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Toni Morrison and Black Writing. Reading Contemporary Fiction ACL1001. This lecture will discuss:. ‘Black’ writing Early Contexts of ‘Black’ writing ‘Black’ Writing and historical contexts ‘Black’ writers ‘Black’ Writing and post-structuralist ideologies Toni Morrison . Black.

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Toni morrison and black writing

Toni Morrison and Black Writing

Reading Contemporary Fiction


This lecture will discuss
This lecture will discuss:

  • ‘Black’ writing

  • Early Contexts of ‘Black’ writing

  • ‘Black’ Writing and historical contexts

  • ‘Black’ writers

  • ‘Black’ Writing and post-structuralist ideologies

  • Toni Morrison


  • At its most literal level black denotes a colour. A black dog; a black car, eg. or perhaps, more accurately, an absence of colour.

  • An absence of light is only a short step symbolically from an absence of enlightenment, an absence of civility, an absence of rationality, an absence of humanity.

  • Yet this is how black people have been seen in the world view of so many non-blacks throughout history.

Definitions of black
Definitions of Black

  • Chinua Achebe makes the following point about Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, one of the touchstones of the English canon: It

    “projects the image of Africa [and its black inhabitants] as the 'other world', the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”

  • According to Conrad, not only are blacks and Africans the ‘other’ to civilisation; they are a bestial and perhaps vital other to the intelligence and refinement of Europeans.

  • Heart of Darkness is only one text amongst many that uses a whole series of symbolic associations and oppositions between black and white.

Definitions of black1
Definitions of Black

  • These associations also abound in Tar Baby, and Morrison’s other works.

  • It is important to note that Morrison uses her descriptions deliberately, and with the full knowledge of the power relations they entail.

  • “She had not seen a Black like him in ten years” (1981, p.126).

  • “The man upstairs wasn’t a Negro – meaning one of them. He was a stranger” (1981, p,100).

Definitions of black2
Definitions of Black

“Rape? Why you little white girls think somebody’s trying to rape you?”

“White?” She was startled out of fury. “I’m not . . . you know I’m not white!”

“No? Then why don’t you settle down and stop acting like it.” (p.121).

  • For Morrison, the term ‘white’ is used in the same way as the term ‘black.’ The terms denote cultural stereotypes. It’s important to note that in much Anglo-centric literature, whiteness is not mentioned, where blackness is usually pointed out.

The black and white binary
The black and white binary



White weddings

White linen

White knight

Pure as the driven snow

White witch

  • We black ban (or blacklist) things

  • A black period in Australia’s history

  • Giving someone black looks

  • Accuse a person of having a black heart

  • Black market

Black is always defined against white and is subsequently de valued
Black is always defined against white, and is subsequently de-valued.

  • Slim Dusty captured these oppositions particularly well in a song he wrote about an Aboriginal stockman called Trumby. One of the verses goes:

    Trumby was a ringerAs solid as a post.His skin was black but his heart was whiteAnd that's what mattered most.

  • Yet, we can't forget the cultural specificity of this series of oppositions. Some cultures use white as a symbol of death. Any others?

The black and white binary1
The black and white binary de-valued.

  • Nevertheless, the overwhelming historical use of black in Australian, British and American cultures as the negative pole in these symbolic oppositions must be emphasised.

  • For a person who identifies as black or is designated black in a culture which symbolises black in such a negative way, this whole state of affairs can be a deep problem.

  • And you hardly need to be reminded that black people around the world have agitated on these very grounds.

  • In every colonial country in which Europeans have come to dominate, racism has flourished.

Examining the binary
Examining the binary de-valued.

  • In these racist cultures, there have always been those, from both dominated and dominant sections, who resist racism.

  • This has often involved agitation over or thinking about language use and the role that language, and even literature, may have in propping up oppression.

  • In the 1960s there was an increasing focus on the use of the term black. Rather than reject the term, however, many groups resuscitated the term in a positive way.

  • Black is Beautiful

  • Black Power

Re working the binary
Re-working the binary de-valued.

  • Sometimes invoking characteristics that stem from the series of oppositions in the black/white binary, Black groups remade the term black to connote:

  • Sexy

  • Powerful

  • Courageous

  • Physically able

  • Musicality and rhythm

  • Spiritually in-tune

  • And while this could be seen to buy into a whole series of negative stereotypes, we have to remember the age in which these terms were used each was seen as a positive.

  • Black also became a term around which many disparate cultures around the world could organise and find commonality, inspiration and support.

  • Aboriginal people

  • Maori

  • African-American

  • Carribean

Social contexts for black activism
Social Contexts for Black Activism de-valued.

  • The end of the 1960s and early 1970s saw the development of a strong black movement with figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in America.

  • In more recent times the term black has come to be in part replaced by terms which are more specific to region, group, and nation. The fragmentation of grand narratives in postmodern frameworks has also occurred in relation to black politics.

  • People of colour Murri, Kooris, Nyoongahs in Australia

Black writing
Black Writing de-valued.

  • An important part of the whole black movement was, of course, the development of black writing as a means of expressing and representing black realities and aspirations.

  • Chinua Achebe

  • Maya Angelou

  • Toni Morrison

  • Alice Walker

  • George Lamming

  • Oodgeroo and Mudrooroo in Australia

Post structuralism and authorship
Post-structuralism and authorship de-valued.

  • “Post-structuralists stress the multiplicity of meanings produced by different readers experiences” (Scafe, 1989, p.175).

  • One of the most important concepts in post-structural theory is Roland Barthes’ assertion that ‘The author is dead’.

  • What Barthes is suggesting is that the reader is as complicit as the author in making meaning of the text. It is possible to ‘read against the grain’ of any novel and come away with a meaning the author did not intend. Eg Achebe’s reading of Conrad.

  • If this is true, does the race, class or gender of the author matter to the reader?

More critiques of the death of the author
More critiques of ‘the death of the author’ de-valued.

  • Liz Stanley asks the reader to “consider what the denial of authorship actually does” (1992, p.16). She states that the ‘death of the author’ was a very convenient death for the beneficiaries of this philosophical viewpoint. Stanley contends:

    “At the very point when—due to the activities of anti-colonialism, the black movement, the women’s movement, the gay movement—‘the author,’ the authoritative source of all that excludes, is named and has an accusatory finger pointed at him, the author at this very point conveniently dies” (1992, p.17).

Biography of toni morrison
Biography of Toni Morrison de-valued.

  • Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931 into a black working class family. She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958 and was divorced in 1964.

  • Education

  • Bachelor of Arts in English (minored in classics), Howard University, 1953.

  • Master of Arts, Cornell University, 1955.

  • Taught at Texas Southern University

  • Textbook Editor - Random House

  • Appointed Robert F Goheen Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University in 1989.

She is the author of nine major novels
She is the author of nine major Novels de-valued.

  • The Bluest Eye

  • Sula

  • Song of Solomon

  • Tar Baby

  • Beloved

  • Jazz

  • Paradise

  • Love

  • A Mercy

  • Home

  • As well as books of essays, including Playing in the Dark.

  • Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977

  • Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Has been turned into a film

  • Won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature


On beloved
On de-valued.Beloved

  • Clara Tuite writes that Beloved is “widely regarded as the most significant historical fiction by a contemporary woman author” (2005, p.247).

  • Beloved is based on the story of a real slave-woman, Margaret Garner, who killed her child in order to ‘save’ her from slavery. As such Morrison’s novel is offered as a different version of the past, a version which places Garner’s almost inexcusable act within the larger context of the brutality of slavery.

On beloved1
On de-valued.Beloved

  • As Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn wrote:

    “When Toni Morrison wrote Beloved she was reclaiming an experience that had hitherto been written and documented largely by white men or ‘official history.’ In giving the protagonist of the story, especially the women, a voice, Morrison was using the evidence provided by partial and partisan history even as she undermined its right of narrative and cultural supremacy” (2004, p.142).

Toni morrison on beloved
Toni Morrison on de-valued.Beloved

  • Morrison had a vey specific purpose when she wrote Beloved:“Our past was appropriated.I am one of the people who has to re-appropriate it” she remarked in an interview (Margaronis, 2008, p.149).

  • How important is it to consider the author’s intention in a text like Beloved or Tar Baby?

Further reading
Further reading de-valued.

  • Morrison, Toni and Danille Kathleen Taylor-Guthrie 1987 Conversations with Toni Morrison. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994 Beloved. London: Vintage.

  • Morrison, Toni. 1987 Beloved. London: Vintage.

  • Morrison, Toni 1999 The Bluest Eye. London: Vintage.

  • Morrison, Toni 1997 Paradise. Chatto & Windus.