetically mad” (173), still troubled by the memories of “gone things” (174)—among them, perhaps, the face and head and brain of a soldier he once knew.1
Unaware in 1919 that his condition will prove to be a “permanent” one, Shadrack glances down at the divided meal tray that has been left for him by a nurse:
In one triangle was rice, in another meat, and in the third stewed tomatoes. A small round depression held a cup of whitish liquid. Shadrack stared at the soft colors that filled these triangles: the lumpy whiteness of rice, the quivering blood tomatoes, the grayish-brown meat. All their repugnance was contained in the neat balance of the triangles—a balance that soothed him, transferred some of its equilibrium to him. Thus reassured that the white, the red and the brown would stay where they were—would not explode or burst forth from their restricted zones—he suddenly felt hungry and looked around for his hands. His glance was cautious at first, for he had to be very careful—anything could be anywhere.(8)
Unlike the brain that unexpectedly dripped down the back of his comrade, unlike the face that flew away and the head that disappeared, Shadrack’s meal seems to know its place. Confined, contained, and balanced in the orderly triangles of his tray, the colored foods maintain a segregated distance. Still, caution and care must be taken, for the threat of contamination remains. The repugnant lumps, quivering blood, and grayish-brown “meat” might cross thresholds at any moment, might blur and stew together, might become bodies and brains; “anything,” in short, might suddenly be “anywhere.”
Anxious, confused, frightened, Shadrack realizes that he doesn’t know “who or what he was” (12)—his memory, his identity, his sense of selfhood have vanished. Picked up for vagrancy soon after his hospital discharge, Shadrack confronts his reflection in the grim confines of his prison cell: “There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him” (13). Just as Shadrack is “astonished” by the wartime events of 1917 that leave him forever [End Page 149] disrupted, he finds himself “astonished” by his blackness—a remarkable repetition that links the shell shock of the Western Front with the constructions and politics of race in the period. Encountering his blackness separately from—and before—any renewed contact with his “self,” Shadrack doesn’t come to know who but rather what he is. This abject scene of identification deftly stages W. E. B. Du Bois’s conceptualizing of African American subjectivity in terms of “double-consciousness”: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (Souls 11). Shadrack, a veteran of the First World War, an American who went to France to “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” gazes into a toilet at the “indisputable” and “definite” color of his skin. Though he takes a joyous comfort in the blackness...