Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four children, to George and Ramah Wofford on February 18, 1931. Both of her parents came from sharecropping families who had moved North in pursuit of better living conditions in the early 1900s, and her father’s family had faced a great deal of discrimination. Due to these bitter memories and the racial troubles he endured during his childhood, he maintained a strong distrust of whites throughout his lifetime. Morrison’s parents instilled the value of group loyalty, which they believed was essential to surviving the harsh realities of racial tension during that era. As an African-American in a town of immigrants, she grew up with the notion that the only place she could turn to for aid and reassurance would be within her own community in Lorain, Ohio. Here, Morrison had "an escape from stereotyped black settings -- neither plantation nor ghetto". (1)

Storytelling, songs, and folktales were a deeply formative part of her childhood. She attended Howard University (B.A., 1953) and Cornell University (M.A., 1955). After teaching at Texas Southern University for two years, she taught at Howard from 1957 to 1964. In 1965 she became a fiction editor. From 1984 she taught writing at the State University of New York at Albany, leaving in 1989 to join the faculty of Princeton University. (2)

Morrison's first book, The Bluest Eye (1970), is a novel of initiation concerning a victimized adolescent black girl who is obsessed by white standards of beauty and longs to have blue eyes. In 1973 a second novel, Sula, was published; it examines (among other issues) the dynamics of friendship and the expectations for conformity within the community. Song of Solomon (1977) is told by a male narrator in search of his identity; its publication brought Morrison to national attention. Tar Baby (1981), set on a Caribbean island, explores conflicts of race, class, and sex. The critically acclaimed Beloved (1987), which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is based on the true story of a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, kills her infant daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. Jazz (1992) is a story of violence and passion set in New York City's Harlem during the 1920s. A work of criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, also was published in 1992. Her novel Paradise (1998) is a richly detailed portrait of a black utopian community in Oklahoma. Her later novel, Love (2003), is an intricate family story that reveals the myriad facets of love and its ostensible opposite. (2)

The central theme of Morrison's novels is the black American experience; in an unjust society her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity. Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gave her stories great strength and texture. (2)

Published in 1987, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, adapted for film in 1998, and remains one of Toni Morrison’s most well-known and critically-acclaimed works. It was influenced by a published story about a slave, Margaret Garner, who in 1851 escaped with her children to Ohio from her master in Kentucky. Not only does it expose the atrocities and depravities of the institution of slavery in the tradition of slave narratives that have come before it, but the novel also shows the powerful hold that this past has on slaves even after they have won their freedom. Beloved is a novel replete with ghosts, not only in the guise of its title character, but also in the ghostly memories of enslavement that still haunt Sethe and Paul D. The plot of the novel is somewhat disjointed, as the story moves through the narratives of various characters at different points in their history; the central plot unfolds at 124 in Cincinnati, and a smattering of chapters are devoted to abstract monologues. In part, the novel provides a chronicle of Sethe’s struggle to escape the slave farm at Sweet Home and live in freedom with her children, ending tragically with the death of her youngest daughter when she is rediscovered by her former master. In a similar fashion, Paul D’s story begins at Sweet Home and follows his escape, capture, and imprisonment on a chain gang in Georgia. Paul D, Sethe, her daughter Denver, and the ghostly Beloved all converge in the present while the characters each try to come to terms with their pasts. (1)

I believe that the novel Beloved is a fascinating and heart-wrenching narrative exploring the ways in which the oppression and violence of slavery continue even after individuals have attained “freedom” from the system. Although the protagonist is “free” from slavery, this part of her past continues to haunt her in a very real way. The novel shares this theme with the novel we will soon be reading, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Also featuring a female protagonist, this novel shows how racial oppression and slavery continue to affect the lives of blacks who are legally “free” from slavery according to US law. Both give compelling stories of the ghosts of slavery in American society. Especially Morrison’s novel, published in 1987, shows that these themes are still a part of our society, and for complete racial equality, there is still work and understanding to be done.

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