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Toni Morrison’s Depiction of Black America

Toni Morrison is a crucial contributor to Black literature and one of the most talented

writers of our time. Her writing power is comparable to that of Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells,

Langston Hughes, and, some say, even Plato. Famous for her award-winning fiction centered on

the lives of Black Americans, Morrison uses the power of her imagination not only to entertain

her readers with vivid storytelling, but to create a paralleled reality of sorts that closely lines up

with the harrowing struggles of Blacks in America. To achieve this feat, Morrison has written

fiction set in the times of slavery, post-slavery, and even modern day Black American life. To

thoroughly analyze Morrison’s literary methods, I will draw examples from three of her novels

in the order of which she wrote them: The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved. I will then compare

these examples to real life accounts of African-American hardships throughout the history of the

United States. I will also incorporate scholarly analyses of Morrison’s work to reinforce the fact

there are millions of people, scholars included, who are rightfully blown away by her writing.

To fully understand Morrison’s perception of and response to Black American history

requires becoming immersed in as many of her works as possible. I believe it would be most

fitting to analyze Morrison’s novels in chronological order, starting with The Bluest Eye. Written

in 1970, The Bluest Eye centers on protagonist Pecola Breedlove, who is born into an unfortunate

Black family with an alcoholic father, a distance mother, and a community that shuns them all.

Pecola clings to the belief that if she can acquire blue eyes like the dolls and child movie stars

she finds so beautiful, then her life will greatly improve. Pecola’s father rapes her one day,

leaving her pregnant. Claudia and Frieda, two girls Pecola has befriended in the neighborhood,

are the only people in the community who want to see Pecola’s baby live, so they plant

marigolds in the hope that their blooming will guarantee a healthy baby. Claudia, one of the main
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narrators in the story, describes what drove her and Frieda to desperation regarding Pecola’s

pregnancy:

“Our sorrow was the more intense because nobody seemed to share it. [The community

was] disgusted, amused, shocked…but we listened for the one who would say ‘Poor little

girl’ or ‘Poor baby’, but there was only head-wagging where those words should have

been. We looked for eyes creased with concern, but saw only veils.” (Morrison, 190).

The marigolds Claudia and Frieda plant never bloom, however, and Pecola’s baby is born

prematurely and dies. The baby’s death is the tipping point for Pecola as she slowly descends

into madness, believing she has the bluest eyes of all after being raped and impregnated by her

father.

In addition to the novel’s graphic and sensitive topics, Morrison’s use of literary contrasts

is what makes The Bluest Eye stand out. The basal reader from famous children’s book Dick and

Jane at the beginning of the novel provides an intense contrast to the tragic life of Pecola and her

family. After the beginning, excepts from Dick and Jane are scattered throughout the novel

acting as chapter headings, while having a messy feel to it due to it being in all capital letters and

with a disregard for where words begin and end. Dick and Jane embodies the happy white

families of America that society at the time strived to be like; Pecola’s story outlines the fact that

being held to a white standard of beauty and happiness is detrimental to ideal psychological

development in more fragile African-American families. Pecola’s entire family is subject to the

feeling of being ugly and inferior compared to white people, and it causes them all to suffer

greatly. It is through viewing life through the eyes of white culture that the tragic Breedloves

struggle with and lose their Black identity, a phenomenon Morrison depicts beautifully in her

writing. It can be argued that The Bluest Eye is an exercise in dismantling the white narrative in a

way that depicts the consequences of buying into a culture that will not accept Blacks as they are.
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Sula, written in 1973, captures the ups and downs of a town called the Bottom, a Black

community in Medallion, Ohio. Morrison writes that The Bottom is situated in the hills of

Medallion, with the town’s white people living in the valleys below due to Blacks being tricked

into less ideal land after slavery (5). Sula and Nel, the novel’s protagonists, are nearly opposites;

yet they complement each other with the trademarks of their personalities. The depth of their

friendship goes unmatched within their small community. Sula is the more outlandish of the two,

with a chaotic home life and the behavioral impulses to match. Nel is more levelheaded and

subdued, and is seen as a good “race” woman of the time period. A falling out between the two

women as adults leads to Sula being the town pariah, and it is only after Sula’s death that Nel

realizes what drove them apart was trivial compared to their once intensely loyal friendship. The

constant, overhanging aura of African-American despair due to societal disadvantage is what

marks Sula as a critical piece of Black literature.

Sula also depicts aspects of early 20th century American culture for both blacks and

whites, such as the sexual liberation movement headed by women in the 1920s. Morrison also

pushes the narrative of sexuality in young women by making the desire and confusion of male

attention the key piece of the story, as well as the budding sexuality of the two young

protagonists. The two blatantly different paths Sula and Nel take in their lives is a nod to the

possibilities for Black women in America during the early 20th century, and their probably

consequences. Nel ends up a dissatisfied wife and mother while Sula ends up a social pariah with

no family or friends to guide her through her troubles. Morrison’s work on Sula produced a

moving piece of literature that boldly outlines the common dilemmas of Black society.

Morrison’s writing in Sula, as always, is profoundly moving. Her seemingly simple

sentences pack an extraordinary amount of depth, while her more complex sentences are a

challenge capable of sharpening the literary mind. For example, one simple sentence that stuck
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out to me was: “Sula stepped off the Cincinnati Flyer into the robin shit and began the long climb

up into the Bottom” (90). That sentence alone left me in visual awe because of the way Morrison

set up the scene beforehand. The robins only began to plague Medallion shortly before Sula’s

return, and Sula steps in it as if she owns the literal robin shit, before beginning her march up

into town. Given Sula’s character and reputation in her small town, the description’s subtleties

work so well. Additionally, Morrison expertly slips in the detail of how Sula has to climb “up”

into the Bottom, which got its name from the deception of a newly freed slave by a white farmer

(5).

Another important aspect of Sula is the messages Morrison provides about womanhood

and being Black in America. Each period Morrison writes in is usually a time of great struggle

and suffering for Black Americans, and Sula is no exception. The two protagonists, Sula and

Nel, each represent different aspects of womanhood and blackness in the early 20th century: Sula

is more of the rebel, with her promiscuous nature and unwillingness to settle down with a man,

while Nel is portrayed as the “good race woman”, who basically does what is expected of a

proper woman of the time by getting married, having children, and being a homemaker. The

story of the two women’s friendship and conflict pit the two types of female standards against

each other. This portrayal of female sexuality leaves it up to the reader to perceive the flaws and

benefits of the life of each type of woman, notwithstanding the challenges of being a Black

American female in the early 20th century. These challenges are something that Morrison lays

out so well in the great majority of her works.

Morrison wrote her widely acclaimed novel turned feature film, Beloved, in 1987. The

story takes place in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Protagonist Sethe, a former slave, lives with her

young daughter Denver. Sethe’s two sons, Howard and Buglar, have run away from the home

because of a supernatural presence of a violent ghost that has haunted their home for years.
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Denver seems to have no problem with the ghost, likely because the family believes it is the

spirit of her dead sister. In fact, Denver is described by someone in the novel as having “a

waiting way about her. Something she’s expecting and it ain’t me” (Morrison, 50). The novel

takes place in two time periods: 1873 Cincinnati and 1853 Kentucky, where Sethe’s life as a

slave is outlined as well as her escape from Sweet Home, the plantation she was enslaved on.

Eventually the truth of the ghost is learned: Long ago Sethe killed her toddler daughter, whose

name is never revealed, in an attempt to spare her being returned to a life of cruel slavery when

people from Sweet Home come to retrieve Sethe and her family. The tombstone Sethe carved for

her daughter reads only “Beloved”, and eventually a mysterious woman comes into Sethe’s life

who goes by the same name. This “new” Beloved eventually consumes Sethe’s life by becoming

obsessively demanding of her.

Not only does Beloved present the tragically beautiful bond between a mother and

daughter, it also presents the most challenging view of slavery: The one marked by abuse,

violence, and heartbreak, as opposed to the lighter versions some authors chose to take. The

multiple narrative styles Morrison uses in this novel flow well together, which speaks to both the

diversity of her characters and her superb control of language. Although her use of the unreliable

narrator is apparent, the challenge of reading and understanding the flow of the story speaks to

Morrison’s immense imagination and literary skill. Beloved could also be of the thriller genre as

well as historical fiction, a feat which highlights Morrison’s diversity as a writer.

This particular novel has received extensive feedback from scholars, including Sheldon

George, a professor of African-American literature at Simmons College, via his article

“Approaching the Thing of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison's Beloved.” The

Lacanian aspect of George’s analysis comes from the ideals of famed psychoanalyst Jacques

Lacan, who once stated that “psychoanalytic thought defines itself in terms of traumas and their
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persistence” (115). According to George, Beloved is a case-in-point example of “the persistence

of a traumatic past that haunts the present through a subjective, psychic experience of trauma that

defies the limits of time and space” (115). This is correct, as the character Beloved serves as the

haunting persistence of grief and trauma, tormenting her mother Sethe after a grueling life of

slavery. George then goes on reveal aspects of Beloved derived from Morrison herself: When

writing the novel, Morrison stated that “the idea of writing Beloved came to her as she was

‘considering aspects of self-sabotage, the way in which the best things we do so often carry seeds

of one’s own self destruction’” (118). Reading Beloved with Morrison’s motives for writing the

novel in mind brings a new light to the story, one that presents a writer conflicted with her own

work and personal history while still managing to produce literature of the highest caliber.

The literary work of Morrison is also closely examined in Timothy Powell’s article "Toni

Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White Page". Powell’s analysis of

Morrison’s literature features the challenges Morrison had to overcome to reach her status as one

of the greatest writers of our time. Powell notes Morrison’s methods in The Bluest Eye, in which

she begins with an excerpt from Dick and Jane, which Powell points out as the “white text” with

a highly significant meaning: it “points to the fact that all Afro-American have, willingly or not,

been forced to begin with the Master’s language”, as well as symbolizes “how white values and

standards are woven into the very texture of the fabric of American life” (749). Pecola

Breedlove, The Bluest Eye’s protagonist, adheres to these standards like much of her fellow

Black Americans, which, Powell asserts, ultimately becomes the basis for her gradual mental

decline. Powell also goes on to point out subtle messages in Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved,

three of Morrison’s critically acclaimed novels. Through these subtle messages, Powel argues,

Morrison is trying to achieve her goal of overthrowing the “white logos” that dominates

American literature (759).


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Powell’s analysis of Morrison’s literature is steeped in thoroughly scrutinized quotes

taken right out of her novels and thoughtful responses to the nuances in her chosen prose. Powell

also incorporates passages and analysis from other Morrison critics to support his own claims

regarding Morrison’s work. These fellow Morrison critics include Dorothy H. Lee, a professor of

Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, and Houston Baker, a renowned scholar

specializing in African-American literature. References to Plato are used as well, effectively

displaying Powell’s high regard for Morrison’s work. For example, when referring to Morrison’s

interpretation of the themes in The Bluest Eye, Powell responds with the following:

“In terms of Morrison’s project to discover the Black logos…she does not refer to a

uniquely black metaphysical standard but is in fact speaking of ‘our…condition’ relative

to the ‘metaphysical’ paradigm…of Plato and the rest of western culture. … The ethereal,

Platonic mythos of truth and goodness is a promise remote and inaccessible to this black

family faced with the corporeal concerns of having to spend the night sleeping on the

cold, hard ground” (750-751).

By using related rhetoric from a literary powerhouse such as Plato to analyze The Bluest Eye and

Morrison as a whole, Powell successfully captures the essence of what makes a Toni Morrison

novel so unique.

A key aspect of why Morrison’s novels stand out from that of other writers of her time is

how closely related her fiction is to the struggle of her fellow Black people in America. This

close relation is further strengthened by the fact that research has been carried out regarding

Black American hardships. Author Manning Marable sheds light on one aspect of Black

American struggle in his book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in

Race, Political Economy, and Society. Marable, a professor of African-American studies at

Columbia University, writes in response to the political and economic deficiencies of the Black
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community in today’s capitalist America. He covers both Black history and American capitalism

from the ending of slavery to the early 21st century. Marable’s research reveals that oppressive

measures such as the Jim Crow movement not only marked Blacks as immutable second-class

citizens, it effectively eliminated “equal competition with white in higher positions of the

capitalist set-up” (134). The evolution of the “Black Market” is also covered, as well as the

communal effects of Malcolm X, who Marable refers to as “the most politically advanced

spokesperson that Black nationalism produced in the 1960s” (170); the Black clergy’s scandals

and triumphs within America’s capitalist era, and the voting behavior of Blacks from post-Civil

War era to today.

With the use of controversial jabs at literary predecessors like Booker T. Washington,

extensive statistical facts on Black issues such as employment and likelihood of prison time, and

an objective analysis of his research, Marable makes his case in an eloquently passionate

manner. His literary strengths include the complexities his research reveals about the

underdevelopment of the political and economic aspects of Black America. Marable’s socialist

political stance provides a unique perspective on the struggles of Black America, which can be

seen in his efforts to emphasize the disparities between income and employment rates of blacks

and whites. Additionally, Marable has also critiqued American society regarding African-

Americans in previous works and is known to take a Marxist stance on Black issues, further

establishing his unique viewpoint on the struggles of Black America. These struggles are

something Morrison portrays with an angelic-like effortlessness, as seen in the novels I selected

for analysis.

Morrison’s writing acts as a written soundtrack to the tumultuous history of Black

America. Although she has written fourteen novels in total along with numerous plays, non-

fiction pieces, and children’s literature, the three novels I selected for analysis effectively display
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Morrison’s literary skill. Additionally, the scholarly sources used not only reinforce Morrison’s

literary greatness, they also outline the specific struggles of Black Americans, providing further

insight on why most of Morrison’s work focuses on the hardships Black people in America have

had to endure. I am currently reading one of Morrison’s latest novels, God Help the Child, and

from my perspective it reads like poetry for the wounds in a stories of hurt and loss, much like

the rest what I’ve been exposed to in Morrison’s repertoire. The main takeaway from reading

Morrison novels is that she brings a realistic rawness to her stories of slavery, of

disenfranchisement, and of forced inferiority within Black American culture—and she does so

with an ingenious grace.

Word count: 2876

Works Cited

George, Sheldon. “Approaching the Thing of Slavery: A Lacanian Analysis of Toni Morrison's

Beloved.” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 1-2, 2012, pp. 115–130. PDF.

DOI: 10.1353/afa.2012.0008.
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Marable, Manning. How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race,

Political Economy, and Society. Boston, MA, South End Press, 1983. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York, Knopf, 1987. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York, Knopf, 1974. Print.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York, Plume Book, 1994. Print.

Powell, Timothy B. “Toni Morrison: The Struggle to Depict the Black Figure on the White

Page.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 24, no. 4, 1990, p. 747. PDF.

DOI: 10.2307/3041800