When Cee, the protagonist of Home, arrives at the house of her future employer, Dr Beauregard Scott, she isn't sure at first whether to knock on the front door or the back.
Toni Morrison has her decide on the back door – of course. Without mentioning race, without telling us that Cee is black and Dr Scott is white, she lets us know, just the same. In fact, Morrison barely mentions colour in this novel, apart from a brief mention of a "desegregated army" and some eugenics books Dr Scott keeps.
In her more recent novels, from Jazz in 1992, to Paradise (1998) and Love (2003), Morrison has traced the fortunes of black America, from struggling salesmen at the bottom to successful hoteliers near the top, focusing on local townsfolk, women struggling to raise families, girls trying to keep themselves safe. From the very start of her career, her focus had been on race and gender and history, and in her 2008 novel A Mercy, she came full circle, returning to the 17th century and the slave trade that was the focus of possibly her greatest novel, Beloved (1987).
But in Home, class almost emerges as the most important factor, overriding for the first time race, gender and history. Frank Money – Morrison always chooses her names carefully – is a Korean war veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed his childhood friends die in front of him. He is unstable and unpredictable. His girlfriend Lily comes home, day after day, to find him sitting paralysed on a sofa, holding a single sock in his hand. He is prone to burst into tears at any given moment. He drinks to oblivion and winds up in mental institutions. Most of all, he is unable to hold down a job. Frank Money has no money. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he doesn't even have shoes to walk in.
There is an earlier memory in the novel, of leaving "with or without shoes", when men "with or without badges but always with guns" and presumably white, could force families, who were presumably black, out of their homes, their neighbourhoods, their towns. Frank recalls his mother, Ida, crying when he was a child, because she had to leave the wheelbarrow that contained all they had when they were forced out of Bandera County in Texas. They walked, ate from garbage cans, tied up their torn shoes with each other's laces. Frank's family is marked by colour, by the racism they face – and by their lack of shoes. Only poor people cannot afford new shoes.
When a very young Frank and his sister Cee witness something they don't quite understand – the aftermath of an indescribably brutal racist killing – what affects them the most is the sight of the victim's shoeless foot sticking out of a makeshift grave. Here is one of the other mentions of colour, as Frank tries to shield his sister from the sight and fails: "When she saw that black foot with its creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave, her whole body began to shake." When he lingers in Lily's apartment years later, sock in hand and some more strewn on the floor around him "like broken feet", we are reminded of that murder.
Frank is trying, despite the many obstacles he faces, to get to his sister, who is on the point of death in Dr Scott's house. Cee had fled the house where her family decamped once they had been forced out of Bandera County, and which was owned by her step-grandmother, Lenore. "A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have," and Lenore, furious that her attempts to escape her working-class roots are being thwarted by this sudden invasion of her husband's family, is a mean grandmother.
What Lenore fails to see in the people around her is their generosity and willingness to help each other – they weren't rich, but they were "openhanded. If someone had an abundance of peppers or collards, they insisted Ida take them". Cee understands them but Lenore cannot, and so she flees with the first man who asks her, and who turns out, naturally, to be faithless.
Cee's arrival at Dr Scott's house for the job of live-in helper denotes her race and class – despite the new, white, high-heeled shoes she insists on wearing in order to try and set herself apart. Her treatment by Scott, who subsequently carries out eugenicist experiments on her, also denotes her race and class and gender. Poor black women are simply bodies to be used for their masters' ends, and the echoes of Beloved and A Mercy here are both deliberate and deafening.
Like the best writers, Morrison has politics underpinning her prose. Class permeates her symbolism; the injustice of poverty, made worse by race and gender, weighs down her characters. And yet they never lose their humanity. Only Morrison can take the human soul down into its darkest parts, yet somehow let it flourish.
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