By Angelina Liu
January 24, 2024
As the creamy yellow magnolia blossom fades to brown, the house withers away with it. It was all an illusion.
Somewhere in the American South, a manor sits, illuminated by golden sunlight. The house exists on a stunning 1,000 acres, with pristinely manicured gardens and fragrant white blooming magnolia trees. Enormous white pillars support a wraparound porch and a gabled roof. Windchimes tinkle in the soft, warm breeze as the yeasty smell of fresh bread wafts from an open window.
The sharp rattles of iron chains cut through the placidity: enslaved people tend to the fields behind the mansion. Some have rusted shackles latched around their ankles, others branded with hot irons. Lattice scars run across their backs, their faces hollow and grim. Only under these conditions are the gardens manicured, the pillars white, the bread warm.
And so, the house starts to crumble. The trees wither and sag. Formerly white pillars are strangled by ivy and years of drought. The wooden porch has splintered; the roof is missing shingles. A sickly sweet stench surrounds the manor. Low hums of cicadas cut the silence; stagnant pools of water breed pesky mayflies.
The house and its stories are the basis of author Toni Morrison’s work. She refuses the idea of a beautiful Southern plantation homestead: those do not exist. In her work, Morrison focuses on destroying the pre-established tranquil image of the South, both before and after the Antebellum. Replacing arching castles and manufactured romances, Morrison confronts real and violent structures ingrained in the United States — enslavement and its ongoing afterlives, Black generational trauma, and misogynoir, to name a few. In creating her literature, she provides critically important meaning and nuance to the Southern Gothic canon.
Morrison writes about the house for what it is and has always been. This towering and magnificent manor that other (mainly white) Southern writers place on a pedestal, in all of its allure and charm, never truly existed. It is a romanticization; it is a rose-colored rewriting. It is a violence personified in pretty words on yellowed pages. In truth, this house is an ugly, rotting, bloodthirsty body that has fed off enslaved people for generations.
The granddaughter of an enslaved person, Morrison understands the nuanced, intersectional reality of being a Black woman in the United States, experiencing simultaneous systemic and interpersonal violence on the basis of her Blackness and her womanhood. By the publishing of her second novel, Sula, critics believed Morrison was limiting herself by only writing Black narratives. The novelist refuted these claims, refusing to adapt her rhetoric for a white audience.
Revealing dead flies by drafty window sills and discolored wood paneling, she remained steadfast in deconstructing the willful ignorance surrounding the enduring tribulations of those once enslaved, their descendants, and their ongoing struggle.
And yet, the desire to maintain the image of a South outfitted with gingham and lace continues. Time and time again, white society slaps varnish onto the peeling exterior to build back the facade stronger, one sloppy coat at a time.
In Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, petticoats and parasols embellish the white protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara. Painted as loving and harmonious, her relationship with an enslaved woman named Ruth is in reality a continuation of the “Mammy” caricature first introduced as Aunt Chloe in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and continued in revered books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Giving Ruth the nickname “Mammy,” Mitchell constructs her character as simplistic and one-dimensional, content with her role in homemaking as she’s forced to raise children that are not hers. Using eye dialect, Mitchell forces words into Ruth’s mouth that paint her as intellectually inferior to the white people in the novel.
In an attempt to criticize the South and its horrors, William Faulkner contributes to the canon with Absalom Absalom! He tells the story of enslaver Thomas Sutpen through multiple characters, a narrative that winds up slightly different every time. Faulkner mirrors the changing story of Sutpen with that of the South during Reconstruction. Southern enslavers attempt to reclaim their pride and righteousness after their plantation empire was destroyed by manipulating their narrative of slavery.
Attempting to hint at the buzz of horse flies and the musty scent of water stained walls, Faulkner’s allegory alludes to the decay of the house, however, his perspective as a white writer is limiting. The novel lacks a Black perspective despite its focus on slavery and differing narratives.
Instead of developing how the South’s horrors and failures are intrinsically tied to slavery, Faulkner focuses on the struggles of white people after the Civil War. He never directly criticizes the South for its blatant racism. Faulkner's narrow regard of the Antebellum South does no justice to the enslaved people who were forcefully torn from Africa and transported to the South to serve as stepping stools for white people. The author manages to depict a shattered window pane or a crooked front porch, but ultimately fails to encapsulate the rot in the foundation.
Where Faulkner fails to cultivate a multidimensional African American character without forwarding stereotypes, Morrison centers her story, Beloved, on a young Black enslaved woman named Sethe and her journey to freedom. Refusing to allow the white gaze to permeate her writing, she slices through any residual uncertainty of the brutal horror endured by slavery.
Sethe was born to an African-American mother she never knew. Sold to the Sweet Home plantation at 13, she is subject to unrelenting physical, sexual, and emotional terrorization. Pregnant Sethe decides to escape with her three children. The enslaver’s nephews discover her plans, capture Sethe, and steal milk from her breasts intended for her unborn child. Despite being wounded and terrified, Sethe maintains her determination to run. She spends 28 days away from Sweet Home before she is found and forced to return. Refusing to submit her children to the evils of slavery, she decides to murder them. Only her third daughter dies, who she calls Beloved. Her daughter returns to her in the form of a ghost, haunting her with the horrors of the past as a symbol of all that slavery stripped from Sethe and her family.
Morrison grips the lifting wallpaper and forcefully strips it from the walls. Pointing at the black mold quietly festering in the ceilings, she forces her audience to stare at the ugly realities of slavery. Tearing up shoddy floorboards, the novelist reveals maggots and cockroaches. She shows the shackles used to chain and the gags shoved into mouths. Allowing the rusty water to rampantly pour from the faucet, she calls attention to the stained white porcelain tub. She throws oil paintings that conceal water stains on the broken floor and hurls aside furniture that attempt to hide the decay.
Morrison and Faulkner’s work is often compared, with critics claiming her writing emulates his – a dangerous and incorrect belief. Where Faulkner might depict broken porcelain handle faucets or stained kitchen countertops, Morrison’s work delves deep into the foundation, revealing termites and a disintegrating core.
Every year, the University of Mississippi holds the Yoknapatawpha Conference in honor of Faulkner. As the keynote speaker in 1985, Morrison addressed his shortcomings and problematic legacy. Giving the world a taste of her then-unfinished novel, she read the first few pages of Beloved.
By refusing to write watered-down versions of reality for a white audience, Morrison freed space for authors like Jesmym Ward, Natasha Tretheway, Amanda Gorman, and many others to continue to take sledgehammers to marble mantels and knives to intricate plaster designs. By addressing the region’s true, abominable history and challenging oversimplified portrayals, they ensure the accurate representation of Black individuals’ stories and the infinite preservation of a people’s past often erased.
Somewhere in the American South sits a manor overtaken by thistles and crabgrass. The house exists on stolen land. A relic of abhorrence, the roof is disintegrating. The windows are boarded shut, and the front porch sinks into the ground. The white paint cracks, revealing rotting oak. An eerie silence consumes the manor. The house remains untouched, caving within itself slowly, returning to the ground from where it was erected. ■
Layout: Sriya Katanguru
Photographer: Esmeralda Cruz
Stylists: Reyana Tran, Sora Ahmed & Summer Sweenis
HMUA: Mariela Mendoza & Frida Espinosa
Models: Ava Hale, Morgan Cheng & Natán Murillo