Toni Morrison and the place of Afro-American literature in the American canon

The recent death of the Afro-American novelist and essayist Toni Morrison has had a wide media coverage, in the United States as well as in France. It was the occasion for readers all around the world to discover or rediscover the literary masterpieces of a woman hailed by the New York Times as a “towering novelist of the Black experience”. [1] However, this title, flattering as it may sound, entails a question which Morrison herself tackled during her lifetime: what is the place of Afro-American literature in the American canon? Why did authors such as Morrison need to step up as literary spokespersons of the black experience in the first place?

The fact is the black literary voice was ignored by critics, long after historic battles for equal social rights were fought and won. On an artistic level, this obliteration is harmful not only to the black writers relegated to the “margins of the literary imagination” [2] (Morrison 1992 5), but also to the study of American literature as a whole: “[c]ontemporary critics fail to recognize the ways in that white authors construct themselves and their texts against blackness, thereby reinforcing a canonical construction built on, certain of, the exclusion it perpetuates.” [3] (Durkin 178). Thus, the American literary canon is not merely incomplete; it was stumped by the severage of an important constituent.

To Morrison, black presence in American literature was tamed as an object of study by American Africanism” [4] and sacrificed on the altar of white American identity: in order for the very notion of “American” to fully exist as a presence, its positive aspect had to stand out against a negative backdrop, namely the absence of the black experience and its voice. That is why Morrison strove through her novels to give back its shape and color to the erased Afro-American presence in American literature, to find and express “the something that defines what makes a book ‘black’” (McKay 152-153). [5]

By striving to instate Afro-American writings as an integral part of the national canon, Morrison has established at the scale of a whole culture an ontological independence, an empowerment of a people’s artistic presence and voice. As she concluded in her 1998 essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature”: “We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact. We are not, in fact, ‘other.’ We are choices.” (133) [6]

 

[1] Fox, Margalit. “Toni Morrison, Towering of the Black Experience, dies at 88”, The New York Times, August 6, 2019. Accessed on 19/11/19.

[2] Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Picador, 1992.

[3] Durkin, Anita. “Object Written, Written Object: Slavery, Scarring, and Complication of Authorship in Beloved”, 2007 in Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (New Edition). Infobase Publishing, 2009. pp. 173-194.

[4] Steiner, Wendy. “The Clearest Eye”, The New York Times, April 5, 1992. Acessed on 26/11/19.

[5] McKay, Nellie. An Interview with Toni Morrison, 1983 in Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. University Press of Mississippi, 1994. pp. 138-155.

[6] Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 1988. pp. 123-163.


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