- Easier Said Than Done:Making Black Feminism Transformative for Black Men
The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?—Paul D in Toni Morrison's Beloved
A curious thing happens in Toni Morrison's Beloved1 when Stamp Paid and Paul D are conversing outside of a makeshift church about Paul D's breakup with Sethe. As the reader will recall, Stamp Paid has facilitated this breakup in the name of protecting Paul D by proffering him information about Sethe's infanticide and criminal proceedings. Having reflected upon his actions and witnessed the harm he has caused Sethe and Paul D alike, Stamp Paid tries to rectify his meddling by apologizing to both. He seeks out Sethe first, but intense feelings of shame, guilt, and gendered entitlement ultimately stall his apology attempt. The scene in question occurs after his multiple failed attempts to approach Sethe. In seeking out Paul D, Stamp Paid learns that he is sleeping in the cold cellar of a makeshift church. Stamp Paid is appalled, believing (wrongly) that the town has turned on Paul D out of spite for his relationship with Sethe and refused to house him. While the two men are engaged in an intense discussion about this misunderstanding and the circumstances of Stamp Paid's intervention into Paul D's relationship with Sethe, an unidentified man rides into town on horseback and abruptly interrupts their [End Page 201] conversation. Dispensing with formalities, he simply says, "Hey," to get the men's attention and then asks them if they know "a gal name of Judy" that lives on Plank Road. Though Morrison does not reveal the man's race, the reader intuits that he is white by the ways in which he interacts with Stamp Paid and Paul D. Stamp Paid's marked shift in diction and behavior confirms this reality. Instead of taking offense to the white man's brass interruption, Stamp Paid responds with servility, asking "Yes, sir?" Further, he prevaricates and says that he does not know Judy but can gladly offer directions to Plank Road.
The tension lingering in the air is that the man is in town slumming. Metaphorically speaking, he embodies the unspeakable coercive, dominant white male power against which Stamp Paid, Paul D, and black men's masculinity is socially pitted and measured. That the white man feels completely comfortable, if not entitled, to slum for sex in the black town is particularly striking, for it draws attention thematically to Stamp Paid and Paul D's social impotence as "real men," especially in regard to protecting and upholding the honor of black women. What we also "see" via Morrison's writerly move to withhold the horseback rider's race is the pernicious reach and effect of white male surveillance on black male consciousness. Morrison registers the intensity of this phenomenon for black men in how the white man responds to Paul D (who is openly drinking whiskey on the church steps) after Stamp Paid gives him directions. The white man trots off a bit but then turns around and launches a threat: "Look here . . . There's a cross up there, so I guess this here's a church or used to be. Seems to me like you ought to show it some respect, you follow me?" (273).
Though we are not privy to what Paul D is doing when Stamp Paid first talks to the white man—which is, no doubt, also an intentional move on Morrison's part2—we can deduce from the white man's warning that he is threatened by Paul D's body language or gaze. Indeed, the wicked hypocrisy of the white man's moral outrage in the name of white Christian morality (his sole purpose for being in an all-black space is debauchery) illuminates the twisted moral double standard upon which gendered white superiority rests. Paul D's true transgression is not that he is drinking whiskey in front of a church, but that he refuses in some bodily way to accommodate the white man's sense of moral superiority and...