Toni Morrison’s Contributions to American Literature
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Published: Wed, 21 Feb 2018
Chapter One: Toni Morrison’s Contribution to American Literature
Paradoxically, immortality is not achieved through the defeat of biological death, but rather through the indomitability of the spirit, which leaves behind the fruits of wisdom and humanity, putting forevermore things in a different perspective for generations to come. This, however, is not a smooth and linear process and nor does it leave one untransformed. Referring to the motto above, Toni Morrison’s lifelong work has been an accurate reflection of her and her race’s upheaval. Albeit she fictionalizes her novels to a great extent, her work does not fail to constitute a palindromic iteration of her thoughts, feelings, and experiences – felt both directly and vicariously. To be more precise, if we overlook the minute details of her novels, one cannot tell where her fiction ends and her life begins, or vice-versa: they read the same, regardless of whether we “read” them from fiction to reality or from reality to fiction. This mirror in which Toni Morrison sees herself – and whose projections “fall” on the surface of our own interpretations and are thusly decoded and re-encoded – is not hung there for the purpose of throwing vanity glances; instead she uses it to question the endlessness of possibilities and that of answers to such broad questions as those relating to racism in the U.S. or to an idealistic state of affairs.
My books are always questions for me. What if? How does it feel to…? Or what would it look like if you took racism out? Or what does it look like if you have the perfect town, everything you ever wanted? And so you ask a question, put it in a time when it would be theatrical to ask, and find the people who can articulate it for you and try to make them interesting. The rest of it is all structure, how to put it together. (Rustin)
Timing is of immediate importance, as Toni Morrison herself points out, especially since her debut novel appeared on the cusp of the civil rights and feminist movement: a time of great transformations and unparalleled historical significance. She times the appearance of The Bluest Eye so well that its impact reverberates strongly into the present. This is no wonder since her writing is not intended to cater for the general masses, nor does it follow the narrow furrows and strictures of fiction writing which are usually implicitly understood. The importance of her work does not only extend along the dimension of aesthetic value: her work is not cathartic in the sense of presenting true beauty loftily idealized; instead she endows her fictional voices with daring, cunning, resolve, resilience; they are often the loud or muffled voices of the surprisingly articulate and heart-rending insane, the latter perversion of mind being perceived in relation with mind-numbing senseless conformity. One may never tell where artistry begins and ends and to what extent her literary offerings will shape future mentalities, but one thing is for sure: her unquenchable thirst for racial justice and her innovative techniques will never cease to challenge our take on things.
If only to weave a flimsy mesh of interpretation around Toni Morrison’s undeniably invaluable contribution on American literature and beyond, a closer scrutiny of her work would be most auspicious, especially if we proceed along the lines of racial formation, the importance of family and community, identity, conformity, independence, allegiance, displacement and all the binaries therefrom.
Racial Formation and Toni Morrison’s Literary Manifest
Racial formation never has never been and never will be (one could safely imagine) a smooth and linear phenomenon of innocuous application. Not only that, but never has there been a time in American history when race wasn’t a troublesome matter, from the initial clash between the early settlers who achieved the “conquest of paradise” and the native population, through every aspect of affirmative action, to present frictions with and around immigrants and the border (i.e. with Mexico), all still wrapped in the warm blanket of the American covenant.
The exodus of people crossing the ocean has always been a defining feature of the rugged American fabric and trouble and tension an inherent aftermath, for as Thomas Sowell puts it:
The peopling of America is one of the great dramas in all human history. Over the years, the massive stream of humanity—45 million people—crossed every ocean and continent to reach the United States. They came speaking every language and representing every nationality, race, and religion. (qtd. in Girgus 64)
Even though noble rank has been outlawed by the very Constitution of the United States, this does not necessarily ensure the homogeneity of multiethnicity. The social tension described by American sociologist Thomas Sowell and quoted by Sam B. Girgus in “The New Ethnic Novel and the American Idea” is that caused by the conflicting values brought to the American land, together with languages, customs, and, more importantly, creeds and moral values that this veritable Tower of Babel is still finding very difficult to take in and transform into a meld of acceptable conformity. A tendency existed and steeply evolved in the not very long course of American history to assert the superiority of the Aryan waspish faction of the American nation over all other non-Aryan groups. Since the budding nation’s ideals have always been slightly adumbrated by the skulking presence of slavery, the African-American paradigm of socio-cultural and political struggle has been conferred upon special significance and attention.
As such, the status of African-Americans has undergone severe and painful shifts, from the moment they were brought to America as slaves, until at least quite recently.
These days, the life of African-Americans in the United States is undoubtedly improved, a fact which can easily be proven by the recent election of the first “black” president in the entire history of this country. Not only at the highest level, but in all walks of life evidence exists of inclusion in the earnest of members of society belonging to the African-American race.
Albeit banned on some level – for instance Executive Order 8802 issued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt banned outright discrimination in the case of jobs related to the federal government and defence contractors – open discrimination continued throughout the decades, the segregation and gerrymandering trailing for many decades. Several boiling pressures, however, undermined these discriminatory tactics, such as the Brown vs. Board of Education of 1954 or the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. These and other actions precipitated the adoption of affirmative action, a bomb which exploded in the face of Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who had to make efforts to redress these social injustices through – as some like to call it – “positive” or “reverse” discrimination, in spite of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, a veritable gem of rhetoric. His world-famous 1963 I Have a Dream speech is a watershed moment not only for the Civil Rights Movement – a cause that is brilliantly, persuasively and most important, peacefully championed – but for every group that during the course of (American) history had been discriminated against. In it he advocates equality and fraternity, the vital prerequisites of coexistence in a sphere so decidedly multiethnic that, as Herman Melville phrases it, “You can not spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.” (qtd. in Girgus 65).
The attitude taken by American people concerning the preference for or against affirmative action is linked to what everyone was educated to believe. The factor that leaves the greatest imprint on our mind is education and the vehicles for achieving this, such as literature, films, and other media, to say nothing of standardized school curricula and society at large. It is the first of these vehicles that will be investigated in what follows, tracing Toni Morrison’s efforts as an epitomic endeavour, in order to isolate its influence on our belief system, values and life choices. Significantly, an original national literature was the first mark of America’s declaration of independence from Europe’s influence and the African-American one the declaration of independence from “white” hegemony.
Benjamin Franklin believed that “A good example is the best sermon” (qtd. in Marcovitz 55), while Emerson, the father of transcendentalism urged the American people to be self-reliant above all. Though a maverick at heart throughout his entire glorious existence – which, while dappled with tragedy, his work has been no less prolific in spite of all his hardships and his originality, humour and unmatched industriousness – Mark Twain, The Father of American Literature, has been a most controversial and compliant figure (only in the sense of providing such an inspiring string of examples in the sense of self-reliance) in his time and continues to be so even today. If at first his masterpiece – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – was criticized for the language and subject matter by both his contemporaries and later admirers (Ernest Hemingway would provide a notable example) for being trite and vulgar and even excoriated by public libraries such as the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts or New York’s Brooklyn Public Library, recent controversy has been focused around racial matters. Critics are split between those regarding the portrayal of Jim as disparaging and as a consequence offensive and those who find Jim’s superstitious behaviour to be an indication of an alternative perception of our bond with nature, or a more powerful connection with our spiritual side, to say nothing of the steep dissonance between the Waspish past and the politically correct present.
In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is analysed from the perspective of the importance of the Africanist presence, a presence much silenced and only timidly analyzed for decades. Discussed in terms of socio-historic development, the distinction between “black” and “white” themed by Twain’s novel reaches a peak in the mid-nineteenth century, as evidenced in Toni Morrison’s interpretation. This can be verified by the juxtaposition between Jim’s utter love for his masters and the “baroque” (Morrison 57) torture Huck and Tom subject him to. The “white” line of argumentation is brilliantly outlined in Mark Twain’s masterpiece and shrewdly detected by Morrison, who finds Jim “unassertive, loving, irrational, passionate, dependent, inarticulate”, which is exactly how the “others” are perceived. The religious, scientific, political, cultural and societal practices were so fashioned around the time when Mark Twain lived as to legitimate slavery and abuse. Starting from the assertion that white people around Jim seek forgiveness and supplication – veritable keystone concepts in Christian religions which, however, did not extend to everyone, considering the hovering doubt about the existence of the soul of the “others”, they (i.e. religions through their cloistered leaders) instead providing convenient ways for turning a blind eye on slavery and even extermination – on condition that he accept his inferiority. Thus, she argues, only a representative of the African-American race could have been painfully humiliated by children after being presented as a father and an adult, while no one, not even a white convict, could have been submitted to this kind of treatment.
Toni Morrison’s discourse is by no means vituperative: she does not intend any reversed oppression through her writing, either in Playing in the Dark or in any of her works of fiction. However, her writing is so compelling that when Beloved does not win her the National Book Award, as many as forty-eight African-American authors and critics write to the New York Times claiming her literary prowess, which afterwards earns her the laurels of the Pulitzer Prize, and rightly so. Her lack of bias is evident when she praises the former President Bill Clinton calling him the “’first black President’, since he displayed ‘almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas’” (Cooke), while her discursive equanimity can be traced from the way she analyses the Africanist presence in literature and the way it is regarded from the perspective of its relationship to mainstream literature and criticism:
Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. (Playing in the Dark 13)
While she does not wish to challenge or criticise anyone for their views and choices, Toni Morrison cannot bear to look the other way when the literary Jim Crow era is still so fiercely enforced. That it might be convenient for anyone to ignore any slice of reality or exclude any of the fibres in the fabric of a nation is quite obvious, and while this approach does not impair our intellect, it does however limit our understanding. This selective interpretation of things which leaves Africanist representation in a cone of darkness is especially significant, since it underpins racism and it bolsters its moral justification, especially along the lines of racial formation: a deeply-seated phenomenon which pervades every aspect of life in America and a very hurtful process for those slighted by it. The relevance of racial formation is underscored throughout Toni Morrison’s work and, in their extensive study entitled Racial Formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the two American sociologists who developed racial formation theory, argue that race is an artificial concept, because the bases according to which any particular individual can be labelled as “white”, “black”, and so on, may start from certain biological traits, but race transcends these. To illustrate the point, a person of “mixed blood” is considered from the point of view of North American and then Latin American racial identification whereby the same categorization would have the same individual first “black” and then unable to “pass” as “black”. At the other extreme, Brazilian legislation is willing to accept the assignation of several racial categories to various members of the same family.
In addition to being intricate and far-reaching, these considerations help provide grounding for our study of Toni Morrison’s work and its impact on American literature and even life in America and also help account for the perception of other races by the early settlers, whose religious and even scientific tenets had to be broached to accommodate these “new” categories, such as the “noble savage,” and dispute the very existence of their soul. This blatant dismissal of a person’s soul based solely on the abstract and arbitrary consideration of race is an outrage that Toni Morrison starkly exposes in Beloved, about which Susanna Rustin comments the following in “The Guardian”:
It is a novel of unspeakable horrors. But even more than the physical brutality, Morrison confronts us with the irreparable harm done by what Margaret Atwood described in a review as “one of the most viciously antifamily institutions human beings have ever devised”, a system that sought to deprive human beings of what it is that makes them human. (Rustin)
Sethe, her heroine, learns the truth and is shocked to realise that her masters, whom she is so devoted to, are taught to distinguish between her human and animal characteristics, which means, in other words, that she is but a soulless beast of burden.
That’s when I stopped because I heard my name, and then I took a few steps to where I could see what they was doing. Schoolteacher was standing over one of them with one hand behind his back. He licked a forefinger a couple of times and turned a few pages. Slow.
I was about to turn around and keep on my way to where the muslin was, when I heard him say, “No, no. That’s not the way. I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don’t forget to line them up.” I commenced to walk backward, didn’t even look behind me to find out where I was headed.
I just kept lifting my feet and pushing back. When I bumped up against a tree my scalp was prickly. […] Flies settled all over your face, rubbing their hands.
My head itched like the devil. Like somebody was sticking fine needles in my scalp. I never told Halle or nobody. (Beloved 224)
This episode in Sethe’s existence can never be erased nor her pain alleviated. The suffering she is caused is absolute and boundless. Her feelings of outrage surge like torrents in her brain and she feels utterly discombobulated. This memory will forever haunt her; it will shape her future and her attitude towards life, her behaviour towards her children, and it will serve as a constantly open wound. What’s even more tragic is that this mind-boggling injustice spared no one: men, women, or children.
Remembering his own price, down to the cent, that schoolteacher was able to get for him, he wondered what Sethe’s would have been.
What had Baby Suggs’ been? How much did Halle owe, still, besides his labor? What did Mrs. Garner get for Paul F? More than nine hundred dollars? How much more? Ten dollars? Twenty? Schoolteacher would know. He knew the worth of everything. It accounted for the real sorrow in his voice when he pronounced Sixo unsuitable. (266)
Proceeding along these lines of dehumanization, monetary worth is assigned to each individual and that is the extent of one’s value when assessed by the slave owner. Reality is raw, harsh, and beyond shocking, but sugar-coating it would not help if we are to learn the truth about racism and racial formation. The accuracy of Toni Morrison’s writing – in spite of the degree of fictionalization – is the keystone of her discourse. It is her head-on confrontation of the underlying reality that lends Toni Morrison her uniqueness and that has earned her – in equal measure – respect and criticism.
Despite the narrative voices that assert their own individuality in Toni Morrison’s works, Sam B. Girgus comments on present-day African-American literary discourse, finding it too elaborate, and somewhat digressive to the detriment of thematic concerns such as the daily life, values, sorrows, tragedies, successes, woes, accomplishments, and so forth. He argues his point by referring to African-American writers Toni Morrison and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
…both Morrison and Gates typify qualities of ethnicity that are common to many of the writers in the literary and cultural renaissance under discussion. They all write in English even when extolling a particular vernacular speech, dialect, or region. They are all extremely sophisticated artists who use the most complex modern and postmodern techniques to convey their highly individualized visions of experience. Although rooted in ethnic communities and concrete historic situations, their works as cultural artifacts and products are nevertheless aspects of complicated technological and bureaucratic systems of cultural and social production that often differ from the language, values, and daily life of the cultures for which they speak. (Girgus 61)
This may be so if we for instance pick up Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-awarded novel Beloved where we find passages of stream of consciousness, dialectal dialogue, flashbacks from the past and the conflation of past and present resulting in a destabilized horizon of racial and individual formation. Toni Morrison’s formal education may have driven a wedge between herself and the culture she was born into and which she proudly represents, but she still manages to put together an incredible manifesto that reaches deeper truths and meanings with absolute valences. In her novel the three heroines – mother and two daughters – have overlapping individualities and they represent good and evil in equal measure. Their existences are nonlinear and they run both ways along the temporal axis. This is especially true of Sethe, the mother, whose past still haunts her and impacts greatly her present and future; an impact which extends to her family as well.
The state of nonlinearity, conflation, and duality is also found in other novels, such as The Bluest Eye or Sula, in which the heroines manage to become displaced from their status, they are isolated from their respective families and friends, and are forced into pursuing painful valences of individuality. From this point of view, Toni Morrison herself manages to overreach her scope by challenging the perceptions, values, mores, and principles we are ingrained with by society and education. Agnes Suranyi, a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison”, edited by Justine Tally, expresses just such a view: “The borderline between decent women and man-eating prostitutes is erased; only the latter are capable of giving love to Pecola, whose quest for it elsewhere is futile.” (16-17). This view is of great significance because it epitomizes Toni Morrison’s take on life: nothing in her work is “fed” to us already masticated; it is quite the contrary that occurs: we have to interpret the facts stated, the innuendoes, the streams of consciousness, the multifaceted and split personalities, their actions and inactions all by ourselves, through our own filters and open up to a more thorough interpretation that must override dated tenets.
Applying the above stated, upon perusing Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, one cannot miss the connection between melding and overlapping identities and the life of people struggling with racial formation and being forced into conformity and assimilation. This assertion is further reinforced by the fact that Sethe lived in the time of the Underground Railroad, a time which saw a sharp increase in the severity of punishments for escaping bondage. The tenseness of life on the black / white divide is passed on to later generations who carry on with their incessant frictions all the way to Martin Luther King Jr. and beyond.
In a 2004 interview with Rachel Cooke for “The Observer” Toni Morrison successfully proves why the battle with racism is not yet over, in spite of all the things that have changed since the beginning of affirmative action.
‘I don’t pass without insults. Let me give you an example. I walk into the Waldorf Astoria in New York to check in. We’re going to have a drink, and then my friend is going to go home. She stands behind me, as I check in. Finally, the guy says, “Oh, are you registering too?” He thought I was the maid. My friend was trembling with anger. It was so personal. But the irony of it was that I was on the cover of a magazine that month, and there were these posters with my face on them all over New York.’ (qtd. in “The Observer”)
The Bluest Eye – her debut novel – for instance, has had its popularity delayed many a year precisely because of the stark way in which Toni Morrison approached taboo subjects and because she strived to prove that “black” did not equal “ugly”. Growing up is difficult and the girls in the novel find their race assignation – which is no fault of theirs – a difficult burden to carry around. They do not have the easier lives of the lighter-skinned people in their community and their perceived ugliness is a feature which gradually seeps into their consciousness to such a degree that it becomes overbearing. The validity of this externally-imposed ugliness is reinforced not only by the white members of society, but by the very families themselves. In Pecola’s case, her own mother finds her daughter repulsive and troublesome, choosing to love a white child more than her own – an unforgivable and heinous deed. But then the destabilization of identity is a practice quite common for Toni Morrison, and rightly so, because although identity is formed at an early stage in our existence, the vector of external factors leave multiple indelible marks upon the essence of our character. For Toni Morrison’s characters the insurmountable obstacles they have to overcome take too great a toll on their resilience, which ultimately becomes defeated. This reciprocal allegoric relationship between private and collective (in this case racial) identity is a true-to-life representation of many generations of oppressed African-Americans and their struggles to survive in a disparaging mainstream society.
In Sula, the African-American writer uses the Bottom as a twofold metaphor: on the one hand the location of this neighbourhood is on top of a hill which, as the slave owner explains to the slave, is the bottom of the world from where God is watching and from which “the blacks” took “small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks” (11), while on the other we see little black girls being picked on by the most recent immigrants who themselves would endure abuse, thus continuing this loop which is closed by the proximity to God that the hills afford them.
The ramifications do not stop here: it seems that in any place in the novel, any novel of Toni Morrison’s, there is a starting point for a new insight, for a new interpretation, for a kernel of postmodernist truth about life and literature, for novel literary technique and what it entails for both the novel itself as a genre, as well as for the reader and his/her perception of things that’s constantly being challenged, just like the reader’s matrix of social tenets and belief system.
Possibly the best example of this is served by the story which inspired Toni Morrison to write Beloved, the story of the African-American woman who would rather kill her own daughter than suffer to have her returned to bondage. As Nellie Y. McKay, the co-editor alongside William L. Andrews of “Toni Morrison’s Beloved – A Casebook” states another critic’s point of view (i.e. Karla F. C. Holloway, writer of “Beloved: A Spiritual”), Toni Morrison really manages to come up with a fresh and reinvigorating approach
For example, with myth as a dominant feature of Beloved, Morrison not only reclaims the Garner story from those who interviewed her after her child’s death and expressed enormous surprise at her calm but also, as mythmaker, achieves a complete revision of the episode. […] The oral and written history that Morrison revises, consciously and unconsciously felt, considers many aspects of each life and reflects an alternative perspective on reality. […] In addition, Morrison, like many other African and African-American writers, often defies the boundaries separating past, present, and future time. This allows her to free Beloved from the dominance of a history that would deny the merits of slave stories. As Morrison’s creation, Beloved is not only Sethe’s dead child but the faces of all those lost in slavery, carrying in her the history of the “sixty million and more.” Holloway sees Beloved as a novel of inner vision: the reclamation of black spiritual histories. (15)
As Morrison herself points out in the novel, the press has no interest in presenting the truth detachedly. It also does not concern itself with such “trite” topics as the abominable abuses of slavery and it does not give praise where praise is due. Instead, it engages in shameless hectoring of a mother who kills her own daughter. If taken out of context, we would expect it to do no less and, but for Toni Morrison’s reframing and revamping of the story, we probably wouldn’t have given the story a second thought. But we cannot be left to stand idle before such brazen hypocrisy as regarding Sethe more animal than human, and then a murderess guilty of a heinously premeditated act done whilst in full possession of her faculties. Furthermore, her case is stripped of context, just as the plethora of various other deeds similarly perpetrated as a result of extraordinary duress. This time around Morrison gives ample space to her heroine to justify her actions, while not allowing her, however, to be absolved of the guilt she must bear until the end, hence the muddled border between temporal references, actions, characters, and individualities, which again escape their expected linearity and contiguity.
Perception is a fickle thing, especially when something is stretched, filtered, re-filtered, decoded and re-encoded, challenged and stereotyped and warped in every way imaginable. We cannot assert our identity as long as we are unable to find the appropriate compromise between the adoption and rejection of every aspect that is debatable and that can be transacted over this social Carrefour of exchanges.
But, more importantly, we can no longer acquiesce in this moral comfort zone set out by society, which overshadows whole groups based on artificial considerations, especially when the relativism of the preceding adjective becomes too overbearing and too painful to stand. The point being made here is that while maybe artificial in essence, the segregation inflicted on these groups – and others, as well (while Toni Morrison is clearly concerned with the African-American case, it cannot fail to be propitious to generalise an assertion that we should internalise already – if we haven’t done so – and apply to any case in which double standards might occur) is absorbed by those whose mental health is abused incessantly and whose resilience truly worn out and even suppressed. What Toni Morrison attempts is to sow the seeds of individual and discernible thought willing and capable enough to probe things deeper than the shallowness of their outward appearance. Toni Morrison’s works are soul-wrenching panegyrics dedicated to the memory of the former slaves and her contemporaries who were still enslaved through omission and discrimination, as well as a testimony of the noblest and most dedicated application of one’s moral ideals.
Chapter Two: The Importance of Family and Community in Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Sula
Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.
It is no secret or surprise that, first family and then family and community, have the greatest impact on our personality, shaping and reshaping our existence, validating and supporting our preferences and choices or going to great lengths to lay stumbling blocks in our path towards achieving these. Furthermore, the conceptions and principles professed within familial confines are based on the patterned behaviour of one’s surrounding environment. This, in turn is founded on what is deemed just and acceptable behaviour leading to harmony and cooperation and is related to civic duty.
According to Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the development of the human psyche is a three-stage process which corresponds to the three most important stages in our existence. In the first stage, the id, our psyche is so shaped as to want nothing but to fulfil its own needs and wishes, regardless of those of everyone else. Then, as we start learning to distinguish betwee
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