What meanings can be attributed to the literary accomplishments of American author Toni Morrison? How does Morrison use history to portray her stories and her characters? How did Morrison become known as one of the premier African-American authors in America? This paper delves into those issues and others relevant to the writing of Toni Morrison.
What meanings are attributed to the works of Toni Morrison?
Critic Marilyn Sanders Mobley -- in her book Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative -- writes that Morrison is a "redemptive scribe" (Mobley, 1991, p. 10). One of Morrison's missions is to "correct a cultural misimpression," Mobley explains. She references Morrison's explanation of the need for a writer to correct misimpressions about African-Americans; "Critics generally don't associate black people with ideas. They see marginal people…" and figure that when they read about African-Americans it will be "…just another story about black folks" (Mobley, 10).
Morrison admits to resenting this cultural stereotype, saying, "We are people, not aliens. We live, we love and we die" (Mobley, 10). And so the critic Mobley sees Morrison's work as providing a defense for the "cultural integrity of her people," but Mobley notes that it goes deeper than just "didactic intention" on the part of the author. What Morrison really wants to do with her brilliant narratives is to provide a "cultural transformation" -- in three distinct ways. The first way is to "fill the cultural void" that exists due to history's transitions away from traditional black cultural activities.
For example, the "oral tradition" (storytelling) that African-Americans once participated in often is now lost albeit this tradition helped black folks sustain "…a sense of community" in order to enrich their lives (Mobley, 11). And so Morrison sees this gap in the culture of her people and uses her writing skills to try and fill that gap. Secondly, Mobley explains (11) that Morrison goes about endowing "commonplace people, places, and stories" with the "mythic grandeur and significance of archetypal narrative and ritual" that hopefully will come to the rescue of "neglected literary material" as well as the cultural values on which that literary material is based (Mobley, 11). What Mobley means by "mythic grandeur" in this sense is that myth helps orient audience between the natural world and the "world of possibility" (12).
The third way in which Morrison attempts to fill the cultural void in her books is by celebrating the past; that is, Morrison uses characters and themes as a "dynamic vehicle for preserving, transmitting, and reshaping the culture" (Mobley, 12). In other words, by creating stories that bring the previous values and traditions of black folks to life, she is helping to preserve history while at the same time entertaining and educating readers.
Author Stelamaris Coser continues along the same lines as Mobley vis-a-vis Morrison's ability to transcend so-called "black" or "feminist" literature and instead "…recapture and reorganize the fragments of collective history into a new type of narrative (Coser, 19934, p. 16). The way in which Morrison uses creative "folk rituals" -- helping to popularize the roots of contemporary African-American culture -- is highly effective and entirely original (Coser, 16). Moreover, Morrison juxtaposes the "starkest representations of racial, sexual, economic, and cultural abuse" -- alongside her apt use of myth and imagination -- in order to "counter" the facts that were left by the "colonizer of yesterday" (think slavery) (Coser, 16).
Morrison would certainly like to reverse the present order of racism in the society, but, Coser continues, instead her resistance to the bleak past is presented through an "attitude of the present in the professional urban world of advanced capitalism and corporate management" (16). And it isn't just that Morrison is filling in the cultural gaps for black people to be fully aware and proud of their heritage; Coser (169) asserts that Morrison's stories "…contain openings for the reader to fill in." Those openings are actually "invitations" to the readers to "re-imagine" and "rewrite" in their own minds the responsibilities and privileges that all humanity share. In her novel Jazz, Morrison describes this music as having "…a quality of hunger and disturbance that never ends" (Coser, 169). The implication is clear: like jazz, a culture also has a hunger and hence should make a cultural disturbance and never stop making that disturbance.
Tony Morrison -- the meaning in The Black Book
Meanwhile author Nancy Peterson critiques Morrison's The Black Book, suggesting that Morrison did not totally approve of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Why? Because she believed that Black Power was more about "exoticism" than it was about "reality" (Peterson, 2001, p. 58). In fact many militants in the Black Power movement were eager to abandon the past entirely in order to "…cure the cancer of slavery" (Peterson, 58). However, it is Morrison's view that by discounting the past (and attempting in the process to cure its cancerous reality) some "healthy as well as malignant cells were destroyed"; hence, in addition to repudiating slavery, the modern Black Power advocates also repudiated "…any knowledge of those qualities of resistance, excellence, and integrity" that were important components of African-Americans' past -- including their past as slaves (Peterson, 58).
Morrison's meaning in writing The Black Book was to point out "admirable qualities of ordinary black people in America," Peterson continues (58). In The Black Book Morrison points out worthy black inventors who made contributions to the American society (inventing "overshoes, an 'air-ship,' a telephone system, an improved fountain pen, a corn harvester, a street sweeper, an egg beater") (Peterson, 58). Indeed The Black Book is a thoroughly unconventional publication, with no chronology, no chapters and no "major theme," Peterson explains (58).
Clearly this unique book was meant to show that African-Americans did accomplish a great deal towards the modernization of America, but it also points out that "…racism" played an ugly role in American history. For example, the wife of W.C. Handy (considered the "Father of the Blues") died on the doorstep of Sydenham Hospital, a private hospital that only takes members (Peterson, 59). That event is presented in The Black Book as a simple newspaper clipping, but we can "…discern that racism, and not private / public distinction [of hospitals] lies behind the failure to take care of this woman" (Peterson, 59).
Toni Morrison -- the meanings in Beloved
"…Consider Beloved as a montage of differing realities, of the multiple identities within the text…a cultural manifestation of multiple constituencies that disrupt or overturn dominant cultural views of blacks as absent or negated… [And] the retelling of the story, in pieces, by different narrators…confronts the dominant culture…moving the marginalized other from eroticized object to a subject…threatening the dominant culture's subject position"
(Schreiber, 2001, p. 121-22)
Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Language in India, critic Mahboobeh Khaleghi asserts that while Morrison shows "…what slavery did to black people bodies and minds," she also presents the notion that by confronting, "reclaiming and transforming history" the African-American culture can heal through the "potential of memory" (Khaleghi, 2012, p. 1). Morrison's crafty storytelling takes readers on a historical journey to the life of Margaret Garner (given the name Sethe in the novel) in 1856, who "…killed her child to prevent her recapture into slavery" (Khaleghi, 1). The author offers historical accounts of how slavery didn't just keep people in bondage in order to conduct hard work in the fields. Morrison points out that the system of slavery "…called for the crushing of the language, family names, culture, and tribal history of the slaves" (Khaleghi, 1).
Slaves were treated "worse than animals," which is not a revelation unique to Morrison, but by using her brilliant storytelling skills, she offers the reader the heartbreaking tale of Sethe, whose only gift for her children is her breast milk. "Milk is all I ever had," she explains (Beloved, 195). And even though Sethe is six months pregnant, she runs away from her master and, with the help of a white girl named Amy Denver, the baby is delivered safely. In time Sethe kills the baby -- committing infanticide -- in order to save her daughter from a life of slavery. One of the profoundly emotional phases of the book is when the murdered baby returns as a ghost.
Morrison in this novel is certainly writing about some of the most bitterly inhumane aspects of slavery, and yet the narrative tells a story within a story -- a story of the "journey to self-reliance" and of the way in which a female slave can achieve a "black identity" in a time when many slaves had been denied their true identity. Claiming ownership of one's self was very difficult for slaves, but Morrison's characters come to life as they go through the process of that experience.
Author Alice Hall writes in her 2012 book, Disability and Modern Fiction that in the novel Beloved Morrison's meaning is captured through the coexistence of "…beauty…