Sciences sociales et humaines
Université Cheikh Anta Diop - Dakar - Sénégal
matter ofconsequence, Toni Morrison's writings are
The Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Toni
a fine blend ofvarious sources that incorporate both
Morrison in 1993 was, without any doubt, the
rational and magical tonalities. There is no doubt
recognition of her talents in the art of addressing
that the American South, known for being the
universal issues, thus making the stories in her
meeting place of many cultures, has largely
novels appeal to Blacks and Whites alike. In that
contributed to nurturing Toni Morrison's mind as it
respect, Toni Morrison's writings engage a wide
did with that of William Faulkner, another leading
variety of readers in compelling themes that turn
figure in American canonical literature. In
around love, equality, community survival, racial
contemporary America, Toni Morrison and William
and sexual politics, to name but a few. In fact, it is
Faulkner could be seen as two ofthe most prominent
through those 'universals' that she deals with re-
writers who popularized regional literature in the
writing history, re-assessing cultures, investigating
US. To account for the outlet regional literature
and confronting stereotypes ofwhat it means to be
offers in bringing an author to the heights of
Black or White as weIl as what it means to be a
"universality", William Faulkner is a good example
man or a woman in the United States of America.
of an author whose writings reached the whole
In view ofher literary production, nobody can object
world through the description of specificities. In an
to having her on the list ofAmerican contemporary
interview of Toni Morrison by Thomas LeClair in
mainstream writers even though she claims that her
Conversations with Toni Morrison, Toni Morrison
main concern when writing is to bring to surface
makes the following statement:
what has been hidden or omitted in the conventional
history books ofAmerica with regard to her people,
"It is that business of being universal, a
the AfricanAmerican group specificaIly. In fact, her
word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me.
fiction has emerged from the rich cultural
Faulkner wrote what 1 suppose could be caIled
background ofher childhood, expanded by a formaI
regionalliterature and had it published aIl over the
education in English and the classics at Howard and
world. It is good- and universal- because it is
CorneIl universities, and forged by her experiences
specificaIly about a particular world. That swhat 1
as an African American woman, hence an advocate
wish to do. "1
ofa dual cause in a polarized American society. This
explains why her novels are equally structured in
That regional anchorage reaching out to the world
perfect accordance with Western aesthetic and canon
traditions drawing on her perfect mastery of
• This is a revised version of a paper presented on the occasion of the
metaphors and images that are found in the most
celebration of the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Toni Morrison. A
panel discussion was organized by the West African Research Center in
celebrated works of art in the Western World. As a
Dakar, Senegal. Panelists included professors Eileen Julien, Janis Mayes,
Marième Sy, Ousmane Sène and Oumar Ndongo.
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in fact had brought closer to one another Toni
desire and repression, control and chaos, attraction
Morrison and William Faulkner. It began very early
and chaos, attraction and repulsion, connection and
in Toni Morrison's career as her M.A. thesis was
withdrawal"3. Sorne scholars have even come to
on that author of the South. One can therefore
the conclusion that what Toni Morrison talks about
understand the meaning of the parallel made above
in her novels is almost entirely foreign, different
on the likely connections between the 'local' and
from the notion of the "rugged individualist" that
the' global' in Toni Morrison's approach to writing,
characterizes the works of the Transcendentalists,
especially her views about self and place in
even distasteful to many Americans given their
literature, her literature in particular.
disapproval ofher contention that identity is found
within the group, the clan, the neighborhood. In an
However, Toni Morrison's fiction appears
interview-with Thomas Leclair, published in The
to be the accommodation of two often competing
New Republic n?184 in 1981, Toni Morrison gives
literary selves, a divided self, so to speak, that is
the following reply to this question: How do you
the result ofher unresolved double-consciousness.
conceive ofyour function as a writer? :
Parallel to a noticeable European influence in her
writing runs another type of style based on a
"] write what ] have recently begun to cal!
powerful vision oflives and thoughts of people, the
village literature,fiction that is real!yfor the village,
African Americans more specifically, at different
for the tribe. Peasant literature for mypeople, which
moments of their experiences. Sorne critics who
is necessary and legitimate but which also, al!ows
ventured a closer look at her writings posit that her
me to get in touch with al! sorts ofpeople. ] think
ambivalence is indicative of an ongoing concem
long and carefully about what my novels ought to
for 'self' and 'place' that she scrutinizes constantly.
do. They should clarify the roles that have become
Thus, the interest in 'geography' and 'identity' has
obscured; they ought to identify those things in the
been one of the most explored themes in American
past that are useful and those things that are not;
history, especially during the puritan period, themes
and they ought to give nourishment"-I.
addressed by writers such as Perry Miller or other
investigators of the American mind. Yet, Toni
What Toni Morrison calls here a « village»
Morrison's novels demonstrate a slightly different
could weIl be a synecdoche for Africa, being also
kind of search from the one found in other writers'
understood the metonymic presence of that
works. The reason can be found in the fact that she
continent and the myth of origins it represents every
gives little credit to the individual in isolation. As
time the South or slavery is alluded to in her books.
indicated in the preface to Patrick Bryce Bjork's
Far from undennining the importance ofthis study
book The Novels of Toni Morrison: the Searchfor
which strives to point to Africa as the land which
Self and Place Within the Community, Toni
fed and framed Toni Morrison's imagination, the
Morrison's novels show that «place and identity
South as a locus ofheterogeneous cultures remains
are found in the community and in the communal
meaningfully connected to the 'place' in Morrison's
experience, and not in the transcendence ofsociety
fictitious world. One can posit here that the South,
or in the search for a single private selfi>2. As a
as it appears in American history and in linguistic
matter offact, one can see in her works a conscious
decorum, is fundamentally although not exclusively
choice to write both from and about a zone that is,
African in most of its cultural manifestations,
so to speak, «outside» ofher inspiring physical self.
especially as referenced in Toni Morrison's literary
Therefore, we are tempted to believe that Toni
Morrison's very success as a writer may be a
This paper seeks to examine a few aspects
testimony to her power to examine themes from
ofToni Morrison's fiction which connect her to the
various angles and to accept unresolved situations
continent of her origins. Based on an overview of
as they are. Patrick Bryce Bjork in his conclusion
her earlier novels, the study will draw on themes
observes that: "Her[Toni Morrison] characters
and literary devices found in her work that
waver within the contradictions and ambiguities of
pertinently track down or highlight the presence of
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_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Sciences sociales et humaines
the African continent. We are aware of the fact that
bear a heavy load of naturalistic signs that show
none of her novels took actually place in Africa. In
environrnental locations and heredity, the African
fact, in her early fiction, only Tar Baby is set out of
American experience as central features in the
the United States physical territory. It is set on the
shaping of characters' backgrounds.
tropical Caribbean Isle des Chevaliers. However,
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison's first novel
even though the presence ofAfrica is not a physical
published in 1970, recounts the adventures ofthree
one, oblique or even direct references to it are many
young girls: Pecola Breedlove, Claudia, and Frieda
in most of Toni Morrison's literary production,
Mc Teer. It examines racism, sexuality, and what it
especially in the early works that brought her to
means to grow up in a hostile world. Although the
public notice. We are also aware of the attention
past is not openly addressed as it will be in the
she pays to gender as not separate or separable from
following novels, Claudia's retrospective narrative
racial identity. While she argues for liberation from
of her childhood describes a world where «adults
racial and gender oppression, she also finds that both
do not talk to us- they give us directions. They issue
gender and race are liberating points from which to
orders without providing information». Claudia's
construct a language or create a literature that is «
narrative in the first chapter of The Bluest Eye
political in form as well as in subject matter»5 . By
conveys her reminiscences, as a child, ofher social
the same token, in Toni Morrison's texts, to be
environrnent. We are likely to be here in an African
«other» i.e. black and female, is to have privileged
context, if not one which Africa has tremendously
insights, to have access to a special knowledge. This
influenced. The importance attached to age as an
is certainly what the critics of her works term her
agency for privileges is here an indication that
«artistic tribalism» or «the cult of otherness»6 to
Claudia Mc Teer's upbringing followed African
help construe a social divide in American society.
roles. In fact, what appears clearly here is the split
In fact, this is an indication that the marginality
between the adult world and that of the children
noted in her "village literature" does not prevent
resulting in a lack of love that is going to affect
her from occupying a central position in canonical
Claudia in the course ofher emotional development.
literature. In that respect, the presence of Africa,
Even though the first part of The Bluest Eye
being predominantly felt in the part the past plays
focuses on language with a primer that is getting
in her stories, is implied in situations where 'place'
more and more difficult to understand, thus
is examined through a few myths which to a certain
reflecting young Pecola's warped sense of herself
extent, refiect Toni Morrison's attempt to reconnect
and of her community, we however discover that
with the experience of her people, the African
Ohio is the locality where the story develops. There
American community at large. In talking about the
is obviously no surprise as Toni Morrison portrays
life and experience of her community, she is
people she has lived with in an environrnent that
undoubtedly contributing greatly to educating her
she knows very weIl:
group as weIl as the 'other', the 'white community'
to be more precise against stereotypes and biases
Here is the house. It is green and white .It
readily available to ignorant people.
has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family.
In the four novels chosen for this overview:
Mother, Father, Dick, Jane live in the -green-and-
The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song ofSolomon, and Beloved,
white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She
Toni Morrison demonstrates that 'self' is always and
has a red dress. 7
forever inextricably linked to the community. The
characters portrayed are examined within the
What catches the eye in this environrnent is about
context of their families, their communities. Their
colors. Green, white, and red even though they may
shortcomings or stigma rarely stem from their
have significance in Pecola's mind, they don't seem
biological nature. They are the product of a society,
to match and obviously contrast with the sense of
a culture and they are shaped by various forces that
beauty expressed in the fourth sentence. What
come to surface as a result of the social dynamics.
appears in the description ofthis site is the negative
To use a literary history terminology, the four novels
image it conveys. The young girl who is growing in
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That perception draws on the Yoruba cosmogony,
periods. Toni Morrison sees herself as an agent in
especial1y the «egungun» 1 which makes the worlds
the empowerment of her people through the
of the living and the dead interfere constantly. The
rediscovery of their history. Therefore, no doubt,
belief that the dead protect the community is
that her focus be historic and her goal the
explicitly shown in Morrison's works. This explains
rediscovery ofher African past, lost through slavery
why she is sympathetic to certain characters, Pilate
and perhaps irretrievable except as she does, through
for example in Song of Solomon, a woman of
myths. and then only at the risk: of life and sanity.
knowledge because she can read the past and
However, in examining her legacy, she expects to
believes in those values. Pilate is the depository of
reach a higher level in the understanding ofherself.
traditions. Sethe is also another character recounting
Her themes, in that regard, are no longer specifie to
her «rememorizes» in the form of songs, made-up
herself or to her group, but they have become
ballads for her children. Those songs, in fact,
universal ones. In fact, they address disruptive
constitute a transmission ofhistory and of culture.
families and challenge modern times, the more so
In Pilate's conversation, even her thoughts,
because of the growing interest in social mobility
everything cornes out with a certain musicality.
and family ties which does not imply love and
However, Sethe embodies another myth one can
forgiveness as cornerstones of communallife.
connect to the Yoruba cosmogony: the Abiku Child
Myth. The best illustration ofthat myth can be found
Her interest in Africa is also her commitment
in the novel of a young Nigerian novelist: Ben Okri.
to the feminine cause. Women must have a better
In his novel, The Famished Road,2 published in
understanding of the new challenges and work
1991, the main character AZARO is an Abiku3 , a
toward their participation in social dynamic
Child tom between the spiritual and the natural
processes. Toni Morrison works for freedom and it
worlds. There is a belief that spirits compete with
is important to note that the story of an ancestor
human bcings for babies. A death at an early age is
who could fly, who would be beyond social
the sign that the spirit took advantage of a mother's
impediment and limitations reflects her own
carelessness to take away her baby. Paradoxically,
impulses as she sees herself moving away from
to ensure life to the baby, a sort of game is played
restrictive spaces and ready to act on circumstances.
against the spirit through the name given at the birth
of the child. Names used in that context, in the
Her link with Africa, as revealed by the
Senegalese one in particular, could have special
connections we have already mentioned, results
meaning such as "rags", "Nobody loves"
from her early exposure to the literature from that
etc ... Those names will result in the spirit's loss of
continent. Shc rcad Camara Laye, Chicaya U. Tamsi.
interest in the dispute over the child. Consequently
She dreamed of the day Leopold Sedar Senghor
the baby is expected to survive. In Beloved, Sethe
would read her books which was like1y to have come
feels that sorne fragments of repression are
true given the interest Senghor had in the African
connected to the presence of her child who died
American experience. She is impressed by Chinua
before she was 2 years old. That death is seen as the
Achebe with whom she shares simi1ar approaches
punishment ofher forgetfulness. Bence, shc actively
when revisiting the African past, the disruptive
denies life and memory in the hope that death will
forces of domination and identity transformation.
not intrude again. There is no doubt that Sethe finds
Yet, Toni Morrison has never tried to visit the
herself in a context that has been influenced by
continent ofher origins. It is not a question of means
African beliefs.
or opportunities. At a confeœnce she attended in
1956 in France at the Sorbonne about black culture
The presence of Africa is fully justified by
the strong ties Toni Morrison has with her
l "egungun" in Yoruba cosmogony meaus the cult to the ancestors.
community. Her works seem to address the lives of
, Ben Okri, The Famished Raad, New York Anchor Books (A Division of
Random House, inc.,), 1993 (tirst date of publication in 1991).
African American people in different historical
) An Abiku is a child born that dies and the mother becomes pregnant again.
It is believed that it is the same child that cornes over and over again to
torture a woman.
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Sciences sociales et humaines
she disclosed her lack of interest in visiting Africa.
community to nurture and sustain the individual.
Expressing her views through her works, one can
Yet, a look at her novels reveals that the families
see the point she is trying to make. The most vivid
she portrays, most of which being nuclear families,
link with Africa is Jazz, that music which today
are in complete disintegration. From The Bluest Eye
knows no boundaries, that music which speaks to
to Song of Solomon, family structures are totally
the heart of every one and yet is so authentically
disrupted: the Mac Teers are impoverished, the
black, that music which narratizes 300 years of
Wrights are sterile, the Streets are decadent, the
sufferings with notes which know how to restore
Deads are just as their name suggests, therefore
hope to the dispossessed or the social outcast, how
dead. Even though Morrison does not see men who
to arrange words to make them look beautiful, feel
abandon their families as villainous, she, however,
beautiful and poetic. This is certainly the message
strives to show how their absence causes chaos and
Toni Morrison wanted to find in Africa, values which
confusion to women and children. The context of
are like Jazz, universaI and yet so authentic and race-
the family she describes results from a historical
specific, formerly scorned, once seen as low culture,
situation where men are denied access to jobs,
landmark in Black heritage but today valued,
therefore denied to be as they used to be in Africa,
reclaimed by so many social categories, ethnicities,
providers and breadwinners. This explains why the
and raised to the status of an academic subject in
AfricanAmerican men can't any longer claim to be
most American universities and sign of refinement
heads oftheir households. In Beloved and in Jazz,
for many circles of intellectuais and artists.
the families are so dysfunctional that they literally
cease to exist. This does not mean that Morrison
It can be inferred that Toni Morrison begins
does not believe in the power of regeneration of the
the search for her heritage by addressing what is
Black family.
most intimate and meaningful to her- the black
When African Americans realize that the
family- and broadens her scope to embrace the black
dominant society will do little to better their
community at large, then regions of the United
conditions, they turn their energies to the
States, foreign lands and alien cultures, history and
development of their own communities. However,
reality. Each novel moves forward to a new concern,
this effort to build new communities is imitative of
but without having completely left behind previous
white society. As Margaret Butcher observes below:
ones. Her strong stands against light-skinned
characters and culturally alienated ones seem to have
ln basic attitude and alliance with over-all
softened. She has gone from, as it appears in her
American concepts and ideals, the Negro is a
first novels, such invectives as the origins of a mule
conformist. He believes implicitly in the promise
and a mulatto are the same to the treatment of
and heritage ofbasic American documents, and he
interracial skin color in Jazz where she avoids the
had applied the principles ofself-reliance, personal
earlier tendencies just valorizing the black-black
dignity, and individual human worth to the long,
woman over the light-skinned one. The novel Jazz
rewardingfight to achievefull and unequivocalfirst-
is illustrative of that subtle change in Toni
class citizenship.5
Morrison's views on cultural alienation in the
AfricanAmerican society. Though Dorcas' light skin
It appears that Morrison's interest in Africa is an
is not to blame for Joe Trace's infidelity, Violet's
oblique way to confront Western Culture, the culture
own obsession with whiteness becomes a barrier to
she charges with alienating her people and being
understanding her husband's more complex need for
the cause of the chaotic worlds we see in aIl her
renewal, for remembering « the way if was when he
novels. However, she wants to move her readers
and Violet were young»4 , and for self-determination.
beyond sympathy or empathy, and even
The ambiguity of Toni Morrison's positions
understanding ofwhat it means to be black in a white
conceming race and identity incorporates the place
she gives to the family. The concern of Toni
, Toni Morrison, Jazz, New York: A Plume Book, 1993, p. 19
Morrison is to show the need for family and
'Quoted in KinfeAbraham, Politics a/Black Natianalism: From Harlem 10
Sowelo, Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1991, p.265
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Sciences sociales et humaines --~--------------
1991-1995, Singapore: World Scientific
America. As it will later appear in her production,
Publishing Co., 1997
love, the subject matter of her books in Paradise
Bjork, Patrick Bryce, Novels of Toni
Morrison: The Search For Selfand Place with The
and Love, is the transfiguring tool to restore peace
Community, New York: Peter Lang, 1992.
and happiness in America. Africa appears hence to
Frangsmur, Tore, (ed.), Les Prix Nobel, the
explain her heritage and aIl the values that nurtured
Nobel Prizes 1993, Stockholm: Nobel
her community. As an advocate of integration in
Foundation, 1994.
Guthrie, Danille
the American society, Africa is a central relie she
Taylor (ed.), Conversations with Toni
uses to rec1aim the validity of her origins without
Morrison, Jackson: University
compromising her will to be like most American
of Mississippi, 1994.
citizens, a person turned towards the future.
Rigney, Barbara Hill, The Voices of Toni
However, Morrison has a clear understanding that
Morrison, Columbus: Ohio States University
her future is in control once she has a firm grip on
Press, 1991.
her past, in other words, once she can make adequate
Valade, Roger M., the Essential Black
use of her African heritage to bring to the global
Literature Guide, Detroit: Visible Ink, 1996.
American culture.
Works by other Writers
Abraham, Kinfe, Politics of Black
A -
Primary sources (by Toni Morrison)
Nationalism: From Harlem to Soweto,
Trenton:Africa World Press, 1991.
1 -
The Bluest Eye, New-York: Holt, Rinehart,
and Winston, 1970.
Barksdale, Richard and Keneth Kinnamon,
2 -
Sula, New York: Knopf, 1973.
Black Writers ofAmerica: A Comprehensive
3 -
Song ofSolomon, New York: Knopf, 1977
Anthology, Englewood Clîffs, NJ: Prentice
4 -
Tar Baby, New York: Knopf, 1981.
5 -
Beloved, New York: Knopf, 1987.
6 -
Jazz, New York: Knopf, 1992.
Magill, Frank N., ed., Masterpieces of
7 -
Playing in the Dark, Cambridge, Mass:
African American Literature, New York:
Harvard University Press, 1992.
Salem press, inc., 1992.
Paradise, New York: Knopf, 1998
9- Love, New York: Knopf, 2003
- Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in the
Making ofAmerica, New York: Collier
B -
Secondary Sources.
Books, 1987.
Allén, Sture, (ed.), Nobel Lectures, Literature
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