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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

From «The Bluest Eye» to «God Help the Child», Revised Edition


Linda Wagner-Martin

In this revised edition, Linda Wagner-Martin offers a compelling study of African American writer Toni Morrison’s work, beginning with The Bluest Eye in 1970 and continuing through her 2015 novel God Help the Child. Wagner-Martin describes Morrison as an inherently original novelist who was shaped throughout her career by her role within families. Her study focuses on Morrison's use of family in her narratives, particularly on the roles of mother and child. Beginning with the paradigm of a good mother (Mrs. MacTeer) in The Bluest Eye, set against women who are found wanting in their mother roles, Morrison concentrates in various ways on emphasizing these mother characters. Sometimes those roles are peripheral; more often, they are central. In Sula, for example, the title character has no interest in mothering, but she shows herself to be the product of family disinterest; in Song of Solomon Morrison creates what she terms an ancestor figure to give guidance to the young; in Tar Baby Marie Therese continues that role. Beloved tackles many dimensions of a mothers role. As Morrison continues to write her varied and powerful novels, from Jazz and Paradise through Love, A Mercy, and Home, the attention to judging the efficacy of mothering grows. Finally, in God Help the Child, she attends to little else. In Morrison’s fictional world, drawing from the human and spiritual forces in both Africa and the United States provides some hope of a truly satisfying existence.

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Introduction: Morrison and the Maternal



“My mother, when she would find out that they were not letting Black people sit in certain sections of the local theater, would go and sit in the white folks’ section, go see Superman just so she could come out and say, ‘I sat there, so everybody else can too.’ It’s a tradition …. It’s an old technique that Black people use—you know, the first one in the pool, the first one in the school ….” (Morrison in Con I, 134).

Toni Morrison’s interviews, of which there are many, show the way she reflectively comments on even the simplest—and most predictable—questions. Her interviews also show that she tends to answer her questioners with a narrative scene, as here, when she recalls her mother’s comparatively radical social behavior. What Morrison’s autobiography shows clearly is that she was the child of two strong and sensible parents. As Chloe Ardelia Wofford,1 “Toni Morrison” grew up aware of gender differences. But she also grew up relying on both her hard-working and carefully modulated father, George Wofford, and her equally hard-working but perhaps more flamboyant mother, Ramah Willis Wofford. It is the mother’s voice that Morrison creates in the early chapters of The Bluest Eye. Whether speaking or singing, Ramah Wofford gave her daughter, who was one of four children—two girls and two boys—an audible guide to expressing conscience.

Because Morrison’s fiction shows her even-handed presentations of both men and women (often,...

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