Toni Morrison

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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.


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.


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.

(This entire section contains 1143 words.)

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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."

Principal Works

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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 Morrison] (juvenilia) 2003

Primary Sources

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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 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 words. Anita Hill’s description of Thomas’s behavior toward her did not ignite a careful search for the truth; her testimony simply produced an exchange of racial tropes. Now it was he, the nominee, who was in danger of moving from “natural servant” to “savage demon,” and the force of the balance of the confirmation process was to reorder these signifying fictions. Is he lying or is she? Is he the benevolent one and she the insane one? Or is he the date raper, sexual assaulter, the illicit sexual signal, and she the docile, loyal servant? Those two major fictions, either/or, were blasted and tilted by a factual thing masquerading as a true thing: lynching. Being a fact of both white history and black life, lynching is also the metaphor of itself. While the mythologies about black personae debauched the confirmation process for all time, the history of black life was appropriated to elevate it.

An accusation of such weight as sexual misconduct would probably have disqualified a white candidate on its face. Rather than any need for “proof,” the slightest possibility that it was publicly verifiable would have nullified the candidacy, forced the committee members to insist on another nominee rather than entertain the necessity for public debate on so loathsome a charge. But in a racialized and race-conscious society, standards are changed, facts marginalized, repressed, and the willingness to air such charges, actually to debate them, outweighed the seemliness of a substantive hearing because the actors were black. Rather than claiming how certain feminist interests forced the confrontation, rather than editorializing about how reluctant the committee members were to investigate Anita Hill’s charges publicly and how humiliated they were in doing so, it seems blazingly clear that with this unprecedented opportunity to hover over and to cluck at, to meditate and ponder the limits and excesses of black bodies, no other strategies were going to be entertained. There would be no recommendation of withdrawal by sponsor, president, senators,or anybody. No request for or insistence that the executive branch propose another name so that such volatile issues could be taken up in a forum more suitable to their airing, and possibly receive an open and just decision. No. The participants were black, so what could it matter? The participants were black and therefore “known,” serviceable, expendable in the interests of limning out one or the other of two mutually antagonistic fabulations. Under the pressure of voyeuristic desire, fueled by mythologies that render blacks publicly serviceable instruments of private dread and longing, extraordinary behavior on the part of the state could take place. Anita Hill’s witnesses, credible and persuasive as they were, could be dismissed, as one “reporter” said, apparently without shame, because they were too intellectual to be believed(!). Under the pressure of racist mythologies, loyal staff (all female) had more weight than disinterested observers or publicly available documentation. Under such pressure the chairman of the committee could apply criminal court procedure to a confirmation hearing and assure the candidate that the assumption of innocence lay with the nominee. As though innocence—rather than malfeasance or ethical character or fitness to serve—was the charge against which they struggled to judge the judge. As though a rhetorical “I am not a crook” had anything at all to do with the heavy responsibility the committee was under.

Would such accusations have elicited such outsize defense mechanisms if the candidate had been white? Would the committee and many interest groups have considered the suitability of a white candidate untainted by these accusations? Hardly, but with a black candidate, already stained by the figurations of blackness as sexual aggressiveness or rapaciousness or impotence, the stain need only be proved reasonably doubted, which is to say, if he is black, how can you tell if that really is a stain? Which is also to say, blackness is itself a stain, and therefore unstainable. Which is also to say, if he is black and about to ascend to the Supreme Court bench, if the bench is to become stain-free, this newest judge must be bleached, race-free, as his speeches and opinions illustrated. Allegations of sexual misconduct reraced him, which, in this administration, meant, restained him, dirtied him. Therefore the “dirt” that clung to him following those allegations, “dirt” he spoke of repeatedly, must be shown to have originated elsewhere. In this case the search for the racial stain turned on Anita Hill. Her character. Her motives. Not his.

Clarence Thomas has gone through the nomination process before, and in that connection has been investigated by the FBI before. Nothing is not known about him. And the senators know that nothing about him is not known. But what is known and what is useful to be distributed as knowledge are different things. In these hearings data, not to mention knowledge, had no place. The deliberations became a contest and the point was to win. At stake always was a court: stacked or balanced; irreproachable in its ethical and judicial standards or malleable and compliant in its political agenda; alert to and mindful of the real lives most of us live, as these lives are measured by the good of the republic, or a court that is aloof, delusional, indifferent to any mandate, popular or unpopular, if it is not first vetted by the executive branch.

As in virtually all of this nation’s great debates, nonwhites and women figure powerfully, although their presence may be disguised, denied, or obliterated. So it is perhaps predictable that this instance—where serious issues of male prerogative and sexual assault, the issues of racial justice and racial redress, the problematics of governing and controlling women’s bodies, the alterations of work space into (sexually) domesticated space—be subsumed into the debate over the candidacy for the Supreme Court. That these issues be worked out, on, and inscribed upon the canvas/flesh of black people should come as no surprise to anyone.

The contempt emanating from the White House was palpable—it was not necessary for the candidate to be a first-rate legal scholar (as it had not been necessary for other candidates). Nor was it necessary that he have demonstrated a particular sensitivity to the issues and concerns of a race he belonged to but which “had no bearing” on his selection to fill a seat vacated by the single Supreme Court Justice who both belonged to and did represent the interests of that race. The “race” that “had no bearing” on the president’s choice could nevertheless be counted on to support the nominee, since “skin voting” would overwhelm every other consideration. This riskless gamble held almost perfect sway. Many blacks were struck mute by the embarrassing position of agreeing with Klansmen and their sympathizers; others leaped to the defense of the candidate on the grounds that he was “no worse than X,” or that any white candidate would be a throwback, or that “who knows what he might do or become in those hallowed halls?” Who knows? Well, his nominators did know, and they were correct, as even the earliest action Clarence Thomas has taken in the cases coming before the court confirms.

Appropriate also was the small, secret swearing-in ceremony once the candidate was confirmed. For secrecy had operated from the beginning. Not only the dismissed and suppressed charges against the candidate, but also deeper, more ancient secrets of males bonding and the demonizing of females who contradict them.

In addition to race, class surfaced in both predictable and unexpected ways. Predictably, the nominee was required to shuck: to convince white men in power that operating a trucking business was lowly work in a Georgia where most blacks would have blessed dirt for such work. It wasn’t a hard shuck. Because race and class—that is, black equals poor—is an equation that functions usefully if unexamined, it is possible to advance exclusionary and elitist programs by the careful use of race as class. It is still possible to cash in on black victimhood (the pain of being a poor innocent black boy), to claim victim status (Thomas called himself a victim of a process he of all people knew was designed to examine a candidate’s worth), and to deplore the practice in others all at the same time. It is still possible to say “My father was a doorman” (meaning servant, meaning poor) and get the sympathy of whites who cannot or will not do the arithmetic needed to know the difference between the earnings of a Washington, D.C., doorman and those of a clerk at the census bureau.

In addition to class transformations, there was on display race transcendence. The nominee could be understood as having realized his yearning for and commitment to “racelessness” by having a white spouse at his side. At least their love, we are encouraged to conclude, had transcended race, and this matrimonial love had been more than ecstasy and companionship—it had been for Virginia Thomas an important education on how to feel and think about black people. The People magazine lead story, taken with a straight face, proved their devotion, their racelessness, which we already recognized because he shook her hand in public on three occasions. And it was envy of this racially ideal union that was one of the reasons Thomas came up with in trying to explain Anita Hill’s charges. Professor Hill, he seemed to be suggesting, harbored reactionary, race-bound opinions about interracial love which, as everybody knows, can drive a black woman insane and cause her to say wild, incredible things. Expectedly, the nominee called for a transcendence of race, remarked repeatedly on its divisive nature, its costliness, its undeniable degradation of principles of freedom. Unexpectedly, however, race surfaced on the very site of its interment. And it was hard not to murmur “Freddy’s back” as the specter of this living corpse broke free of its hastily dug grave. But this resurrection was buoyed and winged by the fact of its gender component. If the forward face of the not-dead was racism, its backward face was sexism. The confirmation procedure held my attention partly because the shape it took, in an effort to hold its explosive contents, was unique—the twists and turns of the public debate and its manipulation, the responses of the senators on the committee. Yet what riveted my attention most during the hearings was not its strangeness but rather its familiarity. The sense that underneath the acrylic in which the political discourse was painted were the outlines of figures so old and so stable as to appear natural, not drawn or man-made at all.

It was trying to penetrate the brilliant, distracting color in which the political argument was painted in order to locate the outlines that informed the argument that led me to focus on the day of the week that both Anita Hill’s testimony and Clarence Thomas’s response to that testimony were aired. And to select out of all that each said on that day the themes that to me appeared salient: Anita Hill’s inability to remain silent; Clarence Thomas’s claims to being victimized. Silence and victimization. Broken silence and built victimization. Speech and bondage. Disobedient speech and the chosen association of bondage. On, and … Friday.

On a Friday, Anita Hill graphically articulated points in her accusation of sexual misconduct. On the same Friday Clarence Thomas answered, in a manner of speaking, those charges. And it was on a Friday in 1709 when Alexander Selkirk found an “almost drowned Indian” on the shore of an island upon which he had been shipwrecked. Ten years later Selkirk’s story would be immortalized by Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe. There the Indian becomes a “savage cannibal”—black, barbarous, stupid, servile, adoring—and although nothing is reported of his sexual behavior, he has an acquired taste for the flesh of his own species. Crusoe’s narrative is a success story, one in which a socially, culturally, and biologically handicapped black man is civilized and Christianized—taught, in other words, to be like a white one. From Friday’s point of view it is a success story as well. Not only is he alive; he is greatly enabled by his association with his savior. And it should not go unremarked that Crusoe is also greatly enabled— including having his own life saved—by Friday. Yet like all successes, what is earned is mitigated by what one has lost.

If we look at the story from Friday’s point of view rather than Crusoe’s, it becomes clear that Friday had a very complex problem. By sheer luck he had escaped death, annihilation, anonymity, and engulfment by enemies within his own culture. By great and astonishing good fortune he had been rescued. The gift of his own life was so unexpected, so welcome, he felt he could regulate the debt only by offering that life to his rescuer, by making the gift exchange literal. But he had a problem.

Before he appeared on the shore, his rescuer, Crusoe, had heard no other voice except a parrot’s trained to say his owner’s name—Robin, for short. Crusoe wanted to hear it again. For over twenty years he had had only himself for company, and although he has conquered nature and marked time, no human calls his name, acknowledges his presence or his authority. Lucky for him he discovers a refugee escaping certain slaughter. Once rescue has been effected, Crusoe is in a position to have more than unopposed dominion; now he is able to acquire status, to demonstrate and confirm his superiority. So important is status in Crusoe’s self-regard he does not ask the refugee what his name is; instead, Crusoe names him. Nor does he tell the refugee his own name; instead, he teaches him the three words that for months will do just fine: “master,” “yes,” and “no.”

Friday’s real problem, however, was not to learn the language of repetition, easily, like the parrot, but to learn to internalize it. For longer than necessary the first words he is taught, first “master,” then “yes” or “no,” remain all he is permitted to say. During the time in which he knows no other English, one has to assume he thinks in his own language, cogitates in it, explains stimuli and phenomena in the language he was born to. But Crusoe’s account suggests otherwise, suggests that before his rescue Friday had no language, and even if he did, there was nothing to say in it. After a year Friday is taught some English vocabulary and the grammar to hold it. “This was the pleasantest year of all the life I led in this place; Friday began to talk pretty well, and understand the names of almost everything I had occasion to call for, and of every place I had to send him to, and talked a great deal to me. . . .”

Had he expected that the life he offered Crusoe would include not just his services, his loyalty, his devotion, but also his language as well? Did he ever wonder why Crusoe did not want to learn his language? Or why he could never speak his master’s name? In the absence of his master’s desire to speak his tongue, did Friday forget completely the language he dreamed in? Think no more of the home he fled before the weapons of those who had conquered and occupied it? On the two or three occasions when Crusoe is curious enough to ask Friday a question about the black man’s feelings, the answers are surprising. Yes, he longs for his home. Yes, it is beautiful on his island. Yes, he will refrain from eating human flesh. Yes, if he has the opportunity, he will teach his tribe to eat bread, cattle, and milk instead. (If Crusoe’s assumption that Friday’s people eat only each other were true, the practice would have decimated them long ago, but no matter—the white man teaches food habits; the black man learns them.) But no, he will not return to his home alone; he will go only if Crusoe accompanies him. So far, Friday can be understood to engage in dialogue with his master, however limited. Eventually, he learns more: he moves from speaking with to thinking as Crusoe.

The problem of internalizing the master’s tongue is the problem of the rescued. Unlike the problems of survivors who may be lucky, fated, etc., the rescued have the problem of debt. If the rescuer gives you back your life, he shares in that life. But, as in Friday’s case, if the rescuer saves your life by taking you away from the dangers, the complications, the confusion of home, he may very well expect the debt to be paid in full. Not “Go your own way and sin no more.” Not “Here, take this boat and find your own adventure, in or out of your own tribe.” But full payment, forever. Because the rescuer wants to hear his name, not mimicked but adored. This is a serious problem for Friday and gets more complicated the more one thinks about it.

Friday has left and been rescued from not only the culture that threatened him, that wants to kill and engulf him, but also from the culture that loves him. That too he has left behind forever.

Even when he discovers his own father, half dead, in precisely the danger he himself had been in when Crusoe saved his life, his joy is not so reckless as to quarrel with the menial labor he and his father are directed to do, while an also-rescued Spaniard, who has lived among Friday’s tribe for years, is given supervisory responsibilities. Nor is his joy so great that he speaks to his father in their mutual tongue for both their delight. Instead, he translates for Crusoe what his father says.

This loss of the mother tongue seems not to disturb Friday, even though he never completely learns the master’s. He negotiates a space somewhere in between. He develops a serviceable grammar that will never be eloquent; he learns to shout warnings of advancing, also black, enemies, but he can never dare speak to these enemies as his master does. Without a mother tongue, without the language of his original culture, all he can do is recognize his old enemies and, when ordered, kill them. Finally, Friday no longer negotiates space between his own language and Crusoe’s. Finally, the uses of Crusoe’s language, if not its grammar, become his own. The internalization is complete.

In one of the incidents that occur on the island, a band of Spanish mutineers come ashore, holding their captain prisoner. Crusoe and Friday liberate the captain and consider how to dispose of the criminals. Some of the mutineers are singled out by their captain as villains; others are identified as being forced into mutiny. So some are spared, others slaughtered. This discrimination is never applied to Friday’s people. With one exception, an old man tied and bound for execution, all of the blacks Friday and Crusoe see are killed or wounded (most of whom, in Crusoe’s tallying of the dead, Friday kills). The exception, who turns out to be Friday’s father, is not given a name nor, as with his son Friday, is one solicited from him. He becomes part of Crusoe’s team, called upon and relied on for all kinds of service. He is sent back to his island on an errand with the Spaniard. The Spaniard returns, Friday’s father does not, but most curiously, once his services are no longer needed, there is no mention of him again—by the master or the son. While he was among them, and after he has gone, he is called by Robinson Crusoe “the old savage.” We still do not know his name.

Voluntary entrance into another culture, voluntary sharing of more than one culture, has certain satisfactions to mitigate the problems that may ensue. But being rescued into an adversarial culture can carry a huge debt. The debt one feels one owes to the rescuer can be paid, simply, honorably, in lifetime service. But if in that transaction the rescued loses his idiom, the language of his culture, there may be other debts outstanding. Leon Higginbotham has charted the debt Clarence Thomas owes the culture that fought for and protected him before he arrived out of a turbulent social sea onto the shore of political patronage. In that sea Thomas was teased and humiliated by his own people, called ABC, American’s Blackest Child. He was chastened for wanting an education superior to theirs. He was also loved and nurtured by them. As in any and everybody’s background, family, culture, race, and region, there are persecutors and providers, kindness and loathing. No culture ever quite measures up to our expectations of it without a generous dose of romanticism, self-delusion, or simple compassion. Sometimes it seems easier, emotionally and professionally, to deny it, ignore it, erase it, even destroy it. And if the language of one’s culture is lost or surrendered, one may be forced to describe that culture in the language of the rescuing one. In that way one could feel compelled to dismiss African-American culture by substituting the phrase “culture of the victim” for the critique and redress of systemic racism. Minus one’s own idiom it is possible to cry and decry victimization, loathing it when it appears in the discourses of one’s own people, but summoning it up for one’s expediently deracialized self. It becomes easy to confuse the metaphors embedded in the blood language of one’s own culture with the objects they stand for and to call patronizing, coddling, undemanding, rescuing, complicitous white racists a lynch mob. Under such circumstances it is not just easy to speak the master’s language, it is necessary. One is obliged to cooperate in the misuse of figurative language, in the reinforcement of cliché, the erasure of difference, the jargon of justice, the evasion of logic, the denial of history, the crowning of patriarchy, the inscription of hegemony; to be complicit in the vandalizing, sentimentalizing, and trivialization of the torture black people have suffered. Such rhetorical strategies become necessary because, without one’s own idiom, there is no other language to speak.

Both Friday and Clarence Thomas accompany their rescuers into the world of power and salvation. But the problem of rescue still exists: both men, black but unrecognizable at home or away, are condemned first to mimic, then to internalize and adore, but never to utter one single sentence understood to be beneficial to their original culture, whether the people of their culture are those who wanted to hurt them or those who loved them to death.

Clarence Thomas once quoted someone who said that dwelling on the horrors of racism invited one of two choices: vengeance or prosperity. He argued for a third choice: “to appeal to that which is good.” He did not elaborate on which he had chosen, finally, but the language he speaks, the actions he takes, the Supreme Court decisions he has made or aligned himself with, the foot, as it were, that he has picked up and placed on his head, give us some indication of what his choice has been. The footprint in the sand that so worried Crusoe’s nights, that compelled him to build a fortress, and then another to protect his new world order, disappears from his nightmares once Friday embraces, then internalizes, his master’s voice and can follow the master’s agenda with passion.

It is hard not to think of these events in any way but as unfortunate. And it is difficult to convince anybody that what happened is over— without serious consequences. For those who looked forward eagerly to Thomas’s confirmation, the expectation of a reliably conservative court may be reassuring. Time will have the most to say about that. For those who believe the future of the nation as a democracy is imperiled by this most recent addition to the bench, again, time will speak rather definitively. Yet regardless of political alliances, something positive and liberating has already surfaced. In matters of race and gender, it is now possible and necessary, as it seemed never to have been before, to speak about these matters without the barriers, the silences, the embarrassing gaps in discourse. It is clear to the most reductionist intellect that black people think differently from one another; it is also clear that the time for undiscriminating racial unity has passed. A conversation, a serious exchange between black men and women, has begun in a new arena, and the contestants defy the mold. Nor is it as easy as it used to be to split along racial lines, as the alliances and coalitions between white and black women, and the conflicts among black women, and among black men, during the intense debates regarding Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas’s appointment prove.

This volume is one of the several beginnings of these new conversations in which issues and arguments are taken as seriously as they are. Only through thoughtful, incisive, and far-ranging dialogue will all of us be able to appraise and benefit from Friday’s dilemma.

General Commentary

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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.

—Toni Morrison

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

—Raymond Williams

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 cracked open the novel to observe more intimately the secular processes of fragmentation and madness. After them, Morrison takes the novel home to the intimate address of the rural and urban African American tradition from which she came, back to the blues with its longstanding tradition of voicing pain, registering complaint and comfort. The unrelenting lyrical pressure of her prose aims to unsettle as well as to heal. It charges us with nothing less than the charge of history; her characters, though seldom in powerful social positions, command their desires in an outlawed agency that puts into crisis the law of the land and the judgment of the witnessing jury of readers.

A powerful catalyst for Morrison’s work—one so ubiquitous it can escape notice—is what Howard Winant calls the “pervasive crisis of race” facing the contemporary United States: “a crisis no less severe than those of the past. The origins of the crisis are not particularly obscure: the cultural and political meaning of race, its significance in shaping the social structure, and its experiential or existential dimensions all remain profoundly unresolved as the United States approaches the end of the twentieth century. As a result, the society as a whole and the population as individuals suffer from confusion and anxiety about the issue (or complex of issues) we call race.” Morrison has increasingly committed herself to addressing issues of race outside her own fiction. Her unpublished drama Dreaming Emmett, produced in 1985 to “commemorate the first celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday,” was written in response to the 1955 racist killing in Mississippi of a fourteen-year-old black boy named Emmett Till; the play was “intended to symbolize the plight of contemporary black urban youth—their disproportionately high rate of death by violence.” In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a work of literary criticism, Toni Morrison undertakes the task of showing that “Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness—from its origins on through its integrated or disintegrated twentieth-century self.” In the national canonical literature, Morrison discovers “a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.” Playing in the Dark thus brings to light the various roles played by “the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy” in the construction of whiteness in the nation’s literary imagination.1

In assessing the phenomenon of Toni Morrison, we need to keep in mind “the pressures and limits of the social relationships on which as a producer, the author depends”—what Raymond Williams calls “the political economy of writing.” We need to take into account the demand for and the reception of writings by black women following the civil rights movement. The contemporary literary renaissance started in 1965 with Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and took off in 1970 with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Toni Cade’s edition of The Black Woman, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed a remarkable efflorescence. Toni Morrison herself has played an active role in promoting black voices. As editor at Random House, she ensured that black writers would find a receptive space in publishing, that the integrity of their voices would not be compromised by the imposition of alien standards. A host of important black publications (by authors such as Mohammed Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones) have received Morrison’s encouragement. It is important to note that this profusion of creative expression has been aided by a “community of cultural workers” that includes black feminist critics and teachers of literature whose receptive work shows, in Hortense Spillers’ words, that “traditions are not born. They are made.” A tradition “arises not only because there are writers there to make it, but also because there is a strategic audience of heightened consciousness prepared to read and interpret the work as such.” Unlike their literary foremothers, writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had sturdy black bridges already made for them. Their works paralleled the energy generated by the black cultural and political mobilization of the 1960s and 1970s and the black feminist resurgence of the 1980s. In what is now a landmark essay, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” Barbara Smith writes, “A viable, autonomous black feminist movement in this country would open up the space needed for the exploration of black women’s lives and the creation of consciously black woman-identified art.”2

Toni Morrison’s feminism partakes of the black cultural resistance to liberal white feminism. In “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib, ” she notes that the different histories, and therefore agendas, of white and black women are made apparent in bathroom signs designating “White Ladies” and “Colored Women.” Morrison refers to the conflictual power relationship between the white lady and the colored woman in several of her works: in the relationship between Pauline Breedlove and Mrs. Fisher in The Bluest Eye ; First Corinthians and her poet-mistress Michael Mary Graham in Song of Solomon ; Ondine and her young mistress Margaret in Tar Baby ; Sethe and her owner, Mrs. Garner, in Beloved ; Vera Louise and True Belle in Jazz. Alice Walker joins Morrison in disclaiming bourgeois white feminism by claiming under the name womanist a feminism appropriate to the historical experience and needs of black women.3 While a black feminist point of view is clearly evident in Toni Morrison’s work, it is always contextual and relational, articulated with respect to issues of class and community. While the white-identified individualism of her male and female bourgeois characters is historicized and located within social relations of power and desire, narrative affect is usually on the side of those who are subordinated to bourgeois power.

Historically, the novel is an art form pertaining to the interests and values of the middle class. Morrison says her writing “bears witness” for a middle-class black audience: “I agree with John Berger that peasants don’t write novels because they don’t need them. They have a portrait of themselves from gossip, tales, music, and some celebrations. That is enough.… Now my people, we ’peasants,’ have come to the city, that is to say, we live with its values. There is a confrontation between old values of the tribes and new urban values. It’s confusing.” In another interview Morrison returns to this theme: “when the peasant class, or lower class, or what have you, confronts the middle class, the city, or the upper classes, they are thrown a little bit into disarray.” Toni Morrison’s novels tend the gap between emergent middle-class black America and its subaltern origins: she has called her work “peasant literature for my people.” Susan Willis situates black women’s writing, Morrison’s included, in the historical transition from an agrarian to an urban society. She makes the important point that “migration to the North signifies more than a confrontation with (and contamination by) the white world. It implies a transition in social class.” Morrison is a writer with a firm grasp of the lived dynamics of class experience, a subject that has received less critical attention by feminist scholars than the issue of gender. Drawing on experiences as varied as those of her grandparents’ southern rural life to her parents’ small-town existence in the Midwest to her own life, which includes the cosmopolitan ethos of New York City, Morrison is able to command in her fiction a century’s experience of change affecting African Americans. Wilfred Sheed’s observation of Morrison’s range of understanding is apt: “Most black writers are privy, like the rest of us, to bits and pieces of the secret, the dark side of their group experience, but Toni Morrison uniquely seems to have all the keys on her chain, like a house detective.… She [has] the run of the whole place, from ghetto to small town to ramshackle farmhouse, to bring back a panorama of black myth and reality that [dazzles] the senses.”4

Morrison’s novels may be read as anti-Bildung projects that subvert dominant middle-class ideology. The Bluest Eye, an indictment of racism, is also a stinging critique of an educated class of blacks who, in order to avail themselves of the bourgeois privileges of a capitalist economy, have made “individuals” of themselves. The three uneducated whores shunned by the town’s respectable folk are presented more favorably than the educated Geraldine and Soaphead Church, whose complicity earns authorial contempt even as it requires our understanding. In Sula, the middle-class, color-conscious Helene Wright is treated with much less affection than the lesser-privileged Eva and Hannah Peace. Song of Solomon ’s Milkman Dead, an individualist raised and trapped in the self-centered, bourgeois world of the middle-class nuclear family, has to be rescued from under the myopic vision of his genteel mother and petit-bourgeois father. The rescue is effected by his Aunt Pilate, a peasant woman who even in her isolation and marginality is endowed with formidable strength arising from her nonbourgeois identity. Tar Baby inscribes a greater sympathy for the vagabond son of the soil, Son Green, than for the upper-middle-class individualist, Jadine Childs. In an interview in 1981, Morrison shed light on the authorial resentment of Jadine: “There is a new, capitalistic, modern American black which is what everybody thought was the ultimate in integration. To produce Jadine, that’s what it was for. I think there is some danger in the result of that production.”5 In Jazz, Joe Trace is not the New Negro of Alain Locke and the talented tenth of the Harlem Renaissance. The New Negro is the migrant peasant who died so many times he could not help being made new.

Thus an identity claimed by the privileged few—the educated cosmopolitan elite—is problematized and revised from the perspective of those who had no access to the bourgeois modes of self-making.

In an interview Morrison said that “black people have always been used as a buffer in this country between powers to prevent class war, to prevent other kinds of real conflagrations”:

If there were no black people here in this country, it would have been Balkanized. The immigrants would have torn each other’s throats out, as they have done everywhere else. But in becoming an American, from Europe, what one has in common with that other immigrant is contempt for me— it’s nothing less but color. Wherever they were from, they would stand together. They could all say, “I am not that.” So in that sense, becoming an American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me…. It wasn’t negative to them—it was unifying. When they got off the boat, the second word they learned was “nigger.”… Every immigrant knew he would not come at the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group— and that was us.

However, the idea that others have constructed their unity through being nonblack does not imply that being black, in turn, promotes unity. In fact, the colonial policy of racialization (in which color lines organized class hierarchy) did not facilitate the formation of a collectivity. The very idea of collectivity is something that must be imagined or created, the divisions historicized and understood; it must be narrated or performed. As Benedict Anderson observed, this collective self-composition is the creative project of nationalism. In the case of Afro-America, where nationalism has literally no ground of its own, the project of nationalism or counternationalism becomes of necessity a cultural one. As Wahneema Lubiano notes, the question of black nationhood implies “the activation of a narrative of identity and interest” against the history of the U. S. state; it is a discourse that “functions as a defense against cultural imperialism.”6

Internationally, Toni Morrison is part of a growing body of contemporary writers who are responding to imperatives of cultural critique, reclamation, and redefinition—imperatives broadly termed postcolonial. Helen Tiffin defines the “dis/mantling, de/mystification and unmasking of European authority” along with the endeavour to “define a denied or outlawed self” as one of the main decolonizing endeavors of postcolonial literatures. N’gugi defines decolonization as a “quest for relevance” wherein the emphasis is interior, directed toward postcolonial society rather than outwardly toward the colonizer. Morrison’s creative project has an affinity with the work of decolonization undertaken by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. Although they are very different writers, note what Achebe considers “an adequate revolution for [him] to espouse” in his writing: “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement. And it is essentially a question of education, in the best sense of the world. Here, I think my aims and the deepest aspirations of my society meet. For no thinking African can escape the pain of the wound in our soul.”7

In her essay “Subaltern Studies in a U. S. Frame,” Eva Cherniavsky notes that “a postcolonial approach to U. S. history and culture would speak to the contradictions of a naturalized/ nationalized colonial domination,” one that “systematically displaces both indigenous peoples and nonwhite labor from the social and symbolic territory of the consensual Euro-American state.”8 Just as the wealth and labor of the colonies consolidated the identity of Western Europe, so the colonized land of Native Americans and the colonized labor of African Americans provided the early cohesion of the nation of immigrants, a term that is itself part of an obfuscating nationalist vocabulary.

The term domestic (or internal) colonialism was developed by black historians in the 1960s and early 1970s to refer to the experience of black people in America. The theory of internal colonialism situates the African slave trade within the expansionist demands of Euro-American capitalism. According to Robert Allen, “the most profound conclusion to be drawn from a survey of the black experience in America [is] to consider Black America as a semi-colony.” Social critic Harold Cruse explains it thus: “The only factor which differentiates the Negro’s status from that of a pure colonial status is that his position is maintained in the ’home’ country in close proximity to the dominant racial group.” Black feminist scholars such as Hazel Carby, Patricia Hill Collins, and Angela Davis have documented the various ways in which black women served the model of white womanhood by filling the role of the “self-consolidating Other” (Gayatri Spivak’s succinct phrase). In a similar vein, Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark examines the national shadow play wherein an unacknowledged blackness inheres in and constitutes white identity and unity, and spurs the anxiety that underlies the accomplished national persona of a “new white man” in the writings of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Poe, and others.9 In the tradition of postcolonial writing and criticism, Morrison rewrites the nation from a perspective committed to what has been excised. Her novels mean to revise dominant historiography, reconsidering the scene of colonial violation from the inside, from subaltern perspectives hitherto ignored.

Morrison’s literary project involves confronting the national chasms of race, class, and gender as they are lived by individuals. A cursory glance at some of the epigraphs of her novels clarifies the nature of the problems Morrison tackles in her work. The epigraph of Song of Solomon pursues the subject of liberating a suppressed identity: “The fathers may soar / And the children may know their names,” and that of Tar Baby acknowledges the difficulty of a postcolonial solidarity: “For it hath been declared / unto me of you, my brethren … that there are contentions among you.” Solidarity can best be established on the collective ground of past oppression, as evident in both the dedication of Beloved, for “Sixty Million / and more,” and its epigraph, “I will call them my people, / which were not my people; / and her beloved, / which was not beloved.” As the epigraph to Jazz indicates, Morrison’s novels may be read as a designation of divisions and a prodigious attempt to historicize them. Satya Mohanty’s comment about Beloved illuminates what is at stake in a postcolonial return to the archives: “[Beloved ] is one of the most challenging of postcolonial texts because it indicates the extent to which the search for a genuinely noncolonial moral and cultural identity depends on a revisionary historiography. We cannot really claim ourselves morally or politically until we have reconstructed our collective identity, reexamined our dead and our disremembered. The project is not simply one of adding to one’s ancestral line, for … it involves fundamental discoveries about what ancestry is, what continuity consists in, how cultural meanings do not just sustain themselves through history but are in fact materially embodied and fought for.” Beloved allows us to see that a revisionary postcolonial historiography must also be feminist. As Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid have insisted, it must “acknowledg[e] that each aspect of reality is gendered,” and that it “may be feminist without being, exclusively, women’s history.”10

For Morrison, language implies agency—“an act with consequences.” The first sentence of Morrison’s Nobel speech addressed to the members of the Swedish academy is, “Ladies and Gentlemen: Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me.”11 Given the context of cultural and political domination, we can appreciate why storytelling assumes such a critical function in both African American and Native American literature, why in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony we are told:

[Stories] aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled.

You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.

As Raymond Williams argues, literature is part of “a whole social process, which, as it is lived, is not only process but is an active history, made up of the realities of formation and of struggle.”12 Toni Morrison’s contemporary fiction self-consciously takes its place in the continuum of sociopolitical struggle that has historically characterized African American experience.

In their discussion of Kafka’s writing, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari coin the term minor literature to denote “that which a minority constructs out of a major language.” Far from denoting a diminutive function, it is “the glory” of minor literature “to be the revolutionary force for all literature.” In its salient features they see the conditions of all revolutionary literature: “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation.”13 Deleuze and Guattari’s assertions invite testing in relation to the works of Toni Morrison, who constructs her African American literary worlds out of the major language of English, just as Kafka, a Czech Jew, deterritorialized high German.

Morrison certainly deterritorializes the English language. Entering the bourgeois aesthetic field of the Anglo-American novel, Morrison appropriates classical and biblical myths and the canonical writings of high modernism and places them in the matrix of black culture. In this she is supported by the long vernacular tradition of work songs, spirituals, and blues that had already appropriated the Bible and renamed the Israelites as the people chosen from Africa. Morrison’s own practice of naming not only deterritorializes Anglo-European usage, it signifies on its history— consider the biblical names in Song of Solomon, or Jazz with its southern towns of Wordsworth, Troy, Vienna, and Rome. What makes this appropriation so impressive is the claim made on the unyielding land by African American desire— the force that breaks through the liminality of a history of suffering, enlarging the space of marginality until it opens out into the entire field of history on its own terms.

A second characteristic that marks minor literatures is that “everything in them is political. In major literatures, in contrast, the individual concern (familial, marital, and so on) joins with other no less individual concerns, the social milieu serving as a mere environment or a background…. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. The individual concern thus becomes all the more necessary, indispensable, because a whole other story is vibrating within it.”14 Minor literature, in other words, constructs a different discourse, whose burden is to challenge dominant ideologies and representations by claiming an alternative epistemological and ethical space. The social milieu cannot serve as a mere background—and it never does in Morrison’s work—because what is at stake in minor literature is precisely the reconstitution of an untenable social milieu; it aims to reorient the reader’s relationship to an existing reality by foregrounding the environment.

A third feature Deleuze and Guattari observe in minor literatures is that “everything takes on a collective value.” Because collective consciousness is not operant “in external life,” or “the conditions of a collective enunciation” are absent, “literature finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation”: “it is literature that produces an active solidarity in spite of skepticism and if the writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, this situation allows the writer all the more the possibility to express another possible community and to forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility.”15 In novels such as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, and Jazz, a localized individual concern—Pecola’s problem, Sula’s heresy, Sethe’s haunting, Joe and Violet’s violence—sets into motion a dialogic of memory in which the individual concern is decentered and becomes the enunciation of the collective.

A fourth significant characteristic of minor literature is that it makes language “vibrate with a new intensity” partly deriving from “terms that connote pain.” Deleuze and Guattari refer to “an intensive utilization [of language] that makes it take flight along creative lines of escape,” “us[ing] syntax in order to cry, to give a syntax to the cry.”16 One of the most remarkable elements of Morrison’s prose is the sensational or visceral evocation of pain; its power stems from the author’s ability to translate the experience of political inequities and wrongs with lyrical effect.

Toni Morrison’s fiction makes us reevaluate individuals via the complex sociopolitical history that bespeaks them. Her novels aim to redistribute the pressure of accountability from the axis of the individual to that of the collective. Her art draws its imperatives from personal and collective histories: the maternal and paternal inheritance of a working-class consciousness with southern roots; the black aesthetic movement of the 1960s with its reclamation of oral traditions of storytelling and folk music as authentic modes of cultural expression; the liberation narrative of black history itself. As an African American novelist within the American literary tradition, Morrison interrogates national identity and reconstructs social memory. It is a truism of contemporary understanding that public identity is the product of nationalism, whose work it is to link a people dispersed by difference to a common past. As historians such as Benedict Anderson have pointed out, this common past is not simply there to access but is made available by imagined or constructed narratives of the nation. However—and this is a central question Morrison’s work addresses—what happens to the identity of a group within a nation built upon its marginalization? Further, in what ways can a marginalized identity construct its own knowledge? What new modes of narration are required to voice its presence? It is not surprising that Toni Morrison’s literary project has affinities with the tasks of historiography. Writing the past, in historian Michael Roth’s words, “is one of the crucial vehicles for reconstructing or reimagining a community’s connections to its traditions. This is especially true for groups who have been excluded from the mainstream national histories that have dominated Western historiography, and who have suffered a weakening of group memory as part of their experience of modernity.”17

Morrison’s project of remembering must be appreciated in the context of the privatization of individual memory. As Michael Roth notes, “memory in modernity is seen less as a public, collective function than as a private, psychological faculty: it is imagined by philosophers and doctors from the eighteenth century on as being internal to each of us, at the core of the psychological self. We are what we remember…. But the psychologization of memory makes it extremely difficult for people to share the past, for them to have confidence that they have a collective connection to what has gone before.” In Morrison’s novels memory “becomes a locus of struggle over the boundary between the individual and the collective.” The novels exploit the idiosyncratic compositions of individual memory, the unique particularities of personal reminiscence, only to re-collect them in the frame of a larger, unfolding history. Michael Lambek and Paul Antze observed that “the rise of popular therapeutic discourse in North America has gone hand in hand with widespread political disengagement.” As they succinctly put it, “historical trauma is displaced by individual drama,” resulting in “a shift in moral focus from collective obligations to narratives of individual suffering.”18 Morrison means to reverse this pattern. As her various characters attest, their lives do not make sense outside history: the meaning of personal suffering is available only within a collective temporality.

The post-Faulknerian American novel is of a genre that allows for the detailed exploration of interiority—a hallmark of Morrison’s fiction, with its array of characters the reader comes to know with astonishing intimacy. In fact, Morrison’s appeal and achievement lies in her ability to create individuals, with all their idiosyncracies, while anchoring subjectivity in a collective history without which it would have little meaning. This achievement stems from an ideological position not readily available from the position of bourgeois individualism. As Kumkum Sangari notes, “Individuality is a truly connective definition—that which connects the subject to a collectivity—so that it is the richness of contextualization that sets off the notion of personal particularity and differentiates the individual, rather than the social collectivity itself as being subject to the unique perception of the bourgeois individual.” Morrison pays a great deal of attention to individual consciousness; we are made to see what constitutes a particular character’s subjectivity and what diminishes or augments the humanity of that character. But in that appraisal Morrison compels us to evaluate not just the individual but the entire complex sociopolitical history that constitutes the individual. What Toni Morrison said in 1976 of Gayl Jones’s first novel, Corregidora, is most applicable to her own work: what “accounts for the success” is “the weight of history working itself out in the life of one, two, three people: I mean a large idea, brought down small, and at home, which gives it a universality and a particularity which makes it extraordinary.”19

Morrison’s novels allow us to examine the quality of human relationships under the constraints of historical processes and social relations, in the context of a collective. The emphasis on the interiority of her characters, the acknowledgment and enactment of desire in all its unruly forms, becomes a way of countering the diminishing of the subordinated, alienated self. Morrison remarked in a television interview that people often say her characters appear larger than life; she countered that they are “as large as life, not larger. Life is large.”20 That individuals’ large desires remain unfulfilled or thwarted creates the ambience of loss—a loss that adds powerful affect to the critique of history.

Through the evocation of specific, historicized landscapes of loss and erosion, the reader is made to see in individual loss—usually incurred by exceeding social limits—the limitations of the socius. It is thus that emotions of loss become charged with the intelligence of a critique. By endowing pain—itself mute and inchoate and all too personal—with a narrative that is as intelligible as it is social, Morrison makes room for recovery that is at once cognitive and emotional, therapeutic and political. Loss is both historicized and mourned so that it acquires a collective force and a political understanding. Morrison’s fictive circles of sorrow invite readers to become conscious of the terrain of their lives, to re-cognize the terrain as not simply individual or personal but as thoroughly social, traversed by the claims of the past, occupied by conflicting ideologies of identity (class, gender, race, nationhood) that give rise to the boundaries of the self. In the novels, the place of the individual is de-isolated, the boundaries of the self shown to be permeated by the collective struggle of historical agents who live the long sentence of history by succumbing to (repeating), contesting, and remaking it.

Each novel charts a destruction recalled through the mnemonic prisms of multiple characters; the story of destruction and loss becomes a historical and political testimony that we as readers participate in as belated witnesses. As the story of loss is transferred to us, we become its interpreters, collaborating in the work of understanding. Each novel draws us into its circles of sorrow with the imperative to make sense; we do so by yielding our own knowledge of destruction and loss, by struggling alongside the characters. Unlike the healing transference between client and analyst in the consulting room—where the healing is private and concealed—the literary therapeutic narrative is social and collective, opening out into the politics of the world. The strategy of Morrison’s novels is always to make sense of the individual psyche and memory in wider social and political terms. As a chronicler of African American experience, Morrison’s contribution has been to create, in the face of public dissociation of a painful past, a space where the traumatic material may find a coherent articulation and a collective dimension. Her novels create a “public space of trauma,” a space Laurence Kirmayer defined as “provid[ing] a consensual reality and collective memory through which the fragments of personal memory can be assembled, reconstructed, and displayed with a tacit assumption of validity.” The construction of such a space is all the more urgent given “the failure of the world to bear witness.” “The social world fails to bear witness for many reasons. Even reparative accounts of the terrible things that happen to people (violations, traumas, losses) are warded off because of their capacity to to create vicarious fear and pain and because they constitute a threat to social and political arrangements.”21

The work of recovery in Morrison’s fiction entails not only the representation of a knowledge excised from dominant understanding, but also the healing from a history that has visited trauma upon its subjects. The function of collective memory in Toni Morrison’s work is political as well as therapeutic. As Roth notes, “In addition to establishing a we-group, claiming a legacy of oppression can enable individuals to work through the traumas of their collective and personal histories. The avoidance of a painful past or the failure to recognize its lasting effects often creates disabling patterns of behavior that only cause further pain.” As recent studies of trauma relating to the experience of Holocaust survivors have shown, healing depends on the validation of traumatic events. The traumatized do not heal under suppression (amnesia), although forgetting is a characteristic response to trauma. Trauma’s unconscious (pathological) mode of expression is to repeat itself, to reenact in a different guise what has never been redressed or represented. The survivor, in the words of Dori Laub, “is not truly in touch either with the core of his traumatic reality or with the fatedness of its reenactments, and thereby remains entrapped in both.” What frees the survivor from this entrapment entails the “therapeutic process … of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and essentially, of re-externalizing the event.” This is precisely what Toni Morrison does. Shoshana Felman’s remarks on literature as testimony clarify the relationships between narrative, history/trauma, and healing that are central to Morrison’s writing: “the task of the literary testimony is … to open up in that belated witness [the reader] … the imaginative capability of perceiving history—what is happening to others—in one’s own body, with the power of sight (of insight) usually afforded only by one’s own immediate physical involvement.”22 Toni Morrison’s highly visceral and sensuous prose effects this immediacy of experience.

Addressing the social changes taking place in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin observed that the useful “art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.” Contrasting the oral tradition of storytelling with the written one of the novel, Benjamin remarked that what is eminently present in the former and missing in the latter is the tale’s offering of counsel. For him, this move from oral to written is an organic process in which something is both lost and gained: “nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a ’symptom of decay,’ let alone a ’modern’ symptom. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.” Similarly, Morrison notes the demise of a grounding world view within urban African American communities dislocated from ancestral wisdom and communal forms of expression. A sense of responsibility and urgency characterizes Morrison’s comments: “for larger and larger numbers of black people, this sense of loss has grown, and the deeper the conviction that something valuable is slipping away from us, the more necessary it has become to find some way to hold on to the useful past without blocking off the possibilities of the future.” Present in Morrison’s expressed need to hold on to certain cultural forms of the past is a framework of cultural domination within which these cultural forms have played an oppositional role. Thus Morrison hopes to have her fiction accomplish/replace “what the music did for blacks”: “the music kept us alive, but it’s not enough anymore. My people are being devoured.”23

Morrison’s invocation of black music is significant, for it is related to a nonbourgeois consciousness not co-opted by the dominant culture. LeRoi Jones wrote that in the face of “the persistent calls to oblivion made by the mainstream of the society,” music “was the one vector out of African culture impossible to eradicate. It signified the existence of an Afro-American, and the existence of an Afro-American culture.” The musical consciousness was displaced as integration into white America compelled the marginalization of such cultural forms. Hence, for the middle class to have “gotten ’free’ of all the blues tradition” was to have been deprived of a vital sense of connection to the resistant traditions of the past. Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow is an eloquent and moving account of a black couple, the Johnsons, who had done just that—“gotten ’free’”—and found they had lost an integral part of themselves. The widowed Avey Johnson recalls the significance of the music that had been abandoned in their haste to leave behind a life of poverty and limitations: “Something vivid and affirming and charged with feeling had been present in the small rituals that had once shaped their lives…. Something in those small rites, an ethos they held in common, had reached back beyond her life and beyond Jay’s to join them to the vast unknown lineage that had made their being possible.” And this link, these connections, heard in the music and in the praisesongs, “had both protected them and put them in possession of a kind of power.” They spent their lives in pursuit of a different kind of power, one promised by assimilation, a house in the white suburbs; “running with the blinders on they had allowed that richness, protection and power to slip out.” Avey bitterly mourns the loss: “What kind of bargain had they struck?”24

Marshall’s Jay Johnson has much in common with Morrison’s Macon Dead, the patriarch in Song of Solomon who is driven to amass worldly goods with a compulsion born of the insecurity of dispossession. In a scene of nostalgic hearkening, Macon Dead stands hidden outside his sister Pilate’s home, his head pressed to the window, watching and listening as Pilate sings the blues with her daughter and granddaughter, Reba and Hagar. His distance from that setting becomes the measure of his own cultural and spiritual alienation. Hagar demonstrates what Morrison means when she claims, “the music kept us alive, but it’s not enough anymore.” Hagar is easy prey to an urban consumer culture, a world in which Pilate’s song is muted and her wisdom marginalized. Hence Morrison’s emphatic statement: “There has to be a mode to do what the music did for blacks.” Historically, these expressive cultural forms have been means of forging a collective black consciousness, of keeping alive an awareness of oppression and resistance, of soul force. In wanting her novels to perform the function of black music, Morrison intends her art to forge a historical consciousness, to embody and create a communal intersubjectivity.

In the following passage from The Bluest Eye, Morrison reveals something about her own craft: “The pieces of Cholly’s life could become coherent only in the head of a musician. Only those who talk their talk through the gold of curved metal, or in the touch of black and white rectangles and taut skins … would know how to connect the heart of a red water melon to the asafetida bag … to the fists of money to the lemonade in a mason jar … and come up with what all of that meant in joy, in pain, in anger, in love, and give it its final and pervading ache of freedom.” Words seek to accomplish the emotive-cognitive resonance belonging to music; what we audition in Morrison’s novels is the “pervading ache of freedom.” This ache accounts for what in Morrison’s prose might appear as linguistic extravagance. This pervading ache is “the insistent pressure of freedom as the absent horizon”—the point Kumkum Sangari made regarding Gabriel GarcíMáuez’s narratives, in which absent freedom is “precisely that which is made present and possible by its absence—the lives that people have never lived because of the lives they are forced to live or have chosen to live. That which is desired and that which exists, the sense of abundance and the sense of waste, are dialectically related.”25

In Toni Morrison’s art we witness the lyric gesture and force of a minor literature doing the difficult work of decolonization, demystification, and social redress within the dominant language. In attempting to account for the compelling power of this particular literature, I want to add the word soul, the dimension least theorized in literary criticism and more acknowledged in music. Toni Morrison is one of the most soulful literary soloists of our time. Explaining the “emotional substance” of jazz, Paul Berliner makes the following comment: “Part and parcel of originality and taste is a performance’s ’soul,’ its ’spirituality,’ its ’integrity of expression.’… Soulful performances embody such affective qualities as pathos, intensity, urgency, fire, and energy…. Musicians use the term energy both literally and figuratively. Just as it requires energy to produce and project sounds on musical instruments, it requires energy for performers to draw upon feelings as they infuse sounds with emotion. Moreover, the sound waves themselves comprise a form of energy that touches listeners physically, potentially also touching them emotionally.” Morrison inscribes her own awareness of the energetic properties of sound; consider these lines from Beloved : the singing “voices of women searched for the right combination, the key, the code, the sound that broke the back of words. Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees. It broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash.” The dimension of sound in language is potentially a musical or harmonic dimension, an ethereal register in which even the written voice can sing. Here, I can do no more than acknowledge that harmonic dimension in Toni Morrison’s prose; its source is the spiritual principle of liberation that animates her writing, a principle I have attempted to elucidate here in its historic, social, and political terms.26


1. Howard Winant, “Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States: Difference and Inequality,” Socialist Review (January–March, 1990), 121; Margaret Croyden, “Toni Morrison Tries Her Hand at Playwriting,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, ed. Danille Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson, Miss., 1994), 218, 220; Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 65, 117, 13.

2. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford, 1977), 193; Hortense J. Spillers, “Afterword: Cross-Currents, Discontinuities: Black Women’s Fiction,” Conjuring: Black Women’s Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Hortense Spillers and Marjorie Pryse (Bloomington, Ind., 1985), 250; Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” in Feminist Criticism and Social Change, ed. Judith Newton and Deborah Rosenfelt (New York, 1985), 4.

3. Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib,” New York Times Magazine, August 22, 1971, p. 15; Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York, 1983), xi.

4. Toni Morrison, “The Language Must Not Sweat,” Interview with Thomas LeClair in Conversations, 120, 121; Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers at Work, 1950-1980, ed. Mari Evans (Garden City, N.Y., 1984), 340; Susan Willis, Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (Madison, Wis., 1987), 83-109; Wilfred Sheed, “Improbable Assignment: Tar Baby,” Atlantic (April, 1981), 119.

5. Morrison, interview with Charles Ruas, in Conversations, 105.

6. Toni Morrison, qtd. in Bonnie Angelo, “The Pain of Being Black,” Time, May 22, 1989, p. 120; Wahneema Lubiano, in a paper on black cultural nationalism delivered at the Modern Language Association Convention (New York, 1992).

7. Helen Tiffin, “Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, XXIII (1988), 171; Thiongo, Decolonizing the Mind, 87; Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (New York, 1988), 44.

8. Eva Cherniavsky, “Subaltern Studies in a U. S. Frame,” Boundary 2, XXIII (1996), 85-110.

9. Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Garden City, N.Y., 1970), 2; Harold Cruse, Rebellion or Revolution? (New York, 1968), 76-77; Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, “Rani of Sirmur,” in Europe and Its Others: Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, July, 1984, ed. Francis Barker, et al. (2 vols.; Colchester, Eng., 1985), I, 130; Morrison, Playing in the Dark, passim.

10. Saty a Mohanty, “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition,” Cultural Critique, XXIV (Spring, 1993), 67; Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, qtd. in R. Radhakrishnan, “Nationalism, Gender, and the Narrative of Identity,” in Nationalisms and Sexualities, ed. Andrew Parker, Mary Russo, et al. (New York, 1992), 79.

11. Morrison, The Nobel Lecture.

12. Williams, Marxism and Literature, 210.

13. Deleuze and Guattari, Toward a Minor Literature, 16, 19, 18.

14. Ibid., 17.

15. Ibid., 17.

16. Ibid., 22, 26 (authors’ emphasis).

17. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, 1983); Michael Roth, The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma, and the Construction of History (New York, 1995), 10.

18. Roth, The Ironist’s Cage, 9; Paul Antze and Michael Lambek, eds. Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (New York, 1996), xx, xxiv.

19. Kumkum Sangari, “Politics of the Possible,” Cultural Critique, VII (Fall, 1987); Morrison, “Intimate Things in Place,” interview with Robert Stepto, in Conversations, 29.

20. Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison, an RM Arts Production, 1987.

21. Laurence Kirmayer, “Landscapes of Memory: Trauma, Narrative, and Dissociation,” in Tense Past, 190, 192.

22. Roth, The Ironist’s Cage, 10-11; Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. Shoshana Felman and Laub (New York, 1991), 69; Felman, “Camus’ The Plague, or a Monument to Witnessing,” in Testimony, 108.

23. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, 1968), 87; Toni Morrison, “Rediscovering Black History,” New York Times Magazine, August 11, 1974, p. 14; Morrison, “The Language Must Not Sweat,” 121.

24. LeRoi Jones, Blues People (New York, 1963), 131, 176; Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow (New York, 1983) 137, 139.

25. Sangari, “Politics of the Possible,” 176.

26. Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago, 1994) 255-56; Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York, 1987), 261.

Title Commentary

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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 Morrison has inscribed in her haunting novel.

The Bluest Eye can be read as a double Bildungsroman, in which Claudia's narrative of Bildung is deployed as a contrast to Pecola's.1 The idea of a "double Bildungsroman" is first suggested in Jerome Buckley's reading of The Mill on the Floss entitled "George Eliot—Double Life."2 Charlotte Goodman coins the term "male-female double Bildungsroman" for the developmental plot of a male-female pair.3 This double form, Goodman contends, is able to emphasize the way in which rigid gender roles restrict the full development of women and men alike (31). Susan Fraiman's model of "counternarratives" in the novel of development by British women writers further diverts from Goodman's androgynous vision and underscores the rifts and incongruities between the coveted male model of development and the female counter one. Central to both Goodman's and Fraiman's theoretical models is a critique of the gender dichotomy imposed by society.

In the fictional world of The Bluest Eye, however, Toni Morrison focuses instead on racial dichotomy. She weaves the contrasts and comparisons around a pair of black girls to highlight the compounding work of racism as well as sexism and classism on the Bildung of black girls. Claudia grows up to tell the story, while Pecola "grows down" and sinks into madness.4 The novel proper records the intersection of Pecola's and Claudia's narratives of Bildung: a single year of their lives which marks both girls' "coming of age"—from the autumn of 1940 to the "fall" of 1941—the year in which Pecola's incestuous rape takes place. What happens in that year are not isolated events but events closely connected to the racial and cultural memories of black Americans. Whether the two girls' development is "successful" is measured against the degree of assimilation to white ideology of the Bildung they achieve. But contrary to the prototypical plot of the male Bildungsroman, 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. Thus even in her first attempt at the novel form Morrison not only highlights the racial factor in Afro-American developmental plot but also deconstructs the plot of social integration inherent in the male Bildungsroman.

Furthermore, this novel challenges the developmental patterns of the typical Bildungsroman that Buckley has specified. From the outset Morrison creates a pseudo-chronological framework based on the natural transition of four seasons. This simulacrum of lineality is nevertheless constantly interrupted by the emergence of broken pieces of past experiences. This kind of narrative fragmentation reflects a characteristic discursive discontinuity of modernist and postmodernist writing. This mode of fragmentary writing, what Susan Willis identifies as "the four-page formula" for black women writers, also embodies the storytelling tradition in Afro-American culture (Specifying 14). The intrusion of past experiences into the present signifies a return of the repressed that the two protagonists are forced to reckon with.

Morrison achieves the effect of narrative fragmentation in The Bluest Eye through the use of multiple narrative voices. Even within Claudia's first-person narrative the voice is divided between different perspectives of Claudia-as-a-child and of a somewhat "mature" Claudia. The outer framework of the novel inscribes a "mature" Claudia who looks backward at one of the most significant years of her childhood and attempts to exorcize the experience of pain by reconstructing the nature of this pain that lives in her memory. This outer frame is further deconstructed by Morrison's use of a third-person omniscient narrator. As Valerie Smith points out, the apparently objective omniscient narrator fills in for the reader information that the characters have no access to (125). The omniscient narrator also vicariously acts out Claudia's, even Morrison's, desire for revenge on the dominant society. In her television interview with Bill Moyers, Morrison assigns one of the reasons for Pecola's tragedy to her unconditional acceptance of the "master narrative"—the dominant discourse represented by the Dick-and-Jane primer at the beginning of the novel. The primer, which can be regarded as one of Barthes's cultural codes, functions as the standard discourse of Bildung provided by the mainstream culture. Susan Fraiman observes the attraction of the standard Bildungsroman to women in her theory of counternarratives. In The Bluest Eye Morrison both portrays the attractiveness of the Dick-and-Jane narrative to the black community and deconstructs element by element the false ideology of this white, middle-class discourse. By allowing the narrator to dissect the primer into fragments, Morrison enacts Claudia's desire to dismember the white dolls and partially releases the pressure of discursive violence and racial confrontation.

Neither Claudia nor the narrator, nevertheless, can get to the how of Pecola's story. The narrative stance of the "mature" Claudia is still repressive since she could not bear to look into the why of Pecola's tragedy. And the narrator also chooses to "show" how the tragedy occurs rather than to "tell" why. Only the reader attentive to the heteroglossic narrative voices can start the analytical process of breaking the resistance and come to the why through piecing together the narrative of how.

The role of the reader is of great importance in Morrison's literary creation. The text is "the map" for the reader's participation, as Morrison proclaims in "Memory, Creation, and Writing" (389). And the writer's duty is to provide the places and spaces for the reader to participate in ("Rootedness" 341). The emphasis on the "reader's response" is further underlined in Morrison's analysis of her own works. In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Morrison indicates that the purposeful simplicity of the opening line of The Bluest Eye, coming directly from black women's language of gossip, is meant to establish a conspiratorial relationship between the narrator and the reader, and a sudden and instant intimacy between the reader and the page. This aura of conspiracy and familiarity, however, is immediately undermined by the question of reliability provoked by Claudia's child-like logic in linking Pecola's rape to the nonappearance of marigolds in 1941. Claudia and Frieda have attempted to find a logical explanation for the unnaturalness they have witnessed. If they have any success, as Morrison points out, it will be "in transferring the problem of fathoming to the presumable adult reader, to the inner circle of listeners" (19-22). This careful design on Morrison's part to engage the reader indicates that the reader must be the final "private eye" to ferret out the why of Pecola's tragedy.

In Claudia's haunting story there is also an immanent sense of guilt for failing to save Pecola's baby and the hapless mother. This kind of guilt originates in female bonding and empathy. In Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy the protagonist Tashi's analyst Raye, an Afro-American woman herself, mutilates her gum in order to understand Tashi's pain of genital castration. Tashi sees Raye's action as "intuitively practicing an ageless magic, the foundation of which was the ritualization, or the acting out, of empathy" (131). In this guise, the healer Raye becomes for the resisting Tashi someone she can bond with and one who can release her repressed memory. That kind of female bonding happens in The Bluest Eye, too. Claudia and Frieda, while trying to save Pecola's unborn baby by burying the seeds and their hard-earned money, practice the same kind of magical ritual of empathy. The MacTeer sisters' sacrifice creates a bond between them and the unhappy Pecola. By implication, Morrison suggests that in order to work for the possibility of social healing, the reader, too, needs to practice this emphathetic magic. The only saving grace for Pecola, perhaps, is the reader's attentiveness to the voice within the silence, as Kogawa has suggested in Obasan. What follows is this reader's attempt to work the magic of empathy and piece together the splintered mirror in the novel to trace the why of one black girl's tragic end and another's narrow escape.

I. Pecola Breedlove

Pecola Breedlove's story builds upon Morrison's specific recollection of how she felt upon hearing that a black girl in her neighborhood prayed for blue eyes ("Memory" 388). Pecola is the narrative embodiment of this prayer; and as Claudia states, "the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment" (158). In her schizophrenic state Pecola imagines herself with the bluest eyes of all. It is not difficult to see her as a victim of the external society. Patrice Cormier-Hamilton, for instance, claims that The Bluest Eye serves as an example of "black naturalism" and in the character of Pecola Morrison most emphatically "incorpoartes the naturalist theme of the 'waste of individual potential' due to environmental circumstances" (115). Some critics, however, regard Pecola's end as a triumph. For example, Chiwenye Ogunyemi, arguing from a "womanist" position, maintains that Pecola's madness allows her to acquire "an interior spiritual beauty symbolized by the bluest eye." "Madness," contends Ogunyemi, "becomes a temporary aberration preceding spiritual growth, healing, and integration." (74).

It is hard to chime in with Ogunyemi's optimistic tone since she fails to analyze the ideological connotation behind the bluest eye. Pecola is the ultimate victim of "the bluest eye." In spite of the fact that her insanity reverses her previous invisibility and forces her presence on her community, Pecola's final appearance in the novel is metaphorically "a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind" (158, italics mine). This "blue void" represents a "lack" inside Pecola that has grounded her fledgling development—a desire that is impossible to fulfill because it originates in an external standard imposed by the dominant society and impossible to forget since Pecola has fully internalized her own deficiency. Not unlike her slave fore-mothers who have been judged as morally deficient because of their supposed "lack" of (white) True Womanhood,5 Pecola suffers this psychological lack because her biological difference is designated as inferior in the hegemonic discourse of white supremacy.

This "blue void" also represents the monolithic bluest eye of the external world that has consumed Pecola. The bluest eye of the title signifies the monovision of American society that perceives minority people as the "Other" and privileges only a white physical standard. From Pecola's prayer for "blue eyes" to the one final irreducible eyeball of "the bluest eye" like a gigantic social monitor, Morrison suggests an accentuating movement of the closing-in of dominant society on the self-definition of the non-white. This monolithic bluest eye represents what bell hooks calls "the imperial gaze—the look that seeks to dominate, subjugate, and colonize" generated from a white supremacist culture (Black Looks 7). The "void" in Pecola's life reflects what hooks calls the "gaps" in the psyche of black people—the gaps "where mindless complicity, self-destructive rage, hatred, and paralyzing despair enter"—conditioned by this relentless monovision (Black Looks 4).

This "void" is also created by an experience of "mirror stage," in Lacanian terms. While looking into the mirror that a white society holds up to her, Pecola cannot see "the ideal image," that is, one with blue eyes, in her own reflection. Pecola has internalized the dominant ideology of ideal beauty, the Law of the White Fathers, so deeply that the unbridgeable difference between her and the objectified image of standard beauty obliterates what little self image she has, thus creating a paradoxically invisible yet imprisoning "blue void" around her. Hence Pecola's entrance into the Symbolic order ironically marks her mental and physical destruction.

The central trope of Pecola's narrative is indeed the eye, as Wilfred Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems contend (17). Pecola is completely reified by what Jean-Paul Sartre calls le regard (the Look), the gaze of the dominant definition of her as an "Other." In their critical assessment of The Bluest Eye, Samuels and Hudson-Weems use Sartre's notion of le regard to explicate the self-objectification of Pecola and her family. The Breedloves are characters who "use others to escape their own responsibility to define themselves" (8) and try to live up to an external image imposed on them by mainstream society. Pecola's self-abnegation is an especially castrating act of "Bad Faith" because she objectifies herself into a "being-for-the-other" instead of being a subjective "being-for-self" (18). From wanting blue eyes to being overwhelmed by the bluest eye, Pecola becomes the protagonist of an anti-Bildungsroman that illustrates how a mentally colonized black girl fails to negotiate her personal, cultural and racial experiences and finally resorts to the protection of madness.6

Pecola's narrative of (anti-) Bildung is modeled after Greek tragedy, yet rooted in Afro-American community. Like Hurston who writes about the inner world of black life, Morrison situates her first novel in the black community with a very limited appearance of white characters. Morrison stages the descent into madness of this Afro-American anti-heroine in a way similar to a predestined Greek "hero." For instance, Pecola's story is outlined at the very beginning by the "mature" Claudia. This unconventional narrative technique locks Pecola in an unbreakable discursive prison and creates a sense of the overdetermination of Pecola's fate. After providing the reader with this plot summary, Morrison then upstages Pecola through the side door in the narrative proper as a "case"—a girl who has been put outdoors by her reckless father—which establishes Pecola's status as a marginal figure even in her own community. All these theatrical devices contribute to make Pecola an object of the gaze for the reader and reflect upon Pecola's self-objectification, yet curiously make her remain invisible to characters around her at the same time.

Two factors contribute to Pecola's theatrical "invisible presence" in the novel. One is that Morrison renders Pecola consistently silent, even in her own narrative of (anti-) Bildung. Another is Pecola's parental heritage of racial neurosis introduced in the two embedded stories of Pauline and Cholly Breedlove. Coming right before Pecola's rape, these two pieces of stories appear to be direct causes of Pecola's tragedy. Appearing at almost the end of the novel, Pauline's and Cholly's narratives serve as a discursive return of the repressed past to show how the parents' traumatic experiences with a racist society are visited upon the children. To understand fully how Pecola "grows down," therefore, we must reverse the process of narrative repression and look at her parents' stories first.

From her mother, Pecola learns to love and internalize white ideology. What characterizes Pauline Breedlove as a mother is her lack of maternal affection. The section about Pauline comes right after an episode in which she humiliates and neglects the burned Pecola to comfort "the little pink-and-yellow" Fisher girl. Yet by allowing Pauline to have her own voice in the novel, Morrison shows that Pauline was once full of dreams and feelings. Her lack of love, as represented by the loss of her "rainbow," is not natural but emerges out of her "education" in a society saturated with class and racial inequality.

Pauline's story is an embedded narrative of anti-Bildung within Pecola's story. After separating from her own folks and migrating to the North with Cholly, Pauline has her first "education" in the movies, from which she refreshes her dreams of romantic love and becomes initiated to the standard of physical beauty represented by the white visual icons on the silver screen. As the narrator comments, the notions of romantic love and physical beauty are "[p]robably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion" (97). The ray of light coming from the projector, as Madonne M. Miner points out, resembles a gigantic eyeball that reflects white male vision (186). Being black and female render Pauline totally insignificant within this visual scope. Lacking other alternatives, Pauline is forced to identify with this blinding gaze.

Pauline is seduced by glamorous illusions produced by the Hollywood film industry into a figural identification with the white ideology of beauty. In Alice Doesn't, Teresa de Lauretis focuses on the centrality of "the look" in cinema and dissects the process of the double figural identification to seduce the female spectator into acceptance of femininity. The woman in a narrative cinema, de Lauretis contends, "is framed by the look of the camera as icon, or object of gaze: an image made to be looked at by the spectator, whose look is relayed by the look of the male character(s)" (139). By seeing through the eye of the hero,

the female spectator identifies with both the subject and the space of the narrative movement, with the figure of movement and the figure of its closure, the narrative image. Both are figural identifications, and both are possible at once; more, they are concurrently borne and mutually implicated by the process of narrativity. This manner of identification would uphold both positionalities of desire, both active and passive aims: desire for the other, and the desire to be desired by the other. This is in fact the operation by which narrative and cinema solicit the spectators' consent and seduce women into femininity: by a double identification, a surplus of pleasure produced by the spectators themselves for cinema and for society's benefit.


From de Lauretis's theory of identification we may infer that for an ethnic woman, the seduction into "white femininity" is a process of "triple identification" which allows her to identify with not only the gaze, the subject of the movement (white male hero) and the narrative image (white heroine) but also with the power and privilege represented by the white skin. Pauline's figural identification with the white visual icons is exemplified in her attempt to dress her hair like Jean Harlow (97). Her disappointment brought on by her lost tooth alone breaks her illusion of this figural identification. But the spell of Hollywood is still on her, which only makes her sink lower and into acceptance of her own ugliness. Pauline is a black female spectator who fails to cultivate what bell hooks calls a decolonizing "oppositional gaze" (Black Looks 116).

Another part of Pauline's education is the "denigrification" of her mind. Pauline Breedlove is the very example of mental colonization that Franz Fanon has analyzed in his Black Skin, White Masks. In his interpretation of the psychological and existential alienation of black people, Fanon argues that black people's "inferiority complex" is the outcome of "a double process." The black feel inferior in a white hegemonic society primarily because of their economic disadvantage. This sense of materialist incompetence leads to a severe damage of the psyche when black people internalize, even epidermalize, this inferiority (11). In an oversimplified fashion, Fanon claims that all black women want to be white "because the Negress feels inferior that she aspires to win admittance into the white world" (60). "In this endeavor," Fanon writes, "she will seek help of a phenomenon that we shall call affective erethism" (60). Pauline's identification with the power of her white employers while dealing with the creditors and service people who looked down upon her when she went to them on her own behalf shows her racial inferiority complex. And her contentment over the nickname they have assigned her does reveal a symptom that is close to affective erethism.7 These symptoms of Pauline's mental colonization and her willing submission to the seductive power of the white look illustrate the overwhelming power of dominant ideology and testify to the difficult Bildung of an ethnic woman. Pauline's process of denigrification prefigures Pecola's subjugation to the white gaze.

At the end of her "process of becoming" Pauline enters faithfully into the role of "an ideal servant," a female Uncle Tom so to speak, and alienates her own family. She is finally suffering from what Fanon calls "a collapse of the ego" (154).8 Before her education in the movies, Pauline has refused to give up her husband for her white mistress. As she says in her first-person voice, "it didn't seem none too bright for a black woman to leave a black man for a white woman" (95). But when racial ideology sinks in, Pauline is sadly transformed. By giving up her family and retreating into the private world of snow-white beauty and order in the Fisher household, Pauline cuts the final link to her racial identity. Worst of all, she passes on these symptoms of racial neurosis to Pecola, into whom she beats "a fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life" (102).

The paternal influence on Pecola also contributes to her invisibility. Cholly Breedlove's story is another version of the return of the repressed past to haunt people in the present. Cholly has been educated by racism to assert his manhood on the defenseless. His mentality comes very close to what Paulo Freire has illustrated in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire studies the "adhesion" of the oppressed to the oppressor:

But almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or "sub-oppressors." The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.


Nowhere is this model more revealing than in Cholly's traumatic sexual initiation. The narrator actually tells the story twice—of Cholly being surprised by two white hunters with flashlights during his first sexual act, and how he transfers his shame and hatred onto his helpless partner. The narrator first mentions this episode in the bushes passingly (37). Later, however, the narrator examines Cholly's consciousness thoroughly:

Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed men. He was small, black, helpless.…For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one who he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight. The hee-hee-hee's.


By telling Cholly's story twice the narrator simulates the nature of his mental repression. She also implicitly comments on what underlies Cholly's pathetic mental measurement of his size, color and power against his real enemy, which again reminds us of Fanon's "inferiority complex." Cholly's transference of anger onto the helpless Darlene also illustrates his desperate clinging to the shred of manhood under the threat of racial emasculation. Even when he has learned to hate those "big" white men, Cholly continues to inflict his own frustration on his fellow oppressed. This is typical in his relation with Pauline in the declining stage of their marriage. He treats her with violence since "[s]he was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires" (37). Using the same mentality he also hurts and pours out his desire onto his own daughter.

Cholly commits the rape of Pecola based on his reaction to his own sense of guilt and impotence faced with Pecola's "young, helpless, hopeless presence" (127). Parentless from his birth, Cholly has difficulty committing himself to family responsibility. Rejected at fourteen by his supposed father, Cholly turns dangerously "free," free in a negative sense that he is uprooted from his own community, as represented by his Aunt Jimmy and old man Blue. Without positive parental role models and sufficient contact with the healthy influence of his agrarian community, Cholly is ill prepared for his paternal role. His financial frustration with work and emotional tumult with Pauline after his northern migration further contribute to Cholly's inability to keep his family "indoors."

The rape of Pecola is directly caused by this rootlessness. In his drunken state Cholly identifies Pecola with Pauline in the gesture of scratching her leg, which triggers his violent tenderness. The young Pecola evokes Cholly's tenderness because he sees her both as an image of young Pauline, his first love, and his unprotected daughter. This conflation of familial roles (mother and daughter) and paradoxical emotions (protectiveness and destruction) characterizes the entire episode of the rape and underlines the confusion of kinship within the Breedlove family.9 Some critics contend that Pecola may not simply be a victim but a participant in the rape (Gibson 171). But Pecola's ambiguous reaction speaks to her extreme hunger for love and again underscores the disruption of familial structure. Morrison's surrealist style in this rape episode creates a dream-like sensation that is grotesquely "romantic." Maybe Pecola needs to "breed love" so much that she momentarily suspends her moral sensibility and turns to respond to Cholly's sexual violation, which makes her incestuous story even more gruesome. Whether Morrison is actually writing an intertextual revision of the "Trueblood episode" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as Michael Awkward contends or not (62), her undertaking of this taboo subject in conjunction with symptoms of racial neurosis shows her determination to uncover the repressed historical and social memory of the Afro-American community through her writing.

What intrigues me, and is overlooked almost by all critics, is the missing narrative about Pecola's brother. In the primer, brother Dick appears only once, which may explain Sammy's absence. Still, this runaway boy's "escape" from narrative confinement remains a mystery. The only line he has in the novel is to urge his mother to kill Cholly, which provides another twist to the Freudian Oedipus complex but most of all highlights the prevailing element of violence in the Breed-love household (39). His appearance/disappearance therefore deconstructs the happy "normative" family structure in the Dick-and-Jane mode. Moreover, Sammy's disappearance represents a loose thread in Pecola's narrative of (anti-) Bildung. It even subtly suggests a possible repetition of the fate of Cholly Breedlove—another homeless, parentless "free" black boy on the run, and another future family tragedy looming on the horizon.

Besides her parental heritage, what also makes Pecola invisible in her own story is her passivity and most of all, her silence. Except for her conversation with the three prostitutes and final schizophrenic soliloquy, the reader only catches a few glimpses of her inner consciousness mediated by a third-person narrator. Each of these momentary revelations of Pecola's thoughts marks a traumatic experience. The first of these moments is Pecola's reaction to the brutal fight between her parents. The second one records her racial encounter with a white store owner. The last one appears in Pecola's admiration of Geraldine's gold-and-green house right before she was expelled from this "paradise." Morrison provides us with these three moments of entrance into Pecola's mind as specimens of her personal, racial, and cultural experiences.

Pecola's personal experience is marked by violence and lovelessness, as represented by the brutal but darkly formal "battle" between her parents in their storefront home. Here Morrison is recording the derogatory impact of family violence on young children through Sammy's and Pecola's reactions to the fight. While her brother Sammy escapes their violent home by running away, Pecola's reaction is "restricted by youth and sex" (38). Here Morrison reiterates a common theme in women's fiction about the lack of physical mobility for a heroine. Confined by her immobility, Pecola resorts to passively praying for disappearance. But her eyes would not go away. For the first time in the novel Pecola's intense desire for blue eyes, which is implicit in her insatiable consumption of milk from the Shirley Temple cup, and her rationalization for this desire are revealed: she wants blue eyes so she can be beautiful and her family will be transformed miraculously into a loving one. But her hope for the miracle built upon a childish logic only leads to self-objectification. The omniscient narrator observes, "She would see only what there was to see, the eyes of other people" (40). Pecola merely manages to objectify herself by the gaze of the Look.

The obstacles to Pecola's development are not only youth and sex but also racism. The reader's second entrance into Pecola's consciousness follows right after the fight between the Breedloves and Pecola's prayer for disappearance. Pecola's encounter with Mr. Yacobowski echoes the discourse of invisibility in Ellison's Invisible Man. Like Ellison's anonymous hero, Pecola is unseen because people refuse to see her. Pecola's invisibility is an evidence of her lack of self image when facing the dominant white society. But whereas Ellison's hero blames his invisibility to the construction of white people's "inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality" (7), Pecola's locates the source of "the vacuum" and "absence of human recognition" of Yacobowski's eyes in her own blackness:

It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So, The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes.


The vacancy in Yacobowski's blear-dropped blue eyes foretells the "blue void" that is going to consume Pecola at the end. Morrison points out in a Time interview with Bonnie Angelo that white European immigrants gain their entrance into American society by sharing a common contempt for black people and "becoming American is based on an attitude: an exclusion of me" (120). Bearing this brunt of racial contempt, Pecola becomes nonexistent to the middle-aged white immigrant storekeeper. Sensing this personal threat, Pecola reacts to the white distaste by trashing the dandelions as "ugly" and "weeds," with which she just has had one of her rare moments of intimacy. She also consumes the Mary Jane candy purchased from the white man's store, more for the smiling white face, blond hair and blue eyes on the wrapping than for the taste of caramel and peanut butter. "To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane," (43) the narrator reveals Pecola's inner consciousness. This double reaction again reflects Pecola's parental heritage—transferring anger to the defenseless and the internalization of white ideology.

Pecola's humiliation in Geraldine's house provides the reader a glimpse of the derogatory side of Afro-American culture in the name of "uplifting the race." Zora Neale Hurston delineates the psychology of the black middle class who have internalized white ideology and snubbed their own people in "My People! My People!":

the well-bred Negro has looked around and seen America with his eyes. He or she has set himself to measure up to what he thinks of as the white standard of living. He is conscious of the fact that the Negro in America needs more respect if he expects to get any acceptance at all. Therefore, after straining every nerve to get an education, maintain an attractive home, dress decently, and otherwise conform, he is dismayed at the sight of other Negroes tearing down what he is trying to build up. It is said everyday, "And that good-for-nothing, trashy Negro is the one the white people judge us all by. They think we're all just alike. My people! My people!"


This looking up to white standard and looking down upon "trashy" blacks manifest another kind of mental colonization and develop a tension of mutual distrust between the black middle class and the poor black. Geraldine represents this false sense of racial uplifting. Here Morrison openly criticizes black women like Geraldine who attained middle-class status through learning "how to do white man's work with refinement" and "how to get rid of funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions" (68). The "funkiness," as Susan Willis contends, originates in the discontinuity between past and present (Specifying 84)—the past of an agrarian South that needs to be kept out in this Northern industrial town. Pecola's appearance in Geraldine's house is like a return of the repressed funkiness. And Geraldine's hysteria is triggered by an instinctive sense of how easily her simulacrum of a bourgeois urbanity can be shattered and turned to waste. In view of her loveless relationship with her husband and child, the light-skinned Geraldine is the crystallization of this proper but passionless, unnatural and emotionless "colored" bourgeoisie. Through Geraldine's education of Junior about the difference between "colored people and niggers," Morrison also criticizes the falsity of a caste system based on skin color and the danger of over-assimilation. "The line between colored and nigger was not always clear;" the narrator speaks in the tone of all the Geraldines, "subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant" (71). These subtle and telltale signs, Morrison implies, are the threat of return of the repressed Afro-American experiences that will disrupt the false facade of bourgeois respectability at any minute.

Pecola's encounter with this "colored" respectability is as devastating as her experience of racism. Even after her humiliating "false spring" experience with the high-yellow dream-child Maureen Peal, Pecola remains dominated by the ideology of the Look. Inside Geraldine's house we see Pecola's unrestrained admiration of the appearance of middle-class respectability represented by the Bible, lace dollies, the decorated picture of Jesus, and potted plants. In spite of her misery after being bullied by Junior she finds consolation in the cat's "blue eyes." Her exile from the gold-and-green "paradise" is under the full gaze of Jesus's "sad and unsurprised eyes" (76). In both cases Morrison underscores Pecola's self-objectification through stressing the influence of alien "eyes" on her. As Ho Wen-ching aptly argues, since she is trapped in "the bifurcate situation of 'I' versus 'them,' Pecola in her endeavour to transcend the I/them bifurcation has come to equate 'I' with 'eye'" (4). She pays for this mistaken identification with her own sanity.

Right before her final breakdown, Pecola, desperately trying to save her world by getting the bluest eyes, visits the self-claimed spiritual adviser Soaphead Church. The atrocity of Soaphead's tricking Pecola into poisoning an old dog is comparable only to Cholly's rape of Pecola. Both Soaphead and Cholly act out of oxymoronic feelings of sympathetic tenderness and destructive violence. Moreover, Soaphead's West Indian past as a mulatto descendant of an English nobleman at once suggests the heterogenous experiences of black diaspora and an implied colonial discourse that has not been fully developed in The Bluest Eye. In Soaphead we observe how an offspring and victim of colonization turns into a victimizer. Soaphead transfers his legacy of misery of being a colonized into Pecola. An act which, like Cholly's transference of anger unto Darlene and Pauline, intensifies the sense of multiple jeopardy of being, black, being female, and being a social underclass in the text.

Ugly to herself, invisible to the white, and funky to the "colored," Pecola remains undeveloped and a victim to the labyrinth of her multiple experiences. In her madness Pecola becomes a fixture around the garbage heap, which bleakly reflects on another of her paternal heritages since as a newborn Cholly was abandoned in a dumpster. The difference between the father and daughter is that there is no Aunt Jimmy, as in the case of Cholly Breedlove, to rescue Pecola.

II. Claudia Macteer

In "Lady No Longer Sings the Blues," Madonne M. Miner compares the rape of Pecola to the archetypal rape story of Philomela. Unlike the rape victim in the classical myth, however, silent Pecola does not find her "voice" in her insanity. Claudia, and her creator Morrison, are the ones who weave the telling tapestry. Claudia's first-person narrative serves as counter-discourse to Pecola's story of silent victimization. Her narrative voices function as "choral note" in Greek tragedy, as Morrison herself contends ("Rootedness" 341.) Claudia is also a would-be Afro-American "griot" figure who passes on wisdom through storytelling. As Janie reveals the story of her growth with "that oldest human longing—self revelation" in Their Eyes Were Watching God (18), Claudia consciously retells the story that changes herself and her community permanently. In her storytelling Claudia is also reminiscent of the compulsive storyteller in Coleridge's supernatural narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Claudia's sense of guilt for not saving Pecola and her child is the albatross around her neck that propels her to repeat the story. She actually undergoes a process of self-healing when retelling this painful experience of her past. The self-division in her narrative reveals the construction of her personal Bildungsroman even as she is apparently telling Pecola's story. Claudia herself, like the reader, becomes sadder but wiser once the unspeakable tale is spoken.

Claudia starts her story, as Morrison herself identifies, with mimicking adult black women on the porch or in the back yard and trying to be grown-up about the shocking information of Pecola's incestuous rape ("Unspeakable" 21). Although she appears to be still childish in believing the rape as the cause of the disappearance of marigolds, there is a marked difference between Claudia's behavior before and after the rape. The heaviness of her language is one evidence. In the prologue Claudia states, "What is clear now is that all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth" (9). With this note marking an aura of postlapsarian sterility, the "mature" Claudia proposes to tell why but immediately takes refuge in how. Clearly Claudia's own sense of guilt still prevents her from looking into the real reasons for Pecola's tragedy. But Claudia cannot reach a certain maturity without first coming to terms with the disintegration of Pecola, and moreover, her own helplessness to revoke Pecola's tragic fate.

The narrative of prelapsarian Claudia is in direct contrast to Pecola's in the aspects of personal, racial, and cultural experiences. Although Claudia is of the same class as Pecola, her family works hard to keep themselves "indoors." Unlike Pecola, Claudia learns love, self-respect, and a sense of security from her parents. The MacTeer house resembles what bell hooks terms "home-place," the site of resistance to white supremacy and the space for renewal and self-recovery (Yearning 41). Claudia describes her parents in the "Autumn" and "Winter" sections of the novel. But the temper of the weather only reflects the stress that the MacTeers have to endure in the face of poverty and depression. Inside, Claudia's parents are fighters who lovingly guard their family.

Mrs. MacTeer's unselfish maternal love is the very opposite of the barrenness and self-righteousness of Pauline. Claudia's memory of her sickness during the autumn is oxymoronically "a productive and fructifying pain." Mrs. MacTeer's sustaining "thick and dark" love is the medicine that helps her daughter to fight for her health. Hence in spite of the bitter weather Claudia confesses that "when I think of autumn I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die" (14). Mrs. MacTeer's maternity also extends to Pecola, whom she dutifully takes in as a case. Significantly, it is Mrs. MacTeer who assumes the maternal role and helps Pecola to adjust to the "horror" of her first menstruation. Mrs. MacTeer is also closely connected to her Afro-American roots, as exemplified in her constant singing of the blues, which are songs that channel personal suffering and forge "a communal consciousness" for the Afro-American, as Angela Davis observes (12).

Unlike Cholly who only inflicts pain on the helpless, Claudia's father functions as his family's guardian. Claudia describes her father in the epithets of winter:

My daddy's face is a study. Winter moves into it and presides there. His eyes become a cliff of snow threatening to avalanche; his eyebrows bend like black limbs of leafless trees. His skin takes on the pale, cheerless yellow of winter sun; for a jaw he has the edges of a snowbound field dotted with stubble; his high forehead is the frozen sweep of the Erie, hiding currents of gelid thoughts that eddy in darkness. Wolf killer turned hawk fighter, he worked night and day to keep one from the door and the other from under the windowsills.


But next in Claudia's portrayal he suddenly turns into the very opposite of wintriness and becomes a "Vulcan guarding the flames" to keep his family warm. From Claudia's poetic illustration we detect a strong sense of security in the MacTeer household. Just like the healing power of the mother's hands, Mr. MacTeer battles to keep his family from harm. So when the tenant Mr. Henry sexually molested Frieda, Mr. MacTeer threw the girls' tricycle at his head, knocked him off the porch, and tried to gun him down. This incident with Mr. Henry has a realistic equivalence in Morrison's own life. In an interview with Rosemarie K. Lester, Morrison describes her first racial encounter as the time when her father pushed a white stalker downstairs and threw a bike at him (50). By transferring this sense of racial triumph onto MacTeer, Morrison creates a strong, responsible father figure who serves as a sharp contrast to the "free" Cholly Breedlove.

But most importantly, Claudia has a sister. Unlike Pecola's nonexistent brother, Claudia is closely bonded with Frieda. Together the MacTeer sisters combat adversity. For example, they always did their Candy Dance to make their white neighbor jealous (63). Claudia even starts her storytelling with a plural "we" to signify the experiences she and her sister have shared together. Therefore, when Frieda is molested, Claudia is empathic to her fear of being "ruined" (81). We might smile at the sisters' naivete about sexuality, but Frieda's molestation puts the MacTeer girls in the similar position with Pecola as potential victims. What differentiates Claudia's from Pecola's narrative of victimization, however, is the father's protection and Claudia's resistance.

Claudia escapes victimization partially because she resists the racial ideology of white physical supremacy, although as a child she could not articulate exactly the work of mental colonization around her. Her hatred of the mass media icon Shirley Temple and her desire to dismember white baby dolls, even white girls, manifest this resistance which takes a destructive channel:

I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see what it was made [of], to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that has escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.


Claudia's ignorance of this "desirability" is what keeps her from racial neurosis. In her state of innocence, she is immune from the inferiority complex that Fanon has diagnosed. So when she encounters Maureen Peal, a "colored" embodiment of the white doll, Claudia is just curious about what "the Thing" is that makes Maureen beautiful. At this stage Claudia is still in love with her self image and feels comfortable in her skin, as the narrator informs us (62). Claudia's desire to understand "the Thing" appears to be a positive act of exposing a racist unconsciousness that dominant society has hammered into the minds of minority people. However, the intensity of Claudia's reaction to the dolls and the Maureen Peals make the reader pause. In her violent response we see the backfire of racism which in real life becomes hurtful racial uprisings. Then again, what other channels do black people have to express their frustration and anger? In Claudia's childish reaction we detect a tragic reality that violence generates violence.

In time, Claudia, too, will experience the same kind of racial vertigo as Pecola does. She will sense the same kind of "blue void" that has consumed Pecola. Only the gaze of the bluest eye is reflected in the brown eyes around her:

Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world.


And she, too, will be educated by this sense of racial "lack" through a mirror stage of racial inferiority into unconditional admiration of white beauty once she reaches "the turning point" in the development of her psyche. Here Morrison injects a pessimistic note into Claudia's and all minority girls' narratives of Bildung. None can escape mental contamination and colonization as long as minority people see through the "eye" of mainstream ideology.

But before Claudia's racial innocence is "ruined" by commodified racial ideology, she feels closely connected to her blackness. For instance, her simple wish for Christmas is to indulge her senses in Big Mama's kitchen with Big Papa playing the violin (21). That is, Claudia would rather have close bonding to her own cultural community on the most special day of the year. Unlike Pecola, who is practically an outsider, Claudia is rooted within the context of her Afro-American community. Claudia's rootedness is represented by the MacTeer girls' sifting through the gossip they overheard to learn practical, though often discredited, wisdom. Claudia describes the dances of gossiping voices around her:

sound meets sound, curtsies shimmers, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another: the two circle each other and stop. Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter—like the throb of a heart made of jelly.


The combination of music, visual effects, and taste in the description of gossip provides an immediacy of the abundant sensuality, as in Paule Marshall's kitchen table conversations. In the orality, musicality and imaginativeness of gossip Morrison finds the real metaphor for a "black quality" that she is striving for in her writing, as she has indicated in an interview with Nellie McKay (427). In The Bluest Eye Morrison creates her own "speakerly text," in the term of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

But gossip, like the community itself, is double-edged. They can both be sustaining and devastating. The feelings of disgust, shock, outrage, even excitement, but total lack of compassion in the gossip about Pecola and the rape represent the negative side of gossip and the community. Claudia voices a disappointment in her community in this regard: when she and Frida try to look for "eyes creased with concern" about the unfortunate Pecola, they see "only veils" (148). The contrast between an omnipresent gaze of the blue eyes and the veiled apathy of the brown eyes further highlights the hostile environment to the growth of a black girl. In "Trajectories of Self-Definition," Barbara Christian classifies Morrison's The Bluest Eye as belonging to the second phase of contemporary Afro-American women's writing in which "the black community itself becomes a major threat to the survival and empowerment of women" (24). The unsympathetic community, therefore, also contributes to the general sterility in the fall of 1941.

So by the end of her narrative Claudia learns her lesson about racial ideology and her own community as an accomplice in upholding this ideological construct:

This soil is bad for certain kind of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.


Claudia's marigolds may not live; but she survives to tell the stories of two black girls. Claudia's fall, in a sense, is a fortunate fall (felix culpa) since innocence is a sign of "degenerate acquiesce," as Terry Otten contends (4). By dividing Claudia into an innocent child and an older and wiser person, Morrison inscribes Claudia's Bildung into the novel which counterpoints Pecola's decline.

Morrison sees a weakness of form in her first novel. The combination of seasonal cycles and fragments of the primer, Morrison observes in retrospect, does not sufficiently handle the silence at its center: "The void that is Pecola's 'unbeing'." ("Unspeakable Things Unspoken" 22, italic mine). But Morrison does represent the void in the shape of a consuming vortex, with the intersection of Claudia and Pecola's lives at the center. Pecola is drawn into the abyss because of her passivity; Claudia surfaces because she resists the pull. Furthermore, by transferring Pecola from "unbeing" to a "being" in her schizophrenic hallucination, Morrison makes a political inquiry into the nature of Bildung for black girls—How come a black girl can only see herself with imagined blue eyes? In The Bluest Eye Morrison reveals the detriment of oppression through the tragedy of one black girl. She also explores the role that the ideology of "whiteness" plays in the imagination and real life of black people.10 While political activists campaign for civil rights and power for black people, Morrison locates the source of black powerlessness in white racism and black acquiescence. But she also implies that neither racial whitewash nor chanting the slogan of "Black is Beautiful" is enough to counteract the Look. The former only intensifies the neurotic symptoms of racial inferiority complex; the latter is just a reversal of the mainstream ideology of "White is Beautiful." Morrison writes to challenge the reader's literary imagination and social consciousness. She also writes to open the eyes of both dominant and minority communities. Thus Morrison, even in her first attempt, fulfills her self-assigned mission for the novelist, to write a fiction that is both political and beautiful ("Rootedness" 345).


  1. Elliott Butler-Evans has a similar reading of the novel. He sees Morrison develop dominant themes through the interplay of two narratives: Claudia's rite of passage and Pecola's disintegration (66). Joanne Frye and Linda Krumholz also argue that Claudia narrates not only the destruction of Pecola but also her own self-formation.
  2. Buckley not only compares the development between Maggie and her brother but also draws a parallel of this competing double plot with the real-life sibling disagreement between Eliot and her brother.
  3. Out of her analysis of Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, My Antonia, The Mountain Lion, and them, Goodman deduces that the structure of the "male-female double Bildungsroman" is circular, tripartite. Its typical plot starts from the shared prelapsarian childhood experience of a male and a female protagonist, to the separation in adolescence and young adulthood, and ends with a final reunion with a reaffirmation of androgynous wholeness (30).
  4. I borrow the term of "growing down" from Annis Pratt and Barbara White's "The Novel of Development" to illustrate Pecola's anti-Bildung. Pratt and White identify a generic double bind in female Bildungsroman that the female protagonists oftentimes regress from full participation in adult life rather than progressing towards maturity (36).
  5. See Hazel Carby's Reconstructing Womanhood (20).
  6. bell hooks gives a vivid portrayal of the damaged psyche of black people faced with the Look: "for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not colonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identity. Often it leaves us ravaged by repressed rage, feeling weary, dispirited, and sometimes just plain old brokenhearted. These are the gaps in our psyche that are the spaces where mindless complicity, self-destructive rage, hatred, and paralyzing despair enter" (Black Looks 3-4).
  7. Nicknaming functions as personal recognition in black communities. Pauline's attachment to the Fisher family, as Trudier Harris points out, is guided by a perversion of this function (20). Ironically, the Fishers give her this generic nickname not out of intimacy but out of convenience, as the plantation masters used to treat their slaves, which explains Claudia's antagonism when the Fisher girl calls Pauline by her nickname while even Pauline's family call her Mrs. Breedlove (86).
  8. Fanon points out, "When the Negro makes contact with the white world, a certain sensitizing action takes place. If his psychic structure is weak, one observes a collapse of the ego. The black man stops behaving as an actional person. The goal of his behaviour will be The Other (in the guise of the white man), for the Other alone can give him worth" (154).
  9. Madonne M. Miner sees this breaking down of familial boundaries as archetypal. She argues that "the female must fear a loss of identity as the family loses it boundaries—or, more accurately, as the male transgresses these boundaries" (178).
  10. In her analytical essay Playing in the Dark Morrison explores the other end of the question—how racial ideology and "blackness" influence the literary imagination of the white masters.

Works Cited

Angelo, Bonnie. "The Pain of Being Black: An Interview with Toni Morrison." Time 22 May 1989: 120-22.

Awkward, Michael. "Roadblocks and Relatives: Critical Vision in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye." Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. 57-68.

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill & Wang, 1977. 142-8.

——. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Christian, Barbara. "Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women's Fiction." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Eds. Majorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 233-48.

Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. "Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The Journey Away from Self-Love in The Bluest Eye." MELUS 19.4 (Winter 1994): 109-27.

Davis, Angela Y. "Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle." Wild Women in the Whirlwind. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andren Nicoln Mclaughlin. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1990. 3-21.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947. New York: Signet, 1952.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Fraiman, Susan. Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and The Novel of Development. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Frye, Joanne S. Living Stories, Telling Lives: Women and the Novel in Contemporary Experience. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1986.

Gibson, Donald. "Text and Countertext in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye." Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 159-74.

Goodman, Charlotte. "The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman." Novel 17.1 (1983): 28-43.

Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: The U of Tennessee P, 1991.

Ho, Wen-ching. "In Search of A Female Self: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, American Studies 17.3 (1987): 1-44.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1991.

——. Yearning: Race, Gender, Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Hurston, Zora Neale. "My People! My People!" Mother Wit and the Laughing Barrel. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1973. 23-33.

——. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1981. Boston: Godine, 1984.

Krumholz, Linda Joan. "Ritual, Reader, and Narrative in the Works of Leslie Marmon and Toni Morrison." Diss. U of Wisconsin-Madison, 1991.

Marshall, Paule. "From the Poets in the Kitchen." New York Times Book Review 9 January 1983: 3.

McKay, Nellie. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." Contemporary Literature. 24 (Winter 1983): 413-29.

Miner, Madonne. "Lady No longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness and Silence in The Bluest Eye." Conjuring: Black Women Fiction and Literary Tradition. Ed. Majorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1985. 176-91.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Washington Square Press, 1972.

——. Playing in The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

——. "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1984.

——. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 38 (Winter 1989): 1-34.

Ogunyemi, Chiwenye. "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English." Signs 11 (1985): 63-80.

Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989.

Samuels, Wilfred D. and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Smith, Valerie. "Toni Morrison's Narratives of Community." Self Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987. 122-53.

——. "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the 'Other'." Changing Our Own Words. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989. 38-57.

Walker, Alice. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: HBJ, 1992.

Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: The U of Madison P, 1987.

Further Reading

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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 Beloved: Toni Morrison's New Uses for Blake, Keats, and Wordsworth." Papers on Language & Literature 36, no. 3 (summer 2000): 271-301.

Contends that critics generally ignore Morrison's regeneration of the work of the major British romantic poets in Beloved.

Dickerson, Vanessa D. "Summoning SomeBody: The Flesh Made Word in Toni Morrison's Fiction." In Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African American Women, edited by Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson, pp. 195-216. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Analysis of how Morrison's characters recover and repossess the black female body.

Duvall, John N. "Descent in the 'House of Chloe': Race, Rape, and Identity in Tar Baby." In The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison, pp. 99-117. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Discusses the importance of Morrison's fourth novel, the critically neglected Tar Baby, and its intertextual references to the Book of Genesis.

Eckard, Paula Gallant. "Toni Morrison." In Maternal Body and Voice in Toni Morrison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith, pp. 33-37. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

Explores how Morrison combines myth and reality in her treatment of maternal experience in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved.

Furman, Jan. "Black Girlhood and Black Womanhood: The Bluest Eye and Sula." In Toni Morrison's Fiction, pp. 12-33. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Explores the roles that black girls and women in The Bluest Eye and Sula play within their respective communities.

Galehouse, Maggie. "'New World Woman': Toni Morrison's Sula." Papers on Language & Literature 35, no. 4 (fall 1999): 339-62.

Explores the independent nature of Sula 's title character and raises questions about her accessibility to the reader.

Gillespie, Diane and Missy Dehn Kubitschek. "Who Cares? Women-Centered Psychology in Sula." In Toni Morrison'sFiction: Contemporary Criticism, edited by David L. Middleton, pp. 61-91. New York: Garland, 1997.

Praises Morrison's representation of female psychological development in Sula.

Iyasere, Solomon O. and Marla W. Iyasere, eds. Understanding Toni Morrison's Beloved and Sula: Selected Essays and Criticisms of the Works by the Nobel Prize-winning Author. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston Pub. Co., 2000, 381 p.

Thorough examination of Morrison's works, including a lengthy bibliographic resource.

McDowell, Deborah E. "'The Self and the Other': Reading Toni Morrison's Sula and the Black Female Text." In Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay, pp. 77-90. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Maintains that in Sula, Morrison creates a different kind of identity for the black female in America.

McKay, Nellie. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." Contemporary Literature 24, no. 4 (winter 1983): 413-29.

McKay talks with Morrison about black women's writing and her first four novels.

Mitchell, Angelyn. "'Sth, I Know That Woman': History, Gender, and the South in Toni Morrison's Jazz." Studies in the Literary Imagination 31, no. 2 (fall 1998): 49-60.

Asserts that in Jazz, Morrison fuses her primary concerns: the lives of black women and the historical circumstances of life in the South.

Peterson, Nancy J. "Toni Morrison Double Issue." Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 461-794.

A special double issue containing essays by a variety of critics on Morrison's novels and her place in the literary canon.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991, 127 p.

Examination of Morrison's position within the discourses of both race and gender.

Storhoff, Gary. "'Anaconda Love': Parental Enmeshment in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon." Style 31, no. 2 (summer 1997): 290-309.

An examination of the dysfunctional families—both matriarchal and patriarchal—that populate Song of Solomon.

Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994, 293 p.

Collection of interviews and conversations between Morrison and various authors and critics including Alice Childress, Robert Stepto, Gloria Naylor, and Bill Moyers.

Trace, Jacqueline. "Dark Goddesses: Black Feminist Theology in Morrison's Beloved." Obsidian II 6, no. 3 (winter 1991): 14-30.

Discussion of specific qualities of black feminism and theology in Beloved treating Morrison's use of goddess mythology and its contribution to a new theology for African American women.

Wagner, Linda W. "Toni Morrison: Mastery of Narrative." In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick, pp. 191-204. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985.

Critical assessment of the narrative techniques employed by Morrison in her first four novels.


Additional coverage of Morrison's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African-American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 22; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds.2,3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 42, 67, 113; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 10, 22, 55, 81, 87, 173; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 33, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Multicultural, Novelists and Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 8, 14; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vols. 57, 144; Twayne's United States Authors; and Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers.


Morrison, Toni (Literary Masters)


Morrison, Toni (1931 -)