One of my idiosyncrasies as a reader is that I obsess over sentences from my favorite writers. This includes an obsession with sentences I don’t like, or with which I strongly disagree. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time arguing (in my head) with James Baldwin’s passages about the grooming of Black children, such as this one: “One’s hair was always being attacked with hard brushes and combs and Vaseline. One’s legs and arms and faces were always being greased so that one would not look ‘ashy’ in the winter time. I hazard that the Negro children, of my generation anyway, had an earlier and more painful acquaintance with soap than any other children, anywhere.” It’s not that what Baldwin described was false, but I disagree with how he reduced these grooming rituals to self-hating pathology. For some of us, hair combing and skin moisturizing was, and still is, a ritual of caring.
Care for a writer includes disagreement, I believe. It is a sign of investment in their words. And so it has been for me with Toni Morrison’s description of “Mobile women” in The Bluest Eye, which I’ve written about on several occasions. I consider Morrison to be the greatest American novelist I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many). But I can’t stand this passage. She criticizes college-educated, coastal Black women of Alabama for what people now call “respectability politics.” This contemporary terminology is a riff on Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s use of the term to describe the social conservatism developed among late-19th and early-20th-century Black women church organizers. These women, Higginbotham argued, used being respectable as an argument against the ways they were depicted and degraded in the dominant society. They created their own image of what it meant to be a decent woman. I bristled at Morrison’s account for harshly generalizing about these women.