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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

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

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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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Chapter Seven: Playing in the Dark and the Nobel Acceptance Lecture

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← 97 | 98 → CHAPTER SEVEN

“White writers, you know, write about us all the time. There are major black characters in Updike, in Ragtime, in all of them. That’s where all the life is. That’s where the life is. And the future of American literature is in that direction. I don’t mean that’s the only group, but that certainly is one of the major groups. Obviously, lots of people are interested in it, not just for research purposes as you know, but in terms of the gem, the theme, the juice, of fiction.” (Morrison, Con I, 28)

When Jazz appeared in 1992, it was somewhat eclipsed by Morrison’s first book of academic literary criticism, which also appeared in 1992, and was a book that in many respects changed the study of American literature. Playing in the Dark, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, lectures which Morrison had given at Harvard University in 1990 as the William E. Massey, Sr., Lectures in the History of American Civilization, were her prolegomena to what would be an increasingly active presence in all kinds of literary endeavors. One of the things this slim book did was to make critics, writers, and educators understand that “whiteness” was itself a definitional term: all literature heretofore had been uncategorized because it was written as white. Yet for Morrison, who had taken undergraduate literature courses at Howard University from the fine African American poet Sterling Brown and Alain Locke, the originator of the Harlem concept of...

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