A Spotlight On Toni Morrison
By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Michael Calder
Born on 18 February 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, and passing away in 2019, acclaimed American novelist, editor and professor Toni Morrison nurtured a reputation for evocative novels which captured the experience of African American communities, particularly those in the South.
"In 1957, Morrison returned to Howard University to teach for seven years before joining Random House as a fiction editor."
During her youth, Morrison feverishly engaged with storytelling and culture, but faced life at a tumultuous and divisive time in American history. Global trauma from the Great Depression and World War Two, as well as political and social injustice closer to home, overshadowed the novelist’s childhood. However, she still graduated from Howard University and studied further at Cornell University. In 1957, Morrison returned to Howard University to teach for seven years before joining Random House as a fiction editor.
Toni Morrison released an astounding number of novels and received several awards – Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes included. Her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), has risen to prestigious levels with her reputation and draws on her own youth as the catalyst for the rife authenticity encapsulated in the narrative. Across her following ten novels, Morrison explored personal experience and historical events, embedding the fundamental issues of race, gender, elitism, social and political exclusion, community, culture and identity within exceptional storytelling.
With deconstructions of American slavery in the acclaimed Beloved (1987) and commentary on post-Korean War racism in Home (2012), Toni Morrison’s novels dove headlong into the social injustices of 20th century America and we have selected several of our favourites to discuss in this issue.
The Bluest Eye
The Bluest Eye was the first novel to be published by Toni Morrison in 1970 and led the way for a string of masterpieces to follow. The novel is set in 1940s Ohio and follows a young African American girl called Pecola. Throughout her childhood, Pecola is constantly remarked as being “ugly” by those in her neighbourhood. Pecola wishes to have blue eyes, in order to be accepted in society and be seen as beautiful in accordance with American society and its standards of beauty. While presenting the difficulties in Pecola’s life and family circumstances during the end of the Great Depression, the novel includes flashbacks to explore her parents' lives and experiences. Her father is a violent and abusive character, who treats Pecola terribly leading to her insanity. Morrison’s heartfelt narrative explores the devastation faced by those who internalise white beauty standards and the effect society has on the lives of Black girls. She presents the harsh reality that is experienced by those who are oppressed. It is certainly an imperative read for all.
Song of Solomon
Written in 1977, Song of Solomon was Morrison’s third published novel and received much literary praise at the time and throughout/following the years of its publication. Not only was the novel selected to be featured on Oprah’s book club, but also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978.
This novel includes many familiar aspects that readers have learnt to expect and love by Morrison: the challenges of identity and society. Set between 1931–1963 in Michigan, Song of Solomon follows Macon, also called Milkman, throughout his life. It has been referred to as a classic example of bildungsroman, but Song of Solomon offers much more than that. Through the African American folklore of escaped slaves, Morrison presents the story of a quest to self-discovery through Milkman. Morrison connects Milkman’s experience directly to folklore to present the major theme in the novel: freedom. Through Morrison’s writing, the reader is able to learn about American history and rethink what they might already know. The masterpiece reveals the complexities, struggles and brutality many African Americans faced, making this novel an essential Toni Morrison read.
Jazz is a historical novel set in 1920s Harlem depicting the aftermath of Joe Trace’s murder of his young mistress, Dorcas. The narrative is intertwined with recollections of the characters' histories and the formation of their outlooks, spanning childhood trauma and the disintegration of Joe's relationship with his wife Violet and her own loss of identity in the process. The past haunts and influences all of the characters’ actions and perspectives. The importance of jazz music is threaded throughout and the novel is written to mirror characteristics of it, with Morrison stating “jazz always keeps you on the edge [...] it agitates you,” which is apparent in the disjointed construction of the story arc.
The relationship between the past and the present is explored through the questioning of identity and the renaissance of African American life and experience. Jazz is the second novel in Morrison’s trilogy of African American history and explores the transformative, and often painful, side effects of recollection. Ultimately, the vibrancy of life in Harlem is undercut by these memories as Morrison highlights the stunting impact of racism on the healing of the community.