Authors Harper Lee's and Toni Morrison's New Books Likely to Influence Millennials' Dialogues on Race (part 2)
Unlike her fellow author Harper Lee, Toni Morrison has remained astonishingly prolific throughout her literary career. Though mostly celebrated as a creator of highly-inventive and intensely provocative fiction, she is also in fact an author of popular children’s books, intriguing opera librettos, and intellectually-probing nonfiction as well as an editor. Following the announcement of her forthcoming eleventh novel, God Help the Child, the February 9, 2015, edition of The New Yorker Magazine published “New Fiction” by her in form of an excerpt from the novel.
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Although deeply embedded in African-American history, Morrison's writings have always gone beyond standard representations of African Americans as victimized or marginalized individuals drifting along the outskirts of white concerns. She has instead presented them as central cosmic presences wading their way through currents of unique human experience shaped by powerful confluences of historical developments. As an author, Toni Morrison in some important ways is to American fiction what the late W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Zinn were to American history: a revisionist of themes and texts who expanded narratives on the American story to validate the testimonies of those whose lives and voices had been classified as “minor.”
The Color of a Mother's Pain
The passage from God Help the Child published in The New Yorker focuses on the development of the relationship between a very light-complexioned black woman and a daughter who, unexpectedly and inexplicably, is born with very dark skin. The child’s skin is so dark, in fact, that the mother holds a blanket over her face and then has to resist the urge to kill her. She later instructs her daughter to address her as “Sweetness,” and the daughter herself is given the far less elegant name of “Lula Ann” Bridewell. In addition to suffering painful embarrassment over her daughter’s complexion, Sweetness also fears for her safety in the world:
“With that skin, there was no point in being tough or sassy, even when you were right. Not in a world where you could be sent to a juvenile lockup for talking back or fighting in school, a world where you’d be the last one hired and the first one fired. She didn’t know any of that or how her black skin would scare white people or make them laugh and try to trick her.” (Toni Morrison, from Sweetness as published in The New Yorker)
This predicament allows Morrison to examine the often controversial subject of intra-racial color prejudice among African Americans. Some have theorized that such prejudice has its roots in the internalization of negative images projected by American Whites during slavery––and through mass media in the decades that followed–– onto African Americans. It further intensified into a form of self-hatred frequently reinforced by stereotypes proliferated throughout what passed for popular American culture in the 1900s.
Others contend it is a completely different species of neuroses formed from the triple pressures of social, economic, and political oppression. Either way, intra-racial color prejudice represents yet one more facet of the bizarre negative psychological complexities generated by obsessions with notions of racial superiority in contrast to principles of human diversity.
A Framework for Millennials
Many television viewers were delightfully stunned by Toni Morrison during her appearance on the Stephen Colbert Show last November when she commented candidly on race as a “social construction” from which certain people profited. With those comments, as she has done for her own generation and the generations of American writers who have followed in her footsteps, she gave Millennials a very valuable tool in the form of one model for addressing one of the world’s most persistent problems: racism.
The day after Morrison’s appearance on the late night talk show, readers born long after the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye in 1970, and many born not-so-long afterwards, took to social media to express how much they had enjoyed watching her. Many also, however, confessed that they had never read any of her books.
Anyone in need of incentive to get started reading Morrison might consider that, as nearly as anyone can tell her works have been translated into nearly two dozen languages, is taught in schools around the world, and has sold in huge quantities for which there are no precise figures. That kind of achievement––even without mentioning such honors as the Pulitzer Prize, France’s Legion of Honour Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom–– is its own greatest endorsement.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.