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Toni Morrison: Black (Hi)stories and Trauma


  • Sophisticated and poetic vocabulary and phrasing
  • Focus on African American experience and Black struggle for identity
  • Interweaving of myth and history
  • Southern Gothic (see Faulkner) and magic realism
  • Neo-slave narratives
  • Born in Ohio
  • Working in publishing industry, she fostered many African American authors of the 1970s, as well as Black authors from abroad (Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Wole Soynka, among others)

Toni Morrison (1931–2019)



Song of Solomon


The Bluest Eye


Tar Baby






"Introduction," Adventures of Huckleberry Finn


Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination






A Mercy




"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.—Toni Morrison,Nobel Speech, 1993.

the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.—Toni Morrison, Beloved

I24 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to

Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver's son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby's fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil. "We could move," she suggested once to her mother-in-law. "What'd be the point?" asked Baby Suggs. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. [...]"

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just a soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize."—Toni Morrison, Beloved.

There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language. The analogy that occurs to me is jazz; it is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other. I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but l am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean.Lots of books written by black people about black people have had this “universality” as a burden. They were writing for somereaders other than me.

Race, for many, is a determining brand, simply one side of a rigid binary. Blackness, as Morrison conceived of it, was a shared history, an experience, a culture, a language. A complexity, a wealth. To believe in blackness solely as a negative binary in a prejudicial racialized structure, and to further believe that this binary is and will forever be the essential, eternal, and primary organizing category of human life, is a pessimist’s right but an activist’s indulgence. Meanwhile, there is work to be done. And what is the purpose of all this work if our positions within prejudicial, racialized structures are permanent, essential, unchangeable—as rigid as the rules of gravity?—Zadie Smith, "The Genius of Toni Morrison's Only Short Story"

Deep within the word ‘American’ is its associationwith race. To identify someone as South African is to say very little; we need the adjective ‘white’ or ‘black’ or ‘colored’ to make our meaning clear. In this country it is quite the reverse.American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.—Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

"Recitatif" (1983)