What it’s like in “the Dark Places”: Toni Morrison, Black feminism, and democracy today

People everywhere are so focused on the pandemic and its impact on life and society that commemorating literary landmarks might make one seem disengaged these days. Yet, it is precisely this backdrop – that of a global scourge highlighting the fissures in the fabric of our democracies – that makes Nobel laureate Black American writer Toni Morrison deeply relevant to us today as we mark the first anniversary of her death.

Morrison, who chafed at being called a ‘poetic’ writer, was self-avowedly political, in that she was conscious of her intention to write about the Black American experience from within, that is to say to write about it with autonomy and self-regard, to situate it out of what she called “the white gaze.”

Subjugated minds

Morrison, who wrote with truth, passion and, yes, poetry, about the lived experience of Black American people since the pre-Civil War days to the twentieth century counts among the all time greats of American literature.

To be sure, her skill in what Margaret Atwood described as “writing the male character” was considerable: the novels Song of Solomon and Jazz offer memorable illustrations.[i] Still, it is for her realistic yet fervent and lyrical narratives about the lives of Black American women that she would be best remembered. Indeed, apart from Alice Walker and Maya Angelou there is no other American novelist who may be said to equal her in vividly depicting Black female lives in their intersections with patriarchy on the one hand and racism on the other.

In her very first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison plunged into the tensions inherent in Black womanhood. This tale of a teenage Black girl who longs for a pair of blue eyes taps into both generally female and specifically Black female inner experience. By showing how intensely a woman can crave societal corroboration of her physical attractiveness, The Bluest Eye fleshes out what Naomi Wolf was to call the ‘the beauty myth’ – the concept of physical beauty as a cultural construct that both defines and oppresses women worldwide.[ii] The Black girl’s longing for blue eyes brings out how coloured people internalize the idea of their own inferiority and unquestioningly accepts White standards. In this, Morrison echoes Athol Fugard in the iconic South African drama Blood Knot, which shows how apartheid – systemic subjugation of Blacks by Whites – is also, ultimately, a state of the mind.

As an Indian woman – a woman whose country has been through a long period of being ruled by a western power – one recognises that yearning for blue eyes, that craving for self-validation based on alien, imposed but internalised standards. Whitening creams are one of the best-selling items of personal care in India, after all, and at all strata of our society, we are still in awe of all things Occidental, starting from items of attire, through accent and manners to education.

Sula and Beloved

Morrison’s exploration of the dynamics of race, class and gender in Black American life found moving fictional expression in her subsequent novels like Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Home, A Mercy, and God help the Child. But it is Sula, one feels, which speaks most eloquently to women today. As a worldwide patriarchal backlash against the gains of feminism surges up in the wake of a global rise of the far-Right, we suffer from a lack of female camaraderie, the sort of class solidarity based on gender that forms the crux of Sula. In India, especially, where true modernity is yet to touch the lives of most women, where sexist stereotypes and gender-based expectations still define much of female personhood, the self-defining, individualistic Sula Peace reads like a dream – a dream that we women might help each other realise.

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» What it’s like in “the Dark Places”: Toni Morrison, Black feminism, and democracy today | Suparna Banerjee | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2020/08/03/what-its-like-in-the-dark-places-toni-morrison-black-feminism-and-democracy-today/ | 2023-02-07T02:25:01+00:00
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