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In Afro-American literature, feminism has played a significant role in shaping the lives of female writers and their fictional works. To succeed in the society, Afro-American female writers strive to overwhelm personal acumens and difficulties that have transcended genres of fictional writing. Authors of African American literature relate their fictional works to events that occur in the environments in which they live in. Toni Morrison is a renowned Nobel Prize laureate whose literary works have played a great role in challenging the stereotypes imposed on Black women throughout American history.i
Patriarchy in the American society dates back to the colonial period where chauvinism and feminism were highly regarded in the social setting. This nature of society marginalised and inhibited the black woman from direct access to power. Morrison’s fictional works are carefully crafted to enable the audience understand and question the standpoint of Afro-American feminism created in the writing.
Nonetheless, typecasting is unsurprisingly engraved in Afro-American conscious; hence, it is important to view Afro-American feminism along these lines before exploring ways in which stereotyping can be thrown out ineradicably. Reconsidering the ancient perspectives of the relationship between identity and culture disdains the analysis of multifarious factors that result in social eccentricity. Based on this inclination, this essay delves into feminism in Afro-American literature by examining how Toni Morrison’s fictional works relate to black feminist thoughts.
Black Feminist Perspectives and Destructive Stereotypes
Many scholars have conducted studies to unveil the way in which Afro-American women writer have struggled to counter stereotypes since the nineteenth century. Feminist literature in the Afro-American context revolves around politics, racism, and sexuality. Throughout the history of the America, white supremacy has been entwined in male dominance (Marsh-Lockett 21). In this kind of environment, being a black woman meant living in a twofold threat of belonging to the inferior sex of an inferior race.ii Amidst the masculinity of the literary field, Afro-American female writers were not only racially alienated but also oppressed based on gender.iii
Indisputably, there has always been a racial divide between blacks and whites throughout the history of America (Marsh-Lockett 21). With males from both communities dominating their races, Afro-American female writers further encountered sexist traditions that made them more inferior even in their culture.1
The black are repressed, not only deprived of freedom, but also the right of speak. They cannot express themselves, even if they speak, no man will listen. Morrison aims to give voice to them, especially black women, for racially and sexually they suffer double oppression. Black women’s voice is silenced by both gender and race. In order to regain their identity, they have to give out their voice first. They are the only person who can fill the vacancy of their history (Wang 235).
The voice of female Afro-American remained unheeded until the publication of literary works of writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.2 Although some authors such as Ralph Ellison had previously brought black consciousness into light, their works only expressed maleness; hence, the black female remained voiceless.3 Black women scholars have created a significant logical framework for a distinguishing perspective of both self and community.
This development has created a multidimensional African-American women intellectual culture. An analysis of Morrison’s works unveils six distinctive features that depict feminist thoughts. They include work, materfamilias, self-definition, sexuality, love affairs, motherhood, and social action.4 These features can create a neutral ground for both every race and gender in the American society. Along these lines, African American women can realise a collective identity, which can play a great deal in disparaging their misrepresentation in the American culture (West 14). Morrison focus is on recreating the negative socialisation that had been linked to Afro-American women since the pre-colonial era (Marsh-Lockett 13). The fight for identity of the black woman is depicted in every piece of her poetry, story, and/or novel.
Defining Toni Morrison’s Black Feminism
To begin with, Toni Morrison’s black feminism reconstructs the history of African American discrimination based on race and gender. Perhaps due to earlier deficit of literacy, the author puts her writing in a context that rebuilds history through black traditional songs and folklores. As a result, Morrison’s novels are dominated by fairy-tale stories, melodious redeems, and bizarre flavours (Wang 234).
A book named “All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men” by Barbara Smith depicts the obliviousness of Afro-American females. This kind of mystification, misrepresentation, and erasure stimulated black females to construct their identity in the American culture. This circumstantial kind of literature inspired Morrison to emphasise the significance of constructing the identity of African American females by shattering gender and racial eccentricity through fictitious work (Middleton 27).
Furthermore, Morrison emphasises the importance of the presence of black women in American literature. From an historical standpoint, she explains the reasons behind the discrimination of African Americans in her book “Playing in the Dark” (Wang 234). According to Morrison, white Americans symbolically used blackness to signify their matchlessness and subjugate African Americans. Morrison’s fictional works also aimed at making unspeakable things heard. Her literary work focuses on provoking voice amongst black women. The voice of the black woman is silenced by racial and sexual profiling (Fuss 66). To regain their identity in the American culture, they have to speak out against these vices.iv
Toni Morrison’s work is mostly inspired by unarticulated, unprinted, and unimagined topics in literature, especially on issues that touch black women.v It is this knowledge that motivates her to write predominantly for Afro-American women. “I write for black women. We are not addressing the men, as some white female writers do. We are not attacking each other, as both black and white men do. Black women writers look at things in an unforgiving/loving way. They are writing to repossess, re-name, re-own” (Wang 234). This assertion depicts the pursuit of self-identity and recognition of black women in the American society. The intentions of Morrison’s black feminism is to break through the barriers of racial and gender eccentricity by shattering the conservative values held by the white mainstream society (Rosenfelt and Newton 34).
She wants black women to surface and express themselves. This assertion is underpinned by the use of female narrators as the main characters in her novels. In her literary work, the black writer seeks to substitute destructive typecasting with constructive dreams.5 In this context, substitution of negative stereotypes implies creating a positive impression of the black feminist community by disregarding negative images (Fuss 65). Female actors are given an opportunity to develop into constructive images. Morrison work is inclined to this specific insight, which is depicted by the characters in her novels.6 To examine her standpoint in challenging the misrepresentation of the Afro-American woman in American literature, the following section explores two distinguishing features of the Afro-American woman.7
The Whore and the Good Wife
The whore and the good wife are distinguishing representations of negative stereotyping imposed on the black woman in an American environment that is dominated by racial and gender profiling. The whore as used in this context describes “Sula” while “good” gives a picture of her complement “Nel”. The interrelation between the two aspects play a significant role in disregarding the negative image imposed on the black woman. In spite of their relationship, they represent distinct stereotypes. For instance, Sula is used to portray the promiscuous nature of the Afro-American woman, who is regarded as a whore due to her attitude towards womanhood and sexual roles in the society.
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“To Sula, sex is disconnected from emotion, a disembodied act of the body that allows her to feel a sorrow unattainable through any other means” (Wang 324). This assertion displays an undesirable label that black women are promiscuous naturally. The description is also underpinned by Sula’s upbringing. Sula’s mother teaches her that sex is pleasant; hence, it should be frequent. However, she goes ahead to tell her that it is unremarkable. The stereotype depicted by the character is depicted in liberal viewpoint as opposed to an inborn promiscuous feature of the black woman. In this context, the statement unswervingly defies the negative stereotype.
The figure of the whore is rebuilt in a way that expels the undesirable aspect linked to it. Nonetheless, Sula’s stereotype of the whore is carefully crafted to challenge this characteristic not only within the book but also in the real life of the Afro-American woman. “For Sula, sex becomes a means to assert herself and to defy social convention. She seduces her best friend’s husband and is accused of the worst degradation of all: sleeping with white men” (Middleton 27).
In the olden days, African American women were regarded as sex objects by the white men. Nonetheless, this part is reversed in Morrison’s fictional works. For instance, Sula uses men to derive own pleasure and accomplish self-exploration. Nonetheless, the formation of self-identity is not based on conformity to social expectations of the white community (Visser 148). As a result, Sula is seen as a woman simply seeking pleasure rather than a whore. She strives to render her race incidental in pursuit of her identity in the American society. In the novel, Sula is seen to create individualised anticipations of life by dispelling the conventional confines of sex.
Therefore, Morrison uses fictional work to examine the misrepresentation of Afro-American women with a view of expelling the negative stereotype of promiscuity imposed on them by the white community. Sula’s best friend, Nel, is regarded as a fearful wife who treats her husband with unparalleled respect. The role Sula in the novel is complemented by the selfless nature of Nel, depicted as the good child whose upbringing allows her to develop into a selfless wife and mother who indisputably abides by the stereotypes of womankind. She is the exact opposite of Sula. As highlighted in Morrison’s work, Nel remains submissive to her husband Jude and never goes against his way. Unlike Sula, she is faithful and sacrifices her identity to shoulder that of her husband. However, she fails to enjoy freedom and realisation of self-identity.
The representation of the two girls provides a good contrast of stereotypes imposed on the black woman.vi Morrison is keen to ensure that each of the characters play independent roles in their lives. Nonetheless, Morrison views marriage as an institution that destroys one’s morals persistently. She reveals the significance of other aspects of life such as friendship through the unfolding events of Sula and Nel. Sula later realises the essence of friendship in black womankind despite the fact that she despised its value by sleeping with Nel’s husband.
Sadly, Sula dies short of her friend’s forgiveness. It is at this point in time that Nel recognises the importance of friendship in Afro-American womanhood. Morrison’s examination of black feminist thought compels the black women to further disregard the stereotypes imposed on them by the white community. After the burial ceremony, Nel realises that that it had been Sula whom she had missed through the years. In other words, Morrison implies that the love of sisterhood amongst the Afro-American women is plays a greater role in survival and rebuilding of identity as compared to the institution of marriage. This unquestionably discards the stereotypes of “the whore and the good wife” since it disproves the overall role of men in the society; hence, provoking women to seek their identity.vii
In yet another short story namely “Recitatif”, Morrison narrates a tale of how two eight year old girls develop their friendship in a children’s home. Despite the life challenges they encounter both in the orphanage and school, they have an uncommon acceptance of their state of affairs. However, the friendship between them helps them to live easily the children’s home. Morrison’s literature typically depicts the importance of developing unending friendship bonds amongst American women. Mishkin reveals that friendship stimulates strength, which plays an important role in the representation of a group.8 This is unquestionably the development of black feminist thought in Afro-American literature.
Over the years, feminism in Afro-American literature has played a central role in changing the lives of many black women in America. Females writer belonging to the black community have strived challenge personal acumens and difficulties that have transcended genres of fictional writing. With the representation of the events that occur in their environments in fictional literature, the voices of black women have gradually increased. This situation has paved way for the representation of black women in America. Furthermore, it has helped them to shun negative stereotyping based on gender and racial profiling.
There are voluminous literary texts that have been written by different writers from a feminist viewpoint. However, Morrison’s works outdo most of these works owing to her fictional position of the Afro-American female community. Indeed, many of her stories and novels distinguish her from other female writers. She examines the viability of African American female stereotypes by delivering effective proof of why they must be countered and expelled. Morrison’s black feminist thought in her literary work provides an outstanding foundation for appreciating the presence of black women in America.
- Marsh-Lockett, Carol P. Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage. Routledge, 2015.
- Wang, Yuan. “Morrison’s Black Feminist Discourse in A Mercy.” Open Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 11, 2015, pp. 234-238.
- Wang, 235.
- Marsh-Lockett, 22.
- Rosenfelt, Deborah and Judith Newton. Feminist Criticism and Social Change (RLE Feminist Theory): Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture. Routledge, 2013.
- Fuss, Diana. Essentially speaking: Feminism, nature and difference. Routledge, 2013.
- Fuss, 66.
- Mishkin, Tracy. Literary Influence and African-American Writers: Collected Essays. Routledge, 2015.
i “The literary work of Toni Morrison is famous for its rich intersexuality, interweaving narrative, contemporary history, and tales and motifs from oral storytelling traditions” (Visser 148).
ii Marsh-Lockett, Black Women Playwrights, 34.
iii To Morrison “white Americans metaphorically used blackness as a way to show their uniqueness and projected oppression on African Americans for their fear of losing freedom in the New World” (Wang 235).
iv “By her novels, Morrison aimed to reconstruct the missing history of African-Americans. Facing the absence and distortion of the native history, as a black feminist, Morrison showed her principles of feminism in her works. Oppressed racially and sexually, black women are marginalized and silenced. In her novels, Morrison finds ways to let them show their feelings” (Wang 238).
v Fuss, Essentially Speaking, 67.
vi Visser, Fairy Tale, 152.
vii Mishkin, Literary Influence and African-American Writers, 381.
Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. Routledge, 2013.
Marsh-Lockett, Carol P. Black Women Playwrights: Visions on the American Stage. Routledge, 2015.
Middleton, David. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. Routledge, 2016.
Mishkin, Tracy. Literary Influence and African-American Writers: Collected Essays. Routledge, 2015.
Rosenfelt, Deborah and Judith Newton. Feminist Criticism and Social Change (RLE Feminist Theory): Sex, Class and Race in Literature and Culture. Routledge, 2013.
Visser, Irene. “Fairy Tale and Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Home.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 148-164.
Wang, Yuan. “Morrison’s Black Feminist Discourse in A Mercy.” Open Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 3, no. 11, 2015, pp. 234-238.
West, Nicole M. “The African American Women’s Summit: A Student Affairs Professional Development Program.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-14.