Portrait of the Author as a Historian: Toni Morrison

The dead, white, male canon has not merely stifled African-American history so much as smothered it. One author has spent her career grappling with the problem of America’s whitewashed past, writes Alexander Lee.

Toni Morrison. Copyright Everett Collection/Alarmy

In 1990 Toni Morrison delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University in which she drew attention to a major weakness of contemporary literary criticism. Until that point, she argued, it had commonly been thought that the ‘classic’ works of American literature had been ‘uninformed … and unshaped by the 400-year-old presence of … Africans and African-Americans in the United States’. Although African-Americans had ‘shaped the body politic, the Constitution and the entire … culture’ of the United States, the characteristics of American literature were believed to have emanated from a sense of ‘Americanness’ that was separate from – and indeed indifferent to – their existence. 

For Morrison, this was patently false. Since the days of the Revolutionary War, she argued, the idea of ‘Americanness’ articulated in works of literature had been identified with notions of freedom, progress, novelty and strength. Then, as now, these were powerfully emotive concepts. But for the authors who held them dear – mostly white, Protestant men – their meaning was only revealed when they were contrasted with an image of ‘Africanness’ that was the antithesis of all they embodied. With unerring frequency, African-American characters were identified with servitude, passivity, backwardness and savagery; and ‘blackness’ came to be linked with a dangerous, irrational and ahistorical form of existence. 

It was evident, therefore, not only that the literary canon had been shaped by the presence of African-Americans, but also that the ‘white’ sense of identity it articulated depended upon racist constructions of ‘blackness’. As such, it had not only strengthened slavery and segregation but also justified the harm visited on African-Americans more recently. 

The damage done 

Morrison argued that it was the critics’ responsibility to recognise the racism inherent in the canon. She also believed that it was up to modern authors to eschew the ‘white gaze’ of the past and write a new literature capable of changing what it means to be ‘American’. 

She regarded this as an historical enterprise. Even as a fledgling author, she saw it as her task to reach back into America’s past and to craft narratives that portrayed its history from an authentically black perspective. This entailed not only recapturing the lived experiences of African-Americans, but also revealing the physical and psychological damage that had been inflicted upon them by a dominant white culture.  

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), did just this. Set in the wake of the Great Depression, it told the story of Pecola Breedlove, a quiet young African-American girl from a poor background. After her alcoholic father burns their house down, she is taken in by the MacTeers, who give her some stability; but in time, she is able to move back in with her family. Her life becomes fraught with sorrow. Her father’s alcoholism grows worse and her parents argue violently. Neglected, she is convinced that if she had white skin and blue eyes she would be loved. One day, her father comes home drunk. Consumed by hatred and desire, he rapes her. The experience drives her mad. Unable to comprehend the horror, she believes that her wish must have been granted and that she now has white skin and blue eyes. The fantasy makes her tragedy all the more profound, but, as Morrison makes clear, it is the product of a dominant white culture that can only conceive of beauty in its own terms. 

In later novels Morrison looked further back into the past. In Beloved (1987), she traced the story of Sethe, an African-American slave who escapes to freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War. After 28 days in Cincinnati, she is surprised by the sudden appearance of her former master, known as Schoolman. A brutal sadist, he is intent on dragging her back to his estate in Kentucky. But Sethe refuses to allow her children to be taken back into servitude. Fleeing to a woodshed, she tries to kill them. Her eldest daughter – known only as ‘Beloved’ – has her throat cut and dies. Before Schoolman can seize her, Sethe is arrested by the sheriff. Thanks to the efforts of local abolitionists she is released, but her home is haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter and is only freed from its influence when she tries to kill a man whom she mistakes for her former master. Evidently, she had been moved to commit her original crime by the dehumanising culture she inhabits and finds absolution only by striking out against one of its architects. 

The problem of evidence

In seeking to rewrite the past, however, Morrison was forced to grapple with a troubling methodological problem. Given that it was not only the canonical works of American literature that were written from the perspective of white men, but also many of the source documents for American history, she had to ask whether it would ever be possible to recover a full understanding of the lived experiences of African-Americans, much less write a compelling narrative of the past from their perspective. 

Morrison had first encountered this problem while editing The Black Book (1974). A collection of primary sources for African-American history, it contained all manner of interesting materials, including antebellum reward posters for the return of runaway slaves, 20th-century advertisements for soap and even investigations into whether African-Americans were truly ‘human’ or not. Naturally, these all articulated and reinforced the racist ideas evident in works of literature. But what really struck Morrison was how one-sided the evidence was. Especially before the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement; there was little that reflected how African-Americans experienced their own lives. Even stories of runaway slaves like Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Beloved, had been written by white men. 

The only way of getting back to the people was to use forms of evidence previously neglected by scholarship – oral testimonies, folk memories and even music. Morrison explored this in Song of Solomon (1977). Set in the early 1960s, it follows the story of ‘Milkman’ Dead as he seeks to uncover the truth about his family’s mysterious past – and his own identity – against a backdrop of racial tensions and self-loathing. Conventional forms of investigation quickly prove useless. Even his grandfather’s name – Macon Dead – leads him down a blind alley. An illiterate ex-slave, Macon had been obliged to register himself with the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War. But the white clerk responsible for filling out the necessary forms had written his details down in the wrong places, with the result that his place of origin (‘Macon’) and his father’s condition (‘Dead’) were recorded as his forename and surname. His original name had been lost. Milkman is hence forced to rely on the stories he is told by his father and aunt. These conflict with each other and contain much that seems absurd. But the most superficially ridiculous details – a few words spoken by his grandfather’s ghost – turn out to be the most revealing. They lead him to a town where he hears children singing a song about a certain ‘Solomon’ who flew away, dropping his baby son, Jack, on the doorstop of a Native American family as he did so. After talking to an old woman, he realises that this song dramatises his own family’s past and that ‘Solomon’ is his African great-grandfather, while ‘Jack’ is, in fact, Macon Dead.  

Grim realities

But Morrison has found herself confronting a final question. Even though she has arguably done more than any other novelist to rewrite history and to overcome the difficulties attendant upon such an endeavour, she has recently come to ask whether it is yet possible for African-Americans to escape the legacy of the past. In her most recent novel, God Help the Child (2015), she seems pessimistic. In this unsettling tale, a light-skinned African-American mother belittles her daughter for being darker skinned. She is, however, unapologetic. Responding to her critics, she maintains that she has tried to prepare her child for life in a world that will treat her harshly because of her skin colour. Though it may seem wrong to reinforce racial divisions like this, it is, she claims, the only way of preserving some dignity for the girl. Her decision is morally ambiguous at best, but it has been conditioned by the grim realities of being black in a world dominated by white people who have not rethought their own history. This is a potent observation. Unless white America undergoes the same process of re-evaluation and rewrites its history from the perspective of its victims, ‘Americanness’ will remain an essentially white concept, the United States will become ever more divided and all its citizens will remain prisoners of the past. 

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His most recent book, The Ugly Renaissance, is published by Arrow.