Toni Morrison titled her new novel, about the tough reality of contemporary black womanhood, God Help the Child. Morrison does not have to cover anyone else, certainly, but the words on her cover are truly a nod.
If it sounds familiar, Black women and all people have a legacy of loving the song “God Bless the Child” -written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr., first made famous by Holiday. Today it is one of American jazz’s most enduring ballads. If anything, the song’s title phrase carries as a frequent, empowering mantra where I am from and in sister circles I travel in now: be independent, take your dreams seriously, protect your life, keep your hair done and a smile on your face, carry a purse full of your own money, limit partying for partying’s sake, limit partying period, and (well) people are great but God is the only one who is sure to come in for the save.
Beyond her fiction commitment to the open wounds and unanswered questions of racism in America for all blacks, Morrison has proved to be the most thorough documentarian of African-American female existence in all its forms: fetus, newborn, infant, child, girl, woman, senior, an afterlife. The mantra of “God bless the child…” is actually Morrison fiction’s most consistent call to and response back to black women. And, as her God Help the Child shows, that call and response is necessary no matter how successful or grown Black women become.
Enjoy Holiday’s original version of the song, as well as a neat cover by Boy George and Micah Paris.
Read my story “What Billie and Phyllis Sang About,” about a determined black woman’s will to survive alone in Harlem, in the new issue of Atticus Review. My favorite Billie Holiday and Phyllis Hyman music is on the story’s companion soundtrack Here. #BillieandPhyllis