Toni Morrison— Home, A Memorial to Civil Rights and The Korean War

Horses On The Hill, Detail of wall carving, Duality Of Life Art.

Frank Money’s home is in rural Georgia, a small town just South of Atlanta. Home is the new novel by Nobel and Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison that tells Frank’s story.

As the novel begins, Frank is speaking to the author about his childhood:

“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.

We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. Like most farmland outside Lotus, Georgia, this one here had plenty of scary warning signs. The threats hung from wire mesh fences with wooden stakes every fifty or so feet. But when we saw a crawl space that some animal had dug . . .”

Frank was just a kid then. He had walked with his little sister Cee (Ycidra) to an abandoned farm outside town to look at the horses. Curious for a closer look, they crawled under the fence and walked toward the horses. Suddenly, as they turn to go home, they are startled to hear voices. The farm isn’t abandoned; there are men there. Frank’s life is about to take a new and dangerous turn.

Toni Morrison at 81 is still going strong; in her 10th novel, Home, she tells of Frank’s  childhood in Georgia, his enlistment in the Army, his discharge in Seattle and finally his return to Georgia to face up with his demons. It is a powerful story, powerfully told.

Back to the opening scene of the novel: Frank and his sister, warned by the loud shouting of the men, drop down into the tall grass where they cannot be seen:

I grabbed her arm and put a finger to my lips. Never lifting our heads, just peeping through the grass, we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. One foot struck up over the edge and quivered, as though it could get out, as though with a little effort it could break through the dirt being shoveled in. We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers; but we saw the edge of a spade drive the jerking foot down to join the rest of itself. When she saw that black boot with its creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave, her whole body began to shake. I hugged her shoulders tight . . .
—Home by Toni Morrison, p. 4.

The two young Blacks have just witnessed the rough burial of a murdered man in a hasty grave outside an isolated farmhouse. They are terrified. What if they are discovered by the murderers?

Frank forced the vision of the murdered man from his mind, remembering only the horses that “stood like men”. But he couldn’t find peace in Georgia. Finally, he decided to leave home. He and his two best friends volunteered for the army and soon found themselves in Korea, where they encountered cold weather and real misery that was worse than anything seen in Georgia.

Frank survived the war, but his friends did not—their shattered bodies stayed where they died, and that weighed on Frank and added to the trauma that possessed his brain.

The Desegregated Army, 1952, Ft. Lawton, Seattle. Korean War soldiers waiting for discharge.

Discharged from the army, Frank settled into an aimless life of drinking and excesses. He suffered from not infrequent bouts of war trauma that left him drained and incapable of sleep. After one of these seizures, he woke up strapped into a hospital bed. Though highly sedated, he was desperately trying to focus his mind: he wanted to “play dead” so the orderly won’t give him another shot of sedative—

“Visualizing a blank sheet of paper drove his mind to the letter he had gotten—the one that had closed his throat: ‘Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.’ Finally he settled on the chair in the corner of the room as his neutral object. Wood. Oak. . . .”
–Home, p. 8.

The letter from Georgia shattered the fog and he decided to escape from the hospital and return home: his sister Cee needed him desperately; she would die if he didn’t come to her aid.

Barefooted and penniless, Frank made his way to the nearby AME Zion parsonage:

“He wanted to say ‘Good morning,’ or ‘Excuse me,’ but his body shook violently like a victim of Saint Vitus’s dance and his teeth chattered so uncontrollably he could not make a sound. The man at the door took in the full measure of his shaking visitor, then stepped back to let him in.

‘Good Lord,’ he mumbled, pushing the door closed. ‘You a mess.’ “
–Home, p. 12

The Reverend and his wife straightened Frank out as best they could, and with their scarce means they got him ready for his trip back to Georgia. But, first, the reverend offered him this advice:

“Listen here, you from Georgia and you been in a desegregated army and maybe you think up North is way different from down South. Don’t believe it and don’t count on it. Custom is just as real as law and can be just as dangerous.”
–Home, p. 19

With $13 in his pocket, wearing goloshes for shoes, Frank starts on his journey across segregated America. He will find unexpected friends, helpful train porters, and he will preserver to rediscover his roots.

Colored Waiting Room, Greyhound Bus Depot, Rome, GA, 1943

Toni Morrison’s Home is the story of Frank Money and his dedication to his younger sister Cee. This story recalls the years leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which:

“outlawed major forms of discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (“public accommodations”).
— Civil Rights Act of 1964, Wikipedia.

But, for Frank, this is the story of how he conquered his fears and returned home. As bad as it was, it was still home.

Whose house is this?
Whose night keeps out the light
In here?
Say, who owns this house?
It’s not mine.
I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?

–Toni Morrison, Home, Prolog.

President Harry S. Truman called The Korean War (25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953) a “police action” because it was conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Others have called it The Forgotten War. Those who fought in the war did not forget.

The Korean War was the first war fought by a desegregated American army. The discharged Black soldiers were reluctant to accept segregation when they returned home, but the Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation took another 9 years to make its way through congress.

Posted Memorial Day, 2012

Week 19-2012: Home, Toni Morrison (2011).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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