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Example English Literature Essay

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To Explore the Ways in Which Toni Morrison Portrays Negative Representations of her Female Characters and How She Goes Further to Challenge These Representations in Relation to Black Feminist Thought

Introduction

Toni Morrison is considered to be one of the most popular and most important authors of the 20th Century, especially considering that much of her literary work has actively challenged the stereotypes that have been imposed on African American women throughout history. The characters in her novels are beautifully crafted in order to allow the reader to explore their journeys and the way in which they are presented, thus questioning the perspective of history that has been created. However, many of the stereotypes have undoubtedly stuck in the African American conscious and so it is necessary to initially perpetuate women in those images prior to examining exactly how to expel those stereotypes for good. According to Ghaly, “Rethinking the traditional perspectives on identity and its relation to culture, [Morrison] eschew binary logic to explore multiple forms and root causes of social marginality.” As such, with this in mind, this essay will examine the African American female self in its stereotypical form within Morrison’s work and how it is constructed in relation to black feminist thought. This will be done with a view to concluding that Morrison undoubtedly goes some way to dispelling such negative representations and furthers the achievements of black feminism thought in the process. The book used for examination will be Sula (1973).

Black Feminist Thought and Negative Stereotypes

Patricia Hill Collins is one of the foremost scholars concerning the way in which African American women have been portrayed since the 19th Century, offering analysis as to how and why many black authors, intellectuals and prominent figures have been able to challenge stereotypes over the years. She stated that: “Black women intellectuals have laid a vital analytical foundation for a distinctive standpoint on self, community, and society and, in doing so, created a multifaceted, African-American women’s intellectual tradition.” Collins’s argument is indeed correct in that numerous authors have provided a firm analysis of the race’s female self through the eyes of the individual rather than the dominant white perspective. In highlighting this, Collins has also identified numerous themes, or “...six distinguishing features that characterize Black feminist thought may provide the common ground that it so sorely needed both among African-American women, and between African American women and all others whose collective knowledge or thought has a single purpose.” Those six areas that provide common ground and thus a common feminine experience are work and family, controlling matriarchs, self-definition, sexual politics, love relationships, motherhood and activism. Although these six areas provide common ground and thus can also form a collective identity of African American womanhood, they also provide the foundation of negative representations.

Dubey states that “...the black writer must replace negative stereotypes with positive images.” However, the use of the term “replace” gives the impression that negative stereotypes should be ignored rather than examined and developed in order to expel them, ensuring that female characters are allowed to evolve into positive images. Conversely, Collins advocates empowerment via experience and consciousness and that implies exorcising negative representations by exploring them thoroughly in order to humanise the black female experience. Morrison subscribes to this particular perspective, as her characters prove. However, it is necessary to explore the characters in Sula in order to assess whether or not she goes further to challenging representations in relation to black feminist thought or not.

The Whore and the Good Wife   

Morrison offers two specific characterisations of the negative stereotypes that had traditionally been foisted on African American women – the whore and the good wife. The former is of course a means of describing Sula and the latter her “good” counterpart, Nel. The relationship between the two serves as one of the “black women’s friendships” that Collins states are vital to expelling negative representations. However, before examining the relationship between the two, it is important to examine the stereotypes they present individually. Sula is the promiscuous black woman that steps neatly into the role of whore at first glance as a result of her attitude towards sex and thus womanhood:  “To Sula, sex is disconnected from emotion, a disembodied act of the body that allows her to feel a sorrow unattainable through any other means.” Although this highlights the aspect of the negative stereotype that suggests that black women are promiscuous by nature, it also hints at a far deeper significance that the act itself adopts for Sula, thus challenging the traditional representation. This is reinforced in the description of her upbringing that is offered by Morrison. Her mother “...taught Sula that sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable.” As such, the stereotype presented by the character is effectively created by a maternal liberal attitude towards sex rather than it being an innate destructive quality that she was born with, as the traditional stereotype suggests. This directly challenges the stereotype by humanising the figure of the whore and thus also dispels the negativity associated with it, regardless of how taboo the subject of promiscuity may be.

However, the stereotype of the whore, which Sula is designed to both embody and challenge within the book, is not only challenged via the use of the her back story but also via her attitude towards sex: “For Sula, sex becomes a means to assert herself and to defy social convention. She seduces her best friend’s husband and is accused of the worst degradation of all: sleeping with white men.” As Collins highlights, African American women were traditionally used by white men and objectified as a result. However, in the case of Sula the roles are reversed. She actively uses men to feel alive, to explore who she is and to form her own self-identity that does not depend on conforming to the social expectations that were imposed on African American women at that point in time. Sula is therefore not a whore but instead a woman simply searching for her place in the world, thus rendering her race incidental. Finding that sex put her “...in a position of surrender, feeling her own abiding strength and  limitless power”, Sula explores her true self by rejecting the accepted boundaries of sex and forming her own expectations of life: “Single-handedly, she rejects the values of the margin to which she belongs, a margin that mirrors the centre in that it represses any stirrings of discontent.”Sula’s discontent is tangible and thus renders the stereotype of the whore a societal construction that is designed to oppress rather than a viable label with which it is possible to brand her. Morrison therefore uses the themes established by Collins in order to examine the negative representation of the whore and pushes back the boundaries that had previously been imposed with little understanding of what drove the women perceived as promiscuous. Even though the entire community condemned Sula, including her best friend Nel, the judgement is subtly passed by Morrison on them for not embracing the collective conscious rather than Sula herself.

The whore is not the only negative representation of the African American woman that black feminist thought has acknowledged and tried to dispel. The timid good wife who absolves her husband of all fault is another. The role is filled by Nel in Sula: “Nel, Sula’s complementary “other,” is presented as the prim and proper child who grows up to be a selfless wife and mother who unquestioningly conforms to the stereotypes of womanhood. She is everything  that Sula was supposed to become but did not and would not.” She is subordinate to Jude, her husband, keeps house, remains faithful and never goes against her man in any way. In essence, she releases her own identity in order to assume that of her husband, thus meaning that she has no identity and so cannot be said to be living her life on her own terms as Sula is. The two girls contrast greatly but Morrison ensures that they share one element of their lives – that their characters and thus representations are not inevitable but instilled. Just as Sula’s promiscuity is encouraged, so is Nel’s role of the good wife: “Under Helene’s hand  the girl became obedient and polite. Any enthusiasms that little Nel showed were calmed by the mother until she drove her daughter’s imagination underground.” She was forced to relinquish her identity and only ever retained it when around Sula, with whom she shares a sisterhood that Collins advocates as being essential in dispelling stereotypes. However, that sisterhood is negated by the conscience of the good wife: “And Nel creates a scapegoat in Sula to absolve Jude of deliberate acts of moral evil, marital infidelity and familial desertion, which destroy their marriage. Nel abnegates Jude’s potential for evil.”. The wife overtakes the sisterhood, thus subverting the notion of community once again. However, although the good wife stereotype is adhered to initially, Morrison later challenges it via a process of self realisation, self determination and the discovery of an autonomous identity. The realisation comes as Nel rejects the stereotype.

Marriage is consistently perceived as damaging by Morrison. She states the following in relation to the institution and its effect on women like Nel, the good wife: “Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets” In doing so, she highlights the importance of other elements of life through the eyes of Nel and Sula with particular emphasis on friendship. However, it is Sula who initially realises the value of friendship in black womanhood: “She had been looking all along for a friend, and it took her a while to discover that a lover was not a comrade and could never be – for a woman.” This is somewhat ironic given the fact that she threw that friendship away by sleeping with Nel’s husband. However, Sula dies without having been given Nel’s forgiveness. It is not until after her death that Nel realises the true nature of friendship between African American women, as per Collins’s examination of black feminist thought and Morrison’s will to push the women further in order to dispel stereotypes: “It is only after Sula’s death and burial that Nel realizes that it has been Sula – not Jude – whom Nel has missed through the years.” In short, according to Morrison, it is the love of the sisterhood that is necessary to survive and nurture an identity instead of the institution of marriage. This undoubtedly rejects the stereotypes of the whore and the good wife because it negates the role of men in general, thus empowering women to forge their own destinies. This is undoubtedly an evolution of black feminist thought rather than in keeping with it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Morrison uses her characterisations of Sula and Nel in order to thoroughly examine the viability of African American female stereotypes and effectively offers enough proof as to why they must be challenged and dispelled. They not only mask the true nature of what it means to be a woman but also set her alone when in fact the collective conscious defies the imposition of any such stereotype. Collins’s theory as to the nature of African American womanhood via black feminist thought provides an excellent foundation for understanding Morrison’s work, but she goes above and beyond the values and factors offered by Collins in order to ensure that the novel undoubtedly goes some way to dispelling such negative representations and furthers the achievements of black feminism thought in the process. In Sula and Nel, the whore and the good wife are undoubtedly negated in favour of friendship, identity and true black womanhood.

Bibliography

Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann, 2006. Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and About Women of Color. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Collins, Patricia Hill, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge.
Davis, Anita Price, 1998. Toni Morrison’s Sula. Piscataway, NJ: Research & Education Association.
Dubey, Madhu, 1994. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Eckard, Paula G., 2002. Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
Ghaly, Salwa, 2004. Evil Encounters with “Other” in Tayeb Salih and Toni Morrison: The Case of Mustafa Saeed and Sula Peace. In Richard Paul Hamilton & Margaret Sonser Breen eds. The Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 21-36.
Jennings, La Vinia Delois, 2008. Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Morrison, Toni, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books.


Salwa Ghaly, 2004. Evil Encounters with “Other” in Tayeb Salih and Toni Morrison: The Case of Mustafa Saeed and Sula Peace. In Richard Paul Hamilton & Margaret Sonser Breen eds. The Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 21-36, p. 21.

Patricia Hill Collins, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, pp. 2-3.

Patricia Hill Collins, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, p. 22.

Madhu Dubey, 1994. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 94.

Patricia Hill Collins, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, p. 103.

Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu,  2006. Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and About Women of Color. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 827.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 44.

Madhu Dubey, 1994. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, p. 91.

Paula G. Eckard, 2002. Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, p. 56.

Patricia Hill Collins, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, p. 135.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 123.

Salwa Ghaly, 2004. Evil Encounters with “Other” in Tayeb Salih and Toni Morrison: The Case of Mustafa Saeed and Sula Peace. In Richard Paul Hamilton & Margaret Sonser Breen eds. The Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 21-36, p. 29.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 120.

Salwa Ghaly, 2004. Evil Encounters with “Other” in Tayeb Salih and Toni Morrison: The Case of Mustafa Saeed and Sula Peace. In Richard Paul Hamilton & Margaret Sonser Breen eds. The Thing of Darkness: Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 21-36, p. 29.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 18.

Patricia Hill Collins, 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd Edition. London: Routledge, p. 191.

La Vinia Delois Jennings, 2008. Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 51.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 122.

Toni Morrison, 1987. Sula. New York: Penguin Books, p. 121.

Anita Price Davis, 1998. Toni Morrison’s Sula. Piscataway, NJ: Research & Education Association, p. 9.

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