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Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although early critical reaction was somewhat muted, Song of Solomon, Morrison’s third novel, won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and became the first novel by a black writer chosen as a main selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club since Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). In this book, Morrison seems to have found her true voice as a storyteller, although from the beginning of her career she has included in her work features of the oral tradition.

Morrison has always been aware of her audience. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was written because she saw no stories about black girls growing up, and she decided to write a book that she would have wanted to read. She has frequently stated that her writing is an attempt to present the world from an African American perspective. Morrison uses many characteristics of African American art in her writing, stressing the importance of involving readers directly in the work and including a chorus, “meaning the community or the reader at large, commenting on the action,” and always an ancestor-figure as a guide. She believes that a historical connection is essential for awareness. “When you kill the ancestor you kill yourself,” she has written.

Song of Solomon includes numerous references to civil rights figures of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi, and the four girls who died in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church are specifically mentioned, as are Malcolm X and Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. Morrison believes strongly that “black people have a story, and that story has to be heard.” Morrison’s receipt of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature provided clear evidence that “that story” was being heard—and appreciated—around the world.