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A Reflection on Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is hailed by some as the ‘nearest thing America has to a National novelist’ (The New York Times). Her latest book, God Help the Child, is being published by Chatto and Windus at the end of this month, and it is her 11th novel. Toni Morrison majored in English at Howard in 1953; she then proceeded to teach English and began writing. Her first novel The Bluest Eye was published in 1976. Praised for her vivid storytelling and the sensitive treatment of her characters, Morrison has won nearly every book prize possible. In 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; and she also received the presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2012.

Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for literature with her acclaimed novel Beloved. It is considered her greatest novel, and I think it is definitely one of her most powerful. It explores themes of love (and its limits) and the supernatural; the protagonist Sethe is haunted by her decision to kill her children, rather than seeing them being sold to slavery. Inspired by Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery and fled to Ohio, authorities were given the right to pursue her and her children across state borders under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Sethe sacrifices her daughter in order to save her from the shackled oppression of slavery and to ‘put my babies where they would be safe’. Beloved returns as a spirit who haunts Sethe’s home, what follows is a narrative of fragmented memories that explain Sethe’s daunting decision. As the story of the past is unravelled to us through flashbacks through multiple characters, Beloved grows to become a disruptive and abusive spirit which haunts the residents of Sethe’s house and their Cincinnati  town. The novel is dedicated is to ‘sixty million and more’; a dedication to the Africans who perished as a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Aimed directly into the abyss of slavery, Beloved highlights the physical and psychological effects of slavery, its immediate repercussions, and even its relevance decades later.

Jazz, is the 2nd book in Toni Morrison’s ‘trilogy’, Beloved being the first. This is not a trilogy in the sense that there are recurring characters and connecting stories, but the novels share themes and settings under the umbrella of the (or an) ‘African American experience’. Jazz follows Joe Trace, who is a door to door salesman, who shoots his lover Dorcas. Violet, known for her unstable mental state, tries to disfigure the corpse with a knife at the girl’s funeral. A story of jealousy, slavery and redemption, the narrative travels with intensity as it daringly captures the lives of the inhabitants of 1920s Harlem, (often considered the capital of Black America). While not as engaging as Beloved and her 1977 novel Song of Solomon, Morrison interestingly uses jazz music as a background image which sets the rhythm for the storytelling. She doesn’t use jazz as a subject matter but uses its style and tenor to write the ‘feeling’ of the particular period, since the novel is set in the middle of what Fitzgerald considered the ‘Jazz Age’. The rhythmic and experimental qualities of jazz in the 20s become the milieu of her novel.  The narrative explores sex and sexuality; music here is the symptom or cause of destabilizing change. Jazz is seen as being associated with the release of restraints on sexual behaviour and the unshackling of traditional expectations. Jazz is used as a floating signifier in the moods and textures that reflect black culture and is used at a compositional level.

Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child focuses on notion of self-image, childhood trauma and how this shapes the life of the adult. Bride, a young girl with blue-black skin, is neglected by her light-skinned parents who are ashamed of her. Ideas about self-image are explored in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, but ideas concerning the death of a child mean this novel has a lot in common with Beloved.  A love story is also intertwined into the story with Booker, who is grieving for his dead brother, being the object of affection. God Help the Child, published by Chatto and Windus, is her 2nd novel set in a contemporary setting, the prerequisite being Tar Baby in 1981.

Morrison recently claimed, not apologetically, that she is ‘writing for black people,’ and these novels are a testament to her commitment to the African American community. Her novels continue to focus on the subject of racial prejudice and she continues to give life to an essential aspect of American reality.

God Help the Child is published on the 30th April.

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