(I wrote this for the Deccan Herald, way back in 2005. And now I find some site for students is charging for this essay!!)
When Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize for literature a decade ago, she told yet another story. About an old lady. Wise but blind. The old lady could belong to any land, any culture. She is both the ‘law’ and the ‘transgression’ of that land. Her clairvoyance is unmatched. One day a bunch of cynical youngsters decide to expose her. They visit her and ask her whether the bird they hold in their hand is dead or alive. There is a long pause and the youngsters start feeling triumphant. Just as the sniggers begin, the old woman responds softly and sternly. ‘I don’t know’, she says. ‘But it is in your hands.’ The old woman’s wisdom wins once again. In a deft stroke she has felled the arrogance of the doubters. She has shifted the attention from the assertion of power to the instrument through which the power is asserted. The author went on to liken herself to the old woman and the bird to her writing, in her speech.
Ever since she wrote her first novel, Morrison has left seven brilliant novels in our hands. For us to cherish the beauty of the human spirit that remains unvanquished by the greatest of horrors unleashed on it. Morrison writes about the most savage and barbaric acts committed by human beings in the most luminous prose possible. The paradox in her writing makes her truly the wisest woman in the literary horizon. To say she writes about the black experience in a racist culture would be doing her a great disservice. Her characters may be localized to a particular race but the truths she speaks are universal. They may very well be about the Dalits in India or the Muslims in Bosnia.
Toni Morrison was born Chole Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio. Her parents moved to the north to escape the problems of southern racism and she grew up relatively unscarred by racial prejudices. She spent her childhood in Midwest and read voraciously from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Her father told her folktales about the black community, transferring his African American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington D.C. America’s most distinguished black college. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She wrote her thesis on Suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
A suicide sets the context for Morrison’s commercially most successful book Song of Solomon to unfold. Robert Smith, ironically an agent of the Life Insurance company, decides to ‘fly’ and liberate himself, setting the context for the hero of the tale ‘Milkman’ to come to this world and discover the truth about his identity.
Suicides and the nobility associated with them are integral to Black history in America and the Black folklores. In the inhuman conditions of the ships that carted the Africans to their destiny as slaves, the act of suicide was truly an act of liberation from the degradation and indignity of the life that awaited them. Only the truly fortunate got the opportunity to ‘fly’ into the sea and liberate themselves.
The act was perceived to be a blessing and not an act of cowardice. It is interesting to notice the parallel with Johar, the tradition of Indian women leaping into fire to save themselves from dishonor as spoils of war, as defeat loomed large and the enemy marched to claim them.
Another characteristic of the works of Morrison are that they are invariably lit with the hues of soft feminism. In Song of Solomon, Milkman and his friend Guitar are amazed by the mystical appearance of a peacock over the building of the used car lot where they stand. As the bird comes down, Milkman mistakes it for a female. Guitar corrects him “He. That’s a he. The male is the only one that got the tail full of jewelry. Son of a bitch.” Milkman asks why the peacock can fly no better than a chicken and his friend answers: “Too much tail. All that jewelry weighs it down. Like vanity. Can’t nobody fly with all that shit. Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Clearly in Morrison’s scheme of things even though it is something men all the time aspire for, it is the women oppressed in all cultures, who can truly fly and experience liberation.
Sula gets to fly in a manner of speaking. In this classic tale of exploring morality, Morrison engages with the socially correct Nell, who conforms to all the mores and her sexually promiscuous friend Sula, who lives on the fringes. Morrison cleverly colors her story with an early incident that bonds the two women to a lifetime of friendship and betrayal. They are both responsible for the death of Chicken Little by drowning. Sula simply cries while Nell’s first concern is ‘somebody saw’. Morrison manages in that passage to construct the irony of all tales with a moral. It is the girl who will be later considered evil by her community who actually mourns the loss, while her moral friend is only concerned about herself. As to what binds the two girls together despite their different temperaments, Morrison has a ready answer. “Because they had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be… daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers… they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for.”
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel that was published in 1970, Pecola the protagonist is obsessed with the bluest eye - a metaphor for beauty that Pecola feels will magically transform her life if she acquires a pair of them. She never achieves this feat but in the end turns insane and liberates herself. In Jazz, Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcos in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. The city of New York is all-pervasive in its influence in the book and so is Jazz, the escape from reality it provides for the Blacks in the city.
Tar Baby is about the dilemma of breaking free of the umbilical cord. The need to wrench free from the maternal bond and create a set of values, expectations and desires for oneself independent of the maternal. Jadine Child’s mother dies when she is twelve but this does not liberate her from the aura of the mother. She encounters a ‘mother/sister/she’ in a supermarket “with eyes whose force had burnt away their lashes”. The woman in yellow with “too much hip, too much bust,” and eggs in hand makes Jadine uncomfortable and yet she also falls in love with the woman.
The conflict determines the flow of the narrative. In Paradise, her first novel since she won the Nobel prize, Morrison explores the nature of all Paradise. According to the author, all notions of paradise stem as male enclaves and the interlopers are always the women, defenceless and threatening. When women get together and get powerful is when they are attacked.
However it is in Pulitzer prize winning, Beloved that the mystical lyrical voice of the author is most clearly heard. If ever there was a song in the form of a novel, Beloved would come closest to it. The book deals with slavery and infanticide. It was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped from a Kentucky plantation and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. Sethe, the protagonist tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the unnamed infant, Beloved. Later she is rejected by her slave masters and set free. The ghost of Beloved, who reappears in their lives, years later, as old as she would have been if she had been alive, haunts the house where she lives with her teenage daughter.
The book often veers into the metaphysical and is illuminated by a prose that is both haunting as well as melodious. “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a Crocker sack, well, maybe you’d have little love left over for the next one.”
Clearly, in the literary horizon, Morrison has ‘The Bluest Eye.’