In 2016, Toni Morrison delivered her Norton Lectures at Harvard on the ‘Literature of Belonging’ in which she considers fetishisation of skin colour and the questions posed by the era of mass migration. Her famous book, The Origin of Others, published on these concerns is now getting more and more significant in the context of the increasing visibility of white supremacist groups in the Trump era.
The longing to belong is the essence of all the stories of abandonment in Morrison’s fiction. She began writing fiction independently to tell stories of initiation of black girls into womanhood defining the process of the complex meaning of being black and female in a culture that denigrates both qualities.
During the first 18-year period of her writing, from 1970 to 1988, she wrote five major novels The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), The Song Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), and then came the other novels, including the ever debatable God Help the Child (2015).
Her great-grandmother was pitch-black, the blackest woman she had ever seen in her life and since she was aware of the pain when someone was compelled to internalise the feeling of being ugly forever. So she could not forget this pigmentation issue. Morrison’s neighbourhood where she passed her childhood days was racially mixed — Poles, Italians and Jews as well as African Americans. She finally took her pen to make her words as her sword for inking over half a century her eight novels all to focus on the ‘longing to belong’. She began writing fiction independently to tell stories of initiation of black girls into womanhood defining the process of the complex meaning of being black and female in a culture that denigrates both qualities.
Alice Walker wrote very correctly about her fiction: “No one writes more beautifully than Toni Morrison. Really she was a wonderful stylist and a terrific thinker. As professor at Princeton University, teaching her undergraduate students ‘American Africanism’ she consistently explores issues of true complexity and terror and love in the lives of African Americans.”
And her novels are characterised by ‘visionary force and poetic import that gives life to an essential aspect of American reality’ to borrow the words of Swedish Academy. No wonder she became the first Afro-American writer to win the Nobel Prize worth $8,25,000. She was just the eighth woman to win the prize since 1901.
She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four children of George and Ramah Wofford, sharecroppers and the granddaughter of an Alabama slave. In 1949, she passed from Lorrain public schools and entered Howard University to take her BA degree in 1953.
A determination that was rare among the African Americans that time inspired her to attend Howard University although she earlier planned to be a dancer. She got a new direction after getting MA degree in American Literature from Cornell (1955). She taught a number of years in Texas South and Howard University. In 1967, she became a senior editor in the Random House. She married and had two sons. Her first recognition finally came after the protest by 48 black writers, including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Houston A Baker Jr, Angela Davis, in favour of her and she got Pulitzer in 1988 for Beloved which she rightly deserved and a little later to the expectation of all, a Nobel in 1993 and in 2012 the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.
In 2015 she got her lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle for her books.
In her latest, God Help the Child, which thundered off the press with 200,000 copies, she balanced between skimpy realism and overwrought fantasy revolved around a successful cosmetics designer called Bride and the novel is a capstone of her jewelled career.
In this novel she again focuses on a woman whose life is over-determined by the pigment of her skin in a culture torn with sexual violence.
As an adult she was distractingly gorgeous driving a Jaguar. The semi-magical worlds depicted with surreal touches fade when we see Bride losing her charms: her pubic hair lost, earring holes closed, periods stopped and breasts shrunk and she changes back into a little black girl. Many were critical of the novel talking of her slipslop style. But Toni Morrison told Hermione Hoby in an interview in The Guardian, “I am writing for the black people… I don’t have to apologise.”
God Help the Child, which wrestles with issues of colourism and child abuse, was originally given the title The Wrath of Children as it was about children’s fury about what adults have done to them and how they tried to get through it and over it and around it and how it affected them.
Tar Baby was its precedent in 1981 with a contemporary setting where a Sorbonne-educated fashion model, Jadine, falls in love with a penniless drifter who was at complete ease with himself and his blackness. According to Tony Morrison, “It is just a colour”.
Jadine was less obsessed than Bride. Tar Baby is more timeless phantasmagoria than identifiable present reality. And this is true about many of her novels, including the Beloved and The Bluest Eye.
The danger of colour is always a focus in her writings and thought since she began her publishing career.
In The Bluest Eye, the story of Pecola Breedlove is also about the young black girl. Demonisation of an entire race for the black colour is not only a crime against the Afro-Americans but also against humanity. And if that relates to a female then it was a story of double marginalisation.
James Baldwin once talked about “a little white man deep inside of all of us”. Toni Morrison never really had it inside her and this probably made her so original and so loudly confident in her writing.
Morrison fused two political trends in American culture: Black cultural nationalism and feminism. This is true of The Bluest Eye — her debut novel where Morrison makes the reader question ‘beauty’ and the consequences of beauty standards on individuals.
According to the Swedish Academy, “One can delight in her unique narrative technique varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from Faulkner and American writers from further South. The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy , humanity of the kind which is always based on profound humor.”
(The author is Associate Professor, Head of the Post Graduate Department of English, Dum Dum Motijheel College, Kolkata)