Friday, October 15, 2010

Notes on Toni Morrison's writing...

For Morrison, "all good art has been political" and the black artist has a responsibility to the black community. She aims at capturing "the something that defines what makes a book 'black.' And that has nothing to do with whether the people in the books are black or not." She thinks that one characteristic of black writers is "a quality of hunger and disturbance that never ends." Her novels "bear witness" to the experience of the black community and blacks in that community.

Themes and Practices in Morrison's Novels

Sense of Loss.
Morrison feels deeply the losses which Afro-Americans experienced in their migration from the rural South to the urban North from 1930 to 1950. They lost their sense of community, their connection to their past, and their culture. The oral tradition of storytelling and folktales was no longer a source of strength. Another source of strength, their music, which healed them, was taken over by the white community; consequently, it no longer belongs to them exclusively.

Roots, Community, and Identity
To have roots is to have a shared history. The individual who does not belong to a community is generally lost. The individual who leaves and has internalized the village or community is much more likely to survive. Also, a whole community--everyone--is needed to raise a child; one parent or two parents are inadequate to the task. The lack of roots and the disconnection from the community and the past cause individuals to become alienated; often her characters struggle unsuccessfully to identify, let alone fulfill an essential self.

Ancestors are necessary: they provide cultural information, they are a connection with the past, they protect, and they educate...The ancestors may be parents, grandparents, teachers, or elders in the community...Morrison believes that the presence of the ancestor is one of the characteristics of black writing.

Extreme Situations
Morrison places her characters in extreme situations; she forces them to the edge of endurance and then pushes them beyond what we think human beings can bear. These conditions reveal their basic nature. We see that even good people act in remarkable and in terrible ways. Also, this "push toward the abyss" reveals
what is heroic.

Freedom and "Bad" Men
To be free, the individual must take risks. Morrison sees men ordinarily regarded as "bad," men who leave their families and refuse responsibilities, as free men. (She is using bad to mean both bad and good.) These men, who have "a nice wildness" and who are fearless and "comfortable with that fearlessness," are misunderstood and therefore condemned. Morrison admires them as adventurers who refuse to be controlled and who are willing to take risks. Because they own themselves, they are able to choose their own way to live their lives. Blacks have been cut off from their own natures and needs by conforming to the rules of white society. The outlaw serves as a partial solution to the problem of being out of touch with the essential self.

Morrison is not advocating irresponsibility and destructive or chaotic behavior, however. She believes in the necessity of being responsible for one's choices: "freedom is choosing your responsibility. It's not having no responsibilities; it's choosing the ones you want." Jan Furman comments, "She respects the freedom even as she embraces the responsibility." Unfortunately, in our society, "many women have been given responsibilities they don't want" and which they could not refuse. Consequently, they are not free.

Good and Evil
Morrison shows understanding of and, often, compassion, for characters who commit horrific deeds, like incest-rape or infanticide. This trait springs in large part from her attitude toward good and evil, which she distinguishes from the conventional or Western view of good and evil. She describes a distinctive view which, she claims, blacks have historically held toward good and evil: It was interesting that black people at one time seemed not to respond to evil in the ways other people did, but that they thought evil had a natural place in the universe; they did not wish to eradicate it. They just wished to protect themselves from it, maybe even to manipulate it, but they never wanted to kill it.

Loss of Innocence
Innocence has to be lost in order for the individual to grow.

The Black as Other
Morrison presents the white view of blacks as the Other and the blacks' experience of themselves as Other
She believes that blacks were used to control succeeding waves of immigrants in order to prevent class warfare. Immigrants were given the blacks to feel superior to; they were not at the bottom of the social ladder-- blacks were. Blacks also provided immigrants with an identity, i.e., they were not blacks. So, in an ironic way, the Otherness of blacks helped to unify the country and to give immigrants their American identities. She calls learning to perceive blacks as the Other a traumatic experience, like being told "that your left hand is not part of your body."

excerpt from

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