Morrison, Toni (Feminism in Literature)
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 INFORMATIONMorrison 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.
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).
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."
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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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...
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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.
Social relations are not only received; they are also made and can be transformed.
Toni Morrison is part of a long black—and American—literary tradition that finds its full and complicated bloom in her art. Her novels are multivoiced, multilayered, writerly and speakerly, both popular and literary highbrow. In her writing the confluence of two streams of narrative tradition is made visible and audible: one the oral tradition of storytelling passed down over generations in her own family and community, custodians of a history far removed from the world of the bourgeois novel, whose narrative tradition is the other Morrison appropriates. At Cornell Morrison studied the stylists of modernist memory, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, both of whom had...
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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 Morrison, "Memory, Creation, and Writing"
The Bluest Eye tells a story of a black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants blue eyes and is raped by her own father. Haunted by the memory of Pecola's tragedy, the first-person narrator, Claudia MacTeer, attempts to make sense of the incident in retrospect. The novel is not only Pecola's story but Claudia's as well. It is also a story for girls growing up without positive images of themselves reflected in the mirror held up by mainstream society, and constantly under the gaze of the blue eye of dominant ideology. And the reader is the one to piece together the fragments of the girls' personal, cultural, and racial experiences to understand the political message...
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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.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. "Gendering the Genderless: The Case of Toni Morrison's Beloved." Obsidian II 8, no. 1 (spring-summer 1993): 1-17.
Examines the blurring of conventional notions of gender in Beloved.
Bell, Bernard W. "Beloved: A Womanist Neo-Slave Narrative; or Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past." In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison's "Beloved," edited by Barbara H. Solomon, pp. 166-76. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998.
Examination of Beloved as a black feminist text that gives voice to those silenced by slavery.
Bidney, Martin. "Creating a Feminist-Communitarian Romanticism in...
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