Toni Morrison Essay - Morrison, Toni (Feminism in Literature)

Morrison, Toni (Feminism in Literature)

Introduction

In 1993, Morrison became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her fiction was noted for its "epic power" and "unerring ear for dialogue and richly expressive depictions of black America" by the Swedish Academy, while exploring the difficulties of maintaining a sense of black cultural identity in a white world. Especially through her female protagonists, her works consider the debilitating effects of racism and sexism and incorporate elements of supernatural lore and mythology. Many of Morrison's novels—particularly The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987)—have become firmly established within the American literary canon, while simultaneously working to redefine and expand it.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah Willis and George Wofford. She was the second of four children. Her father was originally from Georgia, and her mother's parents had moved to Lorain after losing their land in Alabama and working briefly in Kentucky. Morrison's father worked in a variety of trades, often holding more than one job at a time in order to support his family. To send money to Morrison during her school years, her mother also took a series of hard, often demeaning positions. Music and storytelling—including tales of the supernatural—were a valued part of family life, and children as well as adults were expected to participate. Morrison became an avid reader at a young age, consuming a wide range of literature, including Russian, French, and English novels.

Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953. She went on to earn a master's degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, and spent two years teaching at Texas Southern University in Houston. From 1957 to 1964 she served as an instructor at Howard. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964, and Morrison and her children returned briefly to her parents' home in Ohio. During this period she began to write, producing the story that would eventually become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. In 1966 she moved to Syracuse, New York, and took a job as an editor for a textbook subsidiary of Random House. She relocated again in 1968, this time to New York City, where she continued editing for Random House. She oversaw the publication of works by prominent black fiction writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, as well as the autobiographies of influential African Americans, including Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. In 1987, Morrison left Random House to return to teaching and to concentrate on her writing. She has taught at numerous colleges and universities, among them the State University of New York, Bard College, Yale University, Harvard University, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Morrison currently serves on the faculty at Princeton University.

MAJOR WORKS

Among her best known novels, The Bluest Eye recounts the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, a poverty-stricken black child who longs for the blue eyes and blond hair that are prized by the society in which she lives. Evidenced by the superiority exhibited by light-skinned black characters in the novel—as well as the self-loathing of those, like Pecola, whose dark skin and African features mark them as unattractive and unlovable—the work explores black acceptance of white standards of female beauty. In 1973, Morrison published Sula, a novel chronicling the lives of two women. One woman assumes a traditional role in the community; the other leaves her hometown, returning only to resist established female roles and to assert her own standards and free will. Song of Solomon (1977) juxtaposes the pressures experienced by black families that feel forced to assimilate into mainstream culture with their unwillingness to abandon a distinctive African American heritage. More so than in her earlier novels, Morrison incorporates mythical and supernatural elements into the novel's narrative as a way for characters to transcend their everyday lives. Tar Baby, published in 1981 and set in the Caribbean, again uses myth and ghostly presences to mitigate the harshness of lives in which all relationships are adversarial—particularly in cultures where blacks are opposed to whites and women are opposed to men. In 1987 Morrison published Beloved, a novel based on the true story of a slave who murdered her child to spare it from a life of slavery; the book won the Pulitzer Prize. Jazz (1992) features dual narratives: one set during Reconstruction, the other during the Jazz Age. The novel explores the lasting effects of slavery and oppression on successive generations of African Americans. Morrison's most recent novels are Paradise (1998), featuring the lives of nine black families who settle a tiny farming community in Oklahoma in the 1940s, and Love (2003), a story that portrays the owner of a once-popular East Coast seaside resort for African Americans.

In addition to her novels, Morrison has written a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986), a collection of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and several books for young readers in collaboration with her son Slade. Her children's works include The Big Box (1999), The Book of Mean People (2002), and Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003).

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Although some critics expressed reservations about the book's literary merits, The Bluest Eye received an impressive amount of attention for a first novel, garnering reviews by many prestigious publications. Sula met with more popular success, was serialized in Redbook magazine, and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award. By the time Song of Solomon appeared, Morrison occupied a secure place as one of America's top novelists. Morrison's reputation was further enhanced by receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison is frequently faulted for her representations of a matriarchal culture that features poor, uneducated black females, with few positive black male characters and almost no white characters. Jacqueline Trace contends that this is partly attributable to Morrison's attempt to create a theology that is specifically black and specifically feminist.

Several critics have discussed Morrison's work—particularly The Bluest Eye—as a critique not only of the standards of female beauty prescribed by the dominant white culture, but of acceptance of those standards by blacks themselves. Pin-chia Feng discusses the development of the two young girls in the novel, concluding that "Claudia survives to tell the story by resisting social and racial conformity. Pecola fails the test precisely because of her unconditional internalization of the dominant ideology." Vanessa D. Dickerson (see Further Reading) contrasts Morrison's treatment of the black female body with its historical construction "as the ugly end of a wearisome Western dialectic: not sacred but profane, not angelic but demonic, not fair lady but ugly darky." Morrison, however, reappropriates black female representation within her fiction, particularly in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved. "In each of these novels," Dickerson asserts, "Morrison summons us to the validation of the black female body."

Principal Works

The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970

Sula (novel) 1973

The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974

Song of Solomon (novel) 1977

Tar Baby (novel) 1981

Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986

Beloved (novel) 1987

Jazz (novel) 1992

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (criticism) 1992

Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992

Lecture and Speech of Acceptance Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (speech) 1994

The Dancing Mind: Speech Upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (speech) 1996

Paradise (novel) 1998

The Big Box [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 1999

I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001

The Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2002

Love (novel) 2003

Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? [with Slade...

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Primary Sources

SOURCE: Morrison, Toni. “Introduction: Friday on the Potomac.” In Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Toni Morrison, pp. vii-xxx. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

In the following introduction, Morrison evaluates the racial, sexual, and gender implications of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination and the greater sociopolitical significance of the event.

I have never asked to be nominated.… Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process.

—Clarence Thomas, Friday, October 11, 1991

It would have been more comfortable to remain silent.… I took no initiative to inform anyone.… I could not keep silent.

—Anita Hill, Friday, October 11, 1991

At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjugation, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.

—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Clusters of black people pray in front of the White House for the Lord not to abandon them, to intervene and crush the forces that would prevent a black nominee to the Supreme Court from assuming the seat felt by them to be reserved for a member of the race. Other groups of blacks stare at the television set, revolted by the president’s nomination of the one candidate they believed obviously unfit to adjudicate legal and policy matters concerning them. Everyone interested in the outcome of this nomination, regardless of race, class, gender, religion, or profession, turns to as many forms of media as are available. They read the Washington Post for verification of their dread or their hope, read the New York Times as though it were Pravda, searching between the lines of the official story for one that most nearly approximates what might really be happening. They read local papers to see if the reaction among their neighbors is similar to their own, or they try to figure out on what information their own response should be based. They have listened to newscasters and anchor people for the bits and bites that pointed to, or deflected attention from, the machinery of campaigns to reject or accept the nominee. They have watched television screens that seem to watch back, that dismiss viewers or call upon them for flavor, reinforcement, or routine dissent. Polls assure and shock, gratify and discredit those who took them into serious account.

But most of all, people talked to one another. There are passionate, sometimes acrimonious discussions between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, siblings, friends, acquaintances, colleagues with whom,now, there is reason to embrace or to expel from their close circle. Sophisticated legal debates merge with locker-room guffaws; poised exchanges about the ethics and moral responsibilities of governance are debased by cold indifference to individual claims and private vulnerabilities. Organizations and individuals call senators and urge friends to do the same—providing opinions and information, threatening, cajoling, explaining positions, or simply saying, Confirm! Reject! Vote yes. Vote no.

These were some of the scenes stirred up by the debates leading to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas, the revelations and evasions within the testimony, and by the irrevocable mark placed on those hearings by Anita Hill’s accusations against the nominee. The points of the vector were all the plateaus of power and powerlessness: white men, black men, black women, white women, interracial couples; those with a traditionally conservative agenda, and those representing neoconservative conversions; citizens with radical and progressive programs; the full specter of the “pro” antagonists (“choice” and “life”); there were the publicly elected, the self-elected, the racial supremacists, the racial egalitarians, and nationalists of every stripe.

The intensity as well as the volume of these responses to the hearings were caused by more than the volatile content of the proceedings. The emptiness, the unforthcoming truths that lay at the center of the state’s performance contributed much to the frenzy as people grappled for meaning, for substance unavailable through ordinary channels. Michael Rustin has described race as “both an empty category and one of the most destructive and powerful forms of social categorization.” This paradox of a powerfully destructive emptiness can be used to illustrate the source of the confusion, the murk, the sense of helpless rage that accompanied the confirmation process.

It became clear, finally, what took place: a black male nominee to the Supreme Court was confirmed amid a controversy that raised and buried issues of profound social significance.

What is less clear is what happened, how it happened, why it happened; what implications may be drawn, what consequences may follow. For what was at stake during these hearings was history. In addition to what was taking place, something was happening. And as is almost always the case, the site of the exorcism of critical national issues was situated in the miasma of black life and inscribed on the bodies of black people.

It was to evaluate and analyze various aspects of what was and is happening that this collection suggested itself. The urgency of this project, an urgency that was overwhelming in November of 1991 when it began, is no less so now in 1992. For a number of reasons the consequences of not gathering the thoughts, the insights, the analyses of academics in a variety of disciplines would be too dire. The events surrounding the confirmation could be closed, left to the disappearing act that frequently follows the summing-up process typical of visual and print media. The seismic reactions of women and men in the workplace, in organizations and institutions, could be calmed and a return to “business as usual” made effortless. While the public, deeply concerned with the issues raised by the confirmation, waited for the ultimate historical account or some other text representing the “last word,” there might not be available to it a more immediate aid to the reflective sorting out that subsequent and recent events would demand. Furthermore, the advancing siege upon American universities, launched by fears of “relevance” and change, has fostered an impression and atmosphere of scholarly paralysis, censorship, and intimidation. Yet residing in the academic institutions of the country are not only some of the most knowledgeable citizens, but also those most able to respond quickly with contextualized and intellectually focused insights. And insight—from a range of views and disciplines— seemed to us in low supply.

For insight into the complicated and complicating events that the confirmation of Clarence Thomas became, one needs perspective, not attitudes; context, not anecdotes; analyses, not postures. For any kind of lasting illumination the focus must be on the history routinely ignored or played down or unknown. For the kind of insight that invites reflection, language must be critiqued. Frustrating language, devious calls to arms, and ancient inflammatory codes deployed to do their weary work of obfuscation, short circuiting, evasion, and distortion. The timeless and timely narratives upon which expressive language rests, narratives so ingrained and pervasive they seem inextricable from “reality,” require identification. To begin to comprehend exactly what happened, it is important to distinguish between the veneer of interrogatory discourse and its substance; to remain skeptical of topics (such as whether the “system” is “working”) which pretend that the restoration of order lies in the question; to be wary of narrow discussions on the effectiveness or defect of the “process” because content, volatile and uncontextualized, cannot be approached, let alone adequately discussed, in sixteen minutes or five hundred words or less. To inaugurate any discovery of what happened is to be conscious of the smooth syruplike and glistening oil poured daily to keep the machine of state from screeching too loudly or breaking down entirely as it turns the earth of its own rut, digging itself deeper and deeper into the foundation of private life, burying itself for invisibility, for protection, for secrecy. To know what took place summary is enough. To learn what happened requires multiple points of address and analysis.

Nowhere, remarked an historian, nowhere in the debate before and during the confirmation hearings was there any mention, or even the implied idea, of the public good. How could there be, when the word “public” had itself become bankrupt, suffering guilt by association with the word “special,” as the confusion of “public interest” with “special interest” proved. How could the notion of union, nation, or state surface when race, gender, and class, separately, paired, matched, and mismatched, collapsed in a heap or swinging a divisive sword, dominated every moment and word of the confirmation process?

For example, the nominee—chosen, the president said, without regard to race—was introduced by his sponsor with a reference to the nominee’s laugh. It was, said Senator Danforth, second in his list of “the most fundamental points” about Clarence Thomas. “He is his own person. That is my first point. Second, he laughs. [Laughter] To some, this may seem a trivial matter. To me, it’s important because laughter is the antidote to that dread disease, federalitis. The obvious strategy of interest groups trying to defeat a Supreme Court nominee is to suggest that there is something weird about the individual. I concede that there is something weird about Clarence Thomas. It’s his laugh. It is the loudest laugh I have ever heard. It comes from deep inside, and it shakes his body. And here is something at least as weird in this most up-tight of cities: the object of his laughter is most often himself.”

Weird? Not at all. Neither the laugh nor Danforth’s reference to it. Every black person who heard those words understood. How necessary, how reassuring were both the grin and its being summoned for display. It is the laughter, the chuckle, that invites and precedes any discussion of association with a black person. For whites who require it, it is the gesture of accommodation and obedience needed to open discussion with a black person and certainly to continue it. The ethnic joke is one formulation—the obligatory recognition of race and possible equanimity in the face of it. But in the more polite halls of the Senate, the laugh will do, the willingness to laugh; its power as a sign takes the place of the high sign of perfect understanding. It is difficult to imagine a sponsor introducing Robert Bork or William Gates (or that happy exception, Thurgood Marshall) with a call to this most clearly understood metonym for racial accommodation. Not simply because they may or may not have had a loud, infectious laugh, but because it would have been inappropriate, irrelevant, puzzling to do so.

But what was inappropriate, even startlingly salacious in other circumstances became the habitual text with this candidate. The New York Times found it interesting to include in that paper’s initial story on the president’s nominee a curious spotlight on his body. Weight lifting was among his accomplishments, said the Times, presciently, perhaps, since later on the candidate’s body came violently into view. Of course, this may be simply a news account that aims to present an attractive image of a man about to step onto a national stage, yet a reference to a black person’s body is de rigueur in white discourse. Like the unswerving focus on the female body (whether the woman is a judge, an actress, a scholar, or a waitress), the black man’s body is voluptuously dwelled upon in biographies about them, journalism on them, remarks about them. “I wanted to find out,” said Senator Pete Domenici, “as best I could what his life—from outhouse to the White House … has been like.” With vulgar remarks like that in print, why wouldn’t the public’s initial view of this black nominee have an otherwise puzzling, even silly, reference to body-building? Other erstwhile oddities rippled through the media, glancing and stroking black flesh. President Bush probably felt he was being friendly, charmingly informal, when he invited this black man into his bedroom for the interview. “That is where Mr. Bush made the final offer and Judge Thomas accepted.” To make Thomas feel at home was more important than to respect him, apparently, and the Times agreed, selecting this tidbit to report in an article that ended with a second tantalizing, not so veiled reference to the nominee’s body. When asked by reporters whether he expected to play golf, “one of Mr. Bush’s favorite sports,” Thomas replied, “No. The ball’s too small.” Thomas’s answer is familiar repartee; but the nuanced emphasis gained by the remark’s position in the piece is familiar too. What would have been extraordinary would have been to ignore Thomas’s body, for in ignoring it, the articles would have had to discuss in some detail that aspect of him more difficult to appraise—his mind.

In a society with a history of trying to accommodate both slavery and freedom, and a present that wishes both to exploit and deny the pervasiveness of racism, black people are rarely individualized. Even when his supporters were extolling the fierce independence and the “his own man” line about Clarence Thomas, their block and blocked thinking of racial stereotype prevailed. Without individuation, without nonracial perception, black people, as a group, are used to signify the polar opposites of love and repulsion. On the one hand, they signify benevolence, harmless and servile guardianship, and endless love. On the other hand, they have come to represent insanity, illicit sexuality, and chaos. In the confirmation hearings the two fictions were at war and on display. They are interchangeable fictions from a utilitarian menu and can be mixed and matched to suit any racial palette. Furthermore, they do not need logical transition from one set of associations to another. Like Captain Delano in Benito Cereno, the racist thinker can jump from the view of the slave, Babo, as “naturally docile, made for servitude” to “savage cannibal” without any gesture toward what may lie in between the two conclusions, or any explanation of the jump from puppy to monster, so the truth of Babo’s situation—that he is leading a surreptitious rebellion aboard the slave ship, that he is a clever man who wants to be free—never enters the equation. The confirmation hearings, as it turned out, had two black persons to use to nourish these fictions. Thus, the candidate was cloaked in the garments of loyalty, guardianship, and (remember the laugh) limitless love. Love of God via his Catholic school, of servitude via a patriarchal disciplinarian grandfather, of loyalty to party via his accumulated speeches and the trophies of “America” on his office walls. The interrogator, therefore, the accusing witness Anita Hill, was dressed in the oppositional costume of madness, anarchic sexuality, and explosive verbal violence. There seemed to be no other explanation for her testimony. Even Clarence Thomas was at a loss to explain not her charges but why she would make them. All he could come up with is speculation on Professor Hill’s dislike of “lighter-complexioned” women— meaning, one gathers, his marriage to a white woman. No other narrative context could be found for her charges, no motive except fantasy, wanton and destructive, or a jealousy that destabilized her. Since neither the press nor the Senate Judiciary Committee would entertain seriously or exhaustively the truth of her accusations, she could be called any number or pair of discrediting terms and the contradictions would never be called into question, because, as a black woman, she was contradiction itself, irrationality in the flesh. She was portrayed as a lesbian who hated men and a vamp who could be ensnared and painfully rejected by them. She was a mixture heretofore not recognized in the glossary of racial tropes: an intellectual daughter of black farmers; a black female taking offense; a black lady repeating dirty...

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General Commentary

SOURCE: Grewal, Gurleen. Introduction to Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison, pp. 1-19. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

In the following essay, Grewal examines how Morrison’s novels contribute to a decolonizing black literature and how her acutely individual, interior characters operate within specific historical and social confines.

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

—Toni Morrison

Social relations are not only received; they are also made and can be transformed.

...

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Title Commentary

PIN-CHIA FENG (ESSAY DATE 1998)

SOURCE: Feng, Pin-chia. "The Gaze of The Bluest Eye." In The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading, pp. 51-75. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

In the following excerpt, Feng discusses Morrison's treatment of race, power, and black conformity to white beauty standards in The Bluest Eye, noting the novel's anti-Bildungsroman properties.

The visual image of a splintered mirror, or the corridor of split mirrors in blue eyes, is the form as well as the content of The Bluest Eye.

—Toni...

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Further Reading

Bibliographies

Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, 186 p.

Includes considerable criticism on Morrison's first four novels, as well as other writings, interviews, and anthologies.

Mix, Debbie. "Toni Morrison: A Selected Bibliography." Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 795-818.

Bibliography covering selected criticism on Morrison's novels.

Criticism

Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. "Gendering the...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)