Toni Morrison once said that as much as she loved the work of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin she felt that as black writers they looked over their shoulders to explain things to white people too often. She said that she found it “demoralizing” to have to explain black life to white people again; to be required to write about “typical blacks.”
I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin…. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world.
Morrison disliked the question of universality, she said, because behind it was the suggestion that to write for black people was somehow a diminishment.
Black writers have long asserted that the Negro is the metaphor for America, and Morrison is more inclined to redefine the nation’s cultural past than she is to explain black people to anyone. In Playing in the Dark (1992), a series of lectures on “whiteness and the literary imagination,” Morrison argues that the general themes of American literature—innocence, individualism, masculinity, freedom—are responses to the “abiding” “Africanist presence” in the New World, just as the romantic character of so much nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, “the private imagination interacting with the external world,” comes from an evasiveness about slavery, race, and the moral questions inherent in the country’s images and treatment of blacks. She says that when she began to read as a writer she discovered, as Ellison had done, how much the American idiom owed to black culture.
When Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), black writers had already won the battle for realism. The grim social truths that had been resisted as proper subjects of imaginative literature by publishers and some readers had become, for black writers of her generation, a hindrance to experimentation with the novel, not to mention too restrictive of what could be said about black life. But the 1970s were also the time of the Black Aesthetic movement, an attempt on the part of black writers to create their own terms for evaluating literature, such as saying that black narrative had its own characteristics. One of them, the critic Addison Gayle Jr., dismissed Faulkner as a champion of white supremacy and attacked Ellison for sticking up for him. Ironically, as the editor Erroll Macdonald has suggested, Faulkner’s work reached the very black writers who didn’t want to hear about him, because the Spanish-American magical real-ists celebrated in the 1970s for being, among other things, not European had been greatly influenced by Faulkner in translation.
In 1955, the year Faulkner was promising to shoot Negroes in the streets of Mississippi, Morrison wrote her master’s thesis at Cornell on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. In interviews she gives a strong sense of having read widely in both the experimenters and the explainers. Perhaps that is why the Black Aesthetic movement’s quarrel with Faulkner isn’t so much resolved in Morrison as made irrelevant by her work. She draws inspiration where she finds it, either from Faulkner or from the discoveries of black cultural nationalism. Like Ishmael Reed, Morrison has wondered if there could not be such a thing as a distinctly African-American novel, “a truly aural novel.” “There was an articulate literature before there was print,” she said. She has called her own work “village literature” for “the tribe.”
It is a surprise to find a strain of corrective chauvinism in a novelist of Morrison’s boundary-crossing appeal. In her job as an editor in the late 1960s and 1970s Morrison published the Black Panthers and Angela Davis. Morrison also helped to edit The Black Book (1974), an informative and visually fascinating “scrapbook” of photographs, old newspaper columns, letters, advertisements, posters, handbills, and documents having to do with the achievements of blacks in America going back some three hundred years. Her commitment to publishing black writers and works of black history fits with her writing a novel about the harm the dream of blue eyes could do a vulnerable, dark black girl in the days before “Black Is Beautiful.” Yet Morrison perhaps didn’t have to wait for the resurgence of interest in black history in the 1960s to discover her themes. At predominantly black Howard University in the early 1950s, where she studied with the poet Sterling Brown, students would have been aware that they were already playing a part in black history. In her later work, Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998), the stories she tells revise and expand American historical lore.
Morrison once said that she waited for an audience to move over to what she was doing. Not to take anything from Valerie Martin’s brilliant achievement, one wonders if Property doesn’t owe something to the ground Morrison cleared in her masterwork, Beloved. She has acquired her own manner and style over the years. Each novel is somewhat different from the one before, involving a new risk.
Although Morrison has also been known as the publisher of black women writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, she wasn’t writing the kind of thing the period is remembered for: the feminist critique of black men. Its absence in her own work has always set her apart from other black women writers who emerged on the scene around the same time she did. The women’s movement was entering another popular phase in the 1970s, but Morrison, in looking back, said she couldn’t understand why white women were talking about loving one another, because to her way of thinking black women had always understood the importance of friendships among women.
Some of Morrison’s readers have puzzled over the authorial sympathy in The Bluest Eye for the father who blights his daughter’s life with his alcoholic’s violence and then rapes her, as if trying to understand the oppressor in the next room were the last thing to expect in fiction by black women. And Morrison followed Sula (1973), a novel about a terrible secret that binds two women together from childhood, with Song of Solomon (1977), “a novel informed by the male spirit.” Black men “travel, they split, they get on trains,” but it is the children who pay the price.
Black communities in Morrison’s novels are patiently made up of closely observed houses, streets, and neighborhoods full of their own special lore, their burdens of memory. Jazz is set in Harlem and Tar Baby (1981) has Philadelphia and Paris, but the small town is Morrison’s métier, whether utopian village, dangerous backwater, or rust-belt notch. Morrison is in the tradition that interprets the novel of manners as moral investigation, and in this literature the small town is the microcosm, the reflection of the larger American society. Perhaps she has in mind the small Ohio town she comes from as well as the era in which she grew up, when black people of different classes lived in snubbing, backbiting proximity.
More than any other black writer in contemporary African-American literature, and without its being her primary intention, Morrison captures the battles of class and the struggles to define status that are part of the history of the places where black people were allowed or where they turned up, whether in the stuffy midwestern pocket of Song of Solomon or the dry all-black Oklahoma town of Paradise. Then, too, Morrison respects the entrepreneurial pride some black people had in spite of segregation—making a way out of no way, as the saying went. As a single parent, a working mother, Morrison, the Nobel Laureate, spent two decades in an office and before that was a college instructor. “You can’t idealize hard work,” she said, before adding that the great home of the soul is the open road.*
In Love, Morrison’s eighth novel, Junior, a young woman, is trying get off that open road, just as Christine, the old woman whose childhood home Junior insinuates herself into, realized years ago that she had nowhere to go other than that unhappy paternal kingdom after the freedom of the road had led her only to degrading relationships, a kind of prostitution. Junior will find Christine in the kitchen, forced by circumstances to cook for another elderly black woman, Heed, once Christine’s best friend, and exactly her age, until Heed, when still a child herself, married Christine’s rich grandfather, Bill Cosey, the last of whose once considerable property, a mansion near a North Carolina coastal resort, is the battlefield for their war of attrition. In her earlier fiction, Morrison has also used the stranger or a face from the past as the catalyst for the changes, revelations, or havoc that the families stewing in their houses both dread and crave. But she is as interested in how she tells a story, how a novel is put together, as she is in what kind of tale she is spinning out.
Love opens with a mysterious first-person voice: “The women’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.” The elderly black woman speaking disapproves of women calling attention in public to their sexuality, behavior that became socially acceptable in the 1970s, when she gave up talking because she no longer understood people. She has taken to humming.
People come in here for a plate of crawfish, or to pass the time, and never notice or care that they do all the talking. I’m background—the movie music that comes along when the sweethearts see each other for the first time, or when the husband is walking the beachfront alone wondering if anybody saw him doing the bad thing he couldn’t help.
Her hum is private, below range, suitable, she says, to an old woman who objects to the way the century is turning out.
The Invisible Woman, the “I,” goes on to tell us about “female recklessness” in humid, God-fearing coast country. Prostitutes have always set the style, she says, but even the wildest woman with scars can’t hide her innocence, the “winsome baby girl” curled up inside. They all have a sad story about dragon daddies, false-hearted men, mean mamas, and monsters who made them tough instead of brave. Sometimes their hurt is too deep for a tale. “Then the only thing that does the trick, that explains the craziness heaping up, holding down, and making women hate one another and ruin their children is an outside evil.”
In the community she comes from, Up Beach, people believed in “Police-heads,” creatures in big hats that came out of the ocean to harm loose women and eat disobedient children. The “I” claims to have seen them in 1942, when thunderclouds gathered and some hardheaded children drowned. Among the incidents attributed to Police-heads: a wife suffered a stroke the day after she committed adultery; a woman buried the deed to her father-in-law’s beachfront in the sand, where a loggerhead, a snake, dug it up.
See Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), and Toni Morrison, "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans (Random House, 1983).↩
See Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie (University Press of Mississippi, 1994), and Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans (Random House, 1983).↩