From The Oxford Companion to American Literature, ed. Hart and Leininger:
Toni Morrison (1931-), Ohio-born novelist, originally named Chloe Anthony Wofford, a graduate of Harvard University, writes about the problems of black women in the North, like herself. Her novels include The Bluest Eye (1970), about a young black woman who moves from the old South with the belief that if only she had blue eyes she would be well accepted; Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981); and Beloved (1987), about a black woman after the Civil War recalling her need and thus her action of killing her baby, Beloved, but now pleasantly greeted by a young woman of that name, aged about 20, some years after the war. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Jazz (1992), set in Harlem of the 1920s, details the experiences, often bitter, of a couple, Joe and Violet. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) collects the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures, at Harvard, in the History of American Civilization. Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, the first African-American writer to be so honored.
From Richard Gray's History of American Literature (August Wilson and Toni Morrison):
While [Ed] Bullins has been central to the story of alternative theater, success on the mainstream stage has tended to elude him. By contrast, August Wilson [1945-2005] enjoyed considerable mainstream success. His Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1982), Fences (1983), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1984), The Piano Lesson (1986), Two Trains Running (1992), and Seven Guitars (1995) were all produced on Broadway, for the most part to critical and commercial acclaim. Born on "The Hill," a racially mixed area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a black mother and a white father he seldom saw, Wilson encountered racial prejudice early. He also encountered two formative cultural influences: black talk and black music. In a cigar store in Pittsburgh, he recalled, he would stand around when he was young listening to old men talling tales and swapping stories. Later, listening to the records of the blues singer Bessie Smith, he became determined to capture black cultural and historical experience in his writing. One of his first publications was, in fact, a poem called "Bessie." Beginning to write plays in the 1970s, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom established his reputation. Set in 1920s Chicago, it describes the economic exploitation of black musicians by white record companies and the ways in which victims of racism are compelled to direct their rage at each other rather than at those who cause their oppression. It is also a memorable combination of the vernacular, violence, and humor. So is Fences, which concerns the struggles of a working-class family in the 1950s to find security. Here, Wilson also uses myth to tell the story of Troy Maxson, a garbageman, ex-convict, and former Negro Baseball League player, who cannot believe that his son wil be allowed to benefit from the football scholarship he has been offered.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone is set some forty years earlier than Fences, in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911. Focusing on the personal and cultural aftermath of slavery and the Great Migration, it explores the lives of characters who are in danger of being cut off from their roots. The Piano Lesson, in turn, is placed in 1937 in Pittsburgh: concentrating on a conflict between a brother and a sister, over who has the right to won a family heirloom, the piano of the title, it dramatizes the debate between African-American and mainstream cultural values. Two Trains Running moves forward several decades, to the late 1960s—to a coffee shop where regulars discuss their troubled relation to the times—and Seven Guitars then moves back to the 1940s. Wilson declared that, as a playwright, he wanted to "tell a history that has never been told." His major plays reflect this. For him, they were all part of a major project: the "Century Cycle" of ten plays, each of them intended to investigate a central issue facing African-Americans in a different decade of the twentieth century. The others are Jitney (1983), King Hedley II (2000), Gem of the Ocean (2003), and Radio Golf (2005). He was aiming at nothing less than raising collective awareness: rewriting the history of every decade so that black life would become a more acknowledged part of the theatrical history—and, for that matter, the general history—of America. In 1991 Wilson recalled that his plan, to bring a silenced past into dramatic speech, began with "a typewritten yellow-labeled record titled 'Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine' by someone called Bessie Smith." "It was the beginning," he explained, "of my consciousness that I was a representative of a culture and the carrier of some very valuable antecedents." He continued to pursue that plan after that, in plays that work precisely as the "yellow-labeled record" did: by bringing a whole culture and its past to life, with rhythmic flair and passion.
If any novelist can be said to have a project similar to that of August Wilson in drama, it is surely Toni Morrison (1931-). "For me, in doing novels about African-Americans," she has declared, "I was trying to move away from the unstated but overwhelming and dominant context that was white history and to move it into another one." Her work can, in fact, be seen as an attempt to write several concentric histories of the American experience from a distinctively African-American perspective. A series of fictional interventions in American historiography, her novels draw what she has called, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), "the overwhelming presence of black people in the United States" from the margins of the imagination to the center of American literature and history. What has been distinctive about the history of the United States, Morrison has argued, is "its claim to freedom" and "the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment." This was, and remains, "a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression." As such, it "presents a singular landscape for a writer." And her aim in mapping that landscape has been twofold. On the one hand, she has charted a specifically black history, giving voice to the silence: pointing to the culpability for it of White America's 'failure' to apportion human rights equally, while simultaneously celebrating that history's achievement and identifying its own failings. On the other, she maps out a general history of America from the readjusted perspective, the angle of black experience. As Morrison has noted in Playing in the Dark, "Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness—from its origins on through its integrated or disintegrating twentieth-century self." The history of black America, over the last two humdred years and perhaps more, is the history of America, as she sees it. So what she is pursuing, reclaiming in imaginative terms, is a history of the whole American experience.
"The crucial difference for me is not the difference between fact and fiction," Morrison once admitted, "but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot." That search for truth began with her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). It has a simple premise. A narrator, Claudia McTeer, tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a black girl whose hunger for love is manifested in a desire for blue eyes that eventually drives her to insanity. What complicates is both structural and social. Morrison has said that one of her goals as a writer is "to have the reader work with the writer in the construction of the book." And here she uses a number of narrative devices to realize that goal. The novel opens, for example, with a parodic passage from a Dick and Jane school primer that presents an ideal, inevitably white family: the kind of cultural intervention that seems calculated to create false consciousness. Working with the writer here and elsewhere in the novel, the reader gradually unravels a tale of personal and social disintegration. Pecola, it seems, is driven inward by the norms of white society (the bluest eye, the ideal family) to shame, the destruction and division of the self. Claudia, the narrator, finds herself directed outward, to anger against white society: finding a convenient scapegoat, a focus for anger, for instance, in the "white baby dolls" she cuts up and destroys. The Bluest Eye deconstructs the image of the white community as the site of normality and perfection. It also exposes the realities of life in an impoverished African-American community, whose abject socioeconomic status is exacerbated by the politics of race. Those politics point, in particular, to internalized racism, manacles that are mind-forged as well as devastatingly material. as Morrison has put it in an afterword to a recent edition of the novel: "the trauma of racism is, for the racist and victim, the severe fragmentation of the self."
Coextensive with Morrison's concern with the psychosocial consequences of racism is her interest in what she calls "silence and evasion:" the shadows and absences, the gaps and omissions in American history. In her second novel, Sula (1973), for example, she shows how a black community evolves and shapes itself, with its own cultural resources and elaborate social structure. She rescues it from a kind of historical anonymity. Through the lives of the two main characters, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, in turn, she opens up the area of intimate friendship between African-American women. Also, though a poignant account of the rifts and disputes between Sula and Nel, she charts differences, the diverse paths and possibilities available to females as part of or apart from communal tradition. Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), sustains her commitment to what is called here "names that had a meaning:" the evolution of a distinctive black identity and community through the habit of language. A complex tapestry of memory and myth, Song of Solomon tells the story of a young man, Milkman Dead, who comes to know himself through a return to origins. He is captivated by the legends surrounding his family from slave times. He learns, in particular, from the stories of men who flew to freedom and the realities of women who remained to foster and to nurture. Just as the novel does, he returns to the past and, through that, discovers how to live in the present. Tar Baby (1981) also pursues themes of ancestry and identity, how African-Americans come to name and know themselves. It does this primarily through the contrast between two characters, Jadine Childs, a model, and William (Son) Green, an outcast and wanderer. Jadine, brought up with the help of white patrons, has been assimilated into white culture; Son remains outside it, in resistance to it. Drawn to each other, they seem to be trying to "rescue" each other, the one from assimilation, the other from separation. "One had a past, the other a future and each bore the culture to save the race in his hands," the reader is told. "Mama-spoiled black man, will you mature with me? Culture-bearing black woman, whose culture are your bearing?" The love affair between them is aborted. Neither fundamentally changes. And, although the perspective on Jadine is less than sympathetic ("she has forgotten her ancient properties," one oracular black character observes of her), the identity crisis posed by the conflict between her and Son is never really resolved. Morrison adopts her usual strategy, of leaving the narrative debate open.
With her fifth and most important novel so far, Beloved (1987), Morrison took the core of a real story she had encountered while working as a senior editor at Random House. It was recorded in The Black Book (1974), an eclectic collection of material relating to more than three hundred years of African-American history. And it concerned a fugitive slave called Margaret Garner who killed her daughter, then tried to kill her other children and herself rather than be returned to slavery. Morrison took this as the nucleus, the germ of her story about Sethe Suggs, who killed her own young daughter, Beloved, when faced with the same threat. Circling backwards and forwards in time, before and after the Civil War, the novel discloses how Sethe and other characters—especially her daughter Denver and her lover Paul D—struggle with a past that cannot but must be remembered, that cannot yet must be named. In other words, it pivots around the central contradiction in African-American, and for that matter American, history: living with impossible memories. There is the need to remember and tell and the desire to forget; there are memories here with an inexhaustible, monstrous power to erupt and overwhelm the mind that must somewhere be commemorated yet laid aside if life is to continue. it is a contradiction caught in a phrase repeated in the concluding section of the narrative: "It was not a story to pass on" (where "pass on" could mean either "pass over" or "pass on to others"). It is one caught, too, in the scandalous nature of the act, the killing that haunts Sethe. In that sense, the mother-daughter relationship that Morrison characteristically focuses on here is at once a denial of the institution of slavery and a measure of its power.
Beloved is an extraordinary mix of narrative genres. It has elements of realism, the Gothc, and African-American folklore. It is a slave narrative that internalizes slavery and its consequences. It is a historical novel that insists on history as story, active rehearsal and reinvention of the past. It weaves its way between the vernacular and a charged lyricism, the material and the magical, as it emphasizes the centrality of the black, and in particular black female, experience. It also forces the reader to collaborate with the author, narrator, and characters in the construction of meaning: the energetic refiguring of a past that is seen as a necessary precondition of the present—determining (and so to be resurrected) yet different (and so to be laid to rest). This involvement of the reader in the exhumation of a secret that is also the narrative's secret—the unspeakable heart of the story that remains intimated rather than spoken—is the main grounds for the emotional intensity of Beloved. This is a novel that reorients history, American history in particular, to the lived experience of black people. it is also a passionate novel, that sets up a vital, unbreakable circuit between historical events and emotional consequences, and then connects up that circuit to any one, black or white, or whatever, who reads it. We the readers are caught as the main characters of Beloved are in the "look," the gaze that seeks to reduce the black subject to the position of otherness. We share with these characters the rigors of the disciplined body—the denial of the ownership of one's own flesh. We also participate in the strenuous, successful effort to resist all this: the right to one's own body and consciousness, the responsibility for them in the past, present, and future. Above all, we share in the project of naming. "Did a whiteman saying make it so?" Paul D asks himself at one point. The immediate answer turns out to be "yes"; the ultimate answer is "no." The novel and its characters turn out, after all, to offer another form of "saying," a more authentic way of seeing and telling the personal and historical past. That is why the last word of Beloved is, precisely, "Beloved," because the whole aim of the story, and its protagonist, has been to name the unnameable. That way, we know by now, African-Americans and all Americans can come to terms with a past that should be told, that will not be told (the paradox is irresolvable)—and then, perhaps, be able to continue.
After Beloved, Morrison published two books that, with it, form part of a loosely connected trilogy, Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998). Morrison has said that the three novels are about "various kinds of love"—the love of a mother for her child, romantic love, and "the love of God and love for fellow human beings." The three might equally be described as charting the history of African-Americans. Jazz, set in Harlem in 1929, was inspired by Morrison reading in a book she was editing, The Harlem Book of the Dead, about a young woman who, as she lay dying, refused to identify her lover as the person who had shot her. What distinguishes the novel more thatn its plot, however, is Morrison's innovative way of telling it. Imitating the improvisational techniques of jazz music, she presents us with a narrative that constantly revisits events and a narrator who frankly confesses her fallibility. "I have been careless and stupid," the narrator declares at one point, "and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am." History is consequently presented as a process of constant telling and retelling, with the openings for chance, the impromptu, and mistakes that implies. And, at the end, the responsibility for that process is passed to us, the readers. "Make me, remake me," the narrator tells us. "You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now." Paradise is set in 1976. However, in describing the intimate contact between two communities, one a black township and the other a refuge for women, it circles as far back as 1755. It also supplies another example of Morrison's characteristic strategy of giving voice to the silence while initiating its own forms of silence. That is, it brings those traditionally exiled to the margins, for reasons of race, gender, or both, to the center of the stage; it allows them to name themselves and narrate their history. But it quietly intimates its own lack of authority, the blanks and absences detectable in its own account, and the responsibility that this imposes on the reader.
In Beloved, for example, the reader never knows who the young girl is who returns to Sethe during the course of the story. Is she the ghost of the 2-year-old-daughter Sethe killed twenty years earlier? Does she recall Sethe's nameless mother, since some of her dreams and narrations seem to recall the horrors of the Middle Passage? Is she a myriad figure, a composite of all the women ever dragged into slavery? Or is she a very singular young woman who has been driven mad by her enslavement? We cannot know for sure; all we can do is allow these possibilities to feed into our own retelling of an intolerable, impossible past, our own project of naming the unnameable. Nor, for that matter, can we be certain what happens at the end of Paradise. The pivotal act of this novel is the shooting, and apparent killing, of the women at the refuge by nine men from the township. Paradise closes, however, with the "marvelous" disappearance of the bodies of the women and the reappearance, then, of four of them. One of the several, unresolved puzzles of this story is, therefore, what they return as —ghosts or human beings who somehow survived the attack. But just as Beloved, for all its push beyond realism, leaves no doubt as to the monstrous fact of slavery and its central place in the story of America (indeed, using magic, mystery, as a measure of that monstrosity), so Paradise lesaves no doubt about the necessity for the reappearance of women like these, in some form or another, for the survival of the republic. Paradise is a book about the failures of American democracy (hence its setting in the bicentennial). It is about the strengths and fatal flaws in the black community (hence its complicity in the shootings). It is about the core meaning of the African-American story to American history (hence the narrative connections forged with key events since 1776). And it is also a book about the failure of patriarchy. Morrison has resisted the description of herself as a feminist. She is right to do so because Paradise, like all her novels, is much more than a polemical statement of a position. But, in itws own way, it registers a fundamentally optimistic belief in the recovery of the American republic—a belief that all her work tends to share—and, in this case, at the hands of women. The beguiling mystery at the end of Paradise is centered, just as the mystery at the heart of Beloved is, by a powerful analysis of history, past disasters, and possible future directions. Any doubts about that surely dissolve in the meditations of one female character as she considers the possibility of reappearance, the return of the women shot by the men of the township. "When will they return?" she asks herself. "When will they reappear . . . to rip up and stomp down this prison calling itself a town?" "She hoped with all her heart that the women were out there," the meditation concludes, "darkly burnished, biding their time, brass-metaling their nails, filing their incisors—but out there. Which is to say she hoped for a miracle."
Apart from the occasional excursion into drama (Dreaming Emmett (1986)) and critical and social theory (Playing in the Dark, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)), Morrison has focused on the writing of novels, her most recent being Love (2003), set mainly in the 1990s, which explores different forms of love—familial, romantic, self—and childhood confusion, miscommunication, and their consequences; and A Mercy (2008), set in early America, which examines the beginnings of slavery and the roots of racism.