It isn’t difficult to notice the similarity between the title of Toni Morrison’s latest novel, God Help the Child, and the famous tune sung by Billie Holiday, “God Bless the Child.” Holiday’s tune speaks measures to how we see and treat vulnerable members of our society. It contains a problematic message about who is deserving of help. As the song goes: “God bless the child that’s got his own….”
The connection between the song and the novel is in the stories they tell—not only about children, but also about women. The “child that has his own” transforms into the woman who has her own in Morrison’s novel. Bride, the novel’s protagonist, is a thirty-something black woman who has worked to ensure that she’s got it all in life—money, beauty, success. Rejected by her mother and abandoned by her father because of her “blue-black” skin, Bride sets out to make what she has work for her. She creates a cosmetics line called “YOU, GIRL” and finds a way to make her dark hue her biggest accessory. Bride seems to have gotten the memo from“God Bless the Child” and decides to make herself into one of the “haves” in the song. Bride’s life is replete with blessings but not help. Her mother purports to “protect” and “prepare” her by treating her coldly and insensitively during her childhood. What Bride truly desires is her mother’s love and affection. As a young girl, Bride (who then goes by her birth name, Lula Ann) helps herself by telling a lie that puts an innocent woman in jail in exchange for crumbs of affection from her mother. Lula Ann grows into Bride, an adult who prides herself on her self-reliance and drive. She becomes the prototypical bad bitch—attractive, strong, and self-reliant.
To be clear, what I mean when I refer to the bad bitch archetype is the “don’t-need-nobody/I-run-this-ish” woman we see all over pop culture. The bad bitch is most often embodied by a black woman who gives zero fucks and gets what she wants. Our culture loves this type and many of us seek to capture it in ourselves. (If you are still unsure of what constitutes a bad bitch, Buzzfeed provides a pretty comprehensive assessment.) Just think Destiny’s Child circa 1999 with the hit “Independent Women.”
I think of the nineties as the heyday of black independent woman images (although we can definitely look to the 1970s as well). The same year “Independent Women” was released, TLC put out “No Scrubs.” This was also the era of Terry McMillan’s blockbuster success as the author of two novels featuring black women, both of which were turned into films: Waiting to Exhale (1995) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998). In Waiting to Exhale we see the the quintessential bad bitch depicted onscreen in Angela Bassett as she struts away from the smoldering flames of her husband’s personal belongings wearing a black negligee.
In God Help the Child Morrison makes a point to let her readers know that Bride was born in the nineties. Also, Bride names her cosmetics line “YOU, GIRL: Cosmetics for Your Personal Millennium.” No coincidence here. Bride is a black woman millennial who is obsessed with her body, her beauty, and her business. She too embodies the quintessential bad bitch. In an article in The Guardian, Morrison is quoted as stating, “I’m writing for black people.” With God Help the Child, I think the author is saying something not just to black people, but to black women. It’s difficult not to think of the cultural narrative surrounding Lupita Nyong’o’s skin narrative when reading the novel. Like Bride, Lupita is a dark-skinned black woman who was ridiculed as a child because of her hue. Lupita is also a millennial who has managed to benefit from the fetishization and commodification of blackness. Where Sweetness, Bride’s mother, sees Bride’s “blue-black” hue as an impediment and a reason she needs to be protected, Bride is able to see her complexion as a tool she can use to her advantage. This is the Lupita moment fictionalized.
It’s also worth noting that while Morrison may have chosen a millennial voice through which to deliver her message, there’s no escaping the past in this novel. Part of its brilliance is in the timelessness of the narrative, which speaks to pains of the present while also engaging with the injury of a collective past. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, seems like she is several generations removed from her daughter, and the chapters written in her voice float in an unidentifiable past. She captures the still-present pains of colorism and the psychic remnants of the trauma of slavery. In so doing, Morrison reminds us that the struggle continues and maps out the consequences of not confronting pain. That map, in turn, presents us with a version of the bad bitch archetype to interrogate. Her writing urges us to think about the ways in which capitalism has hijacked notions of female independence, especially for black women.
In Morrison’s capable hands, the bad bitch archetype isn’t just a personality—instead, it’s revealed as a product that exploits and exports a watered-down version of black femininity, strength, and control. Ultimately, Bride must shed her armor of social prestige and emotional disconnect to finally learn that she deserves love. She does this by entering into spaces that challenge her value system when she finds herself in need. At one point in the novel, she finds herself living with and in the care of a hippie couple and their adopted child. This is one of several moments in which Bride is deeply vulnerable. In each of these instances, she is only able to heal with the help of another person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bride’s biggest challenge is giving and receiving help in the face of adversity. The hippie couple tends to Bride in ways that she finds perplexing. She struggles to understand them and to appreciate a life so removed from technology and materialism. It’s a bumpy road through vulnerability for Bride to reach a place of love.
In the end, the bad bitch (like all archetypes) is just too small to contain an entire person. Bride’s narrative serves as a stark reminder that we must be careful about how we engage with it, and Morrison’s response to this problematic cultural narrative demonstrates the absolute necessity of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to acknowledge your human body, replete with its predisposition towards injury, whether emotional or otherwise. The universality of pain and mortality tethers every one of us to each other, irrevocably. We are all going to die someday and we all get hurt—and we all need help sometimes. God Help the Child reminds us that being a bad bitch simply isn’t enough to make a woman feel whole.