Toni Morrison shaped the culture of writing in three main areas; she garnered attention and award of the Nobel Prize society, she captured minds of reading audiences in a way that other black authors had not, and she gave a voice to difficult subject matters that has been followed by modern authors. The following from one of her novels gives good example of her journey; “You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man.
You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking whatever you want, leaving what you don’t. ” (Sula pg. 9) This passage tells us some things about both men and women. We learn that Sula is doubly oppressed because she is a woman of color. Many of these narrow-mined ideas about women were carried over into the society of Nobel Prize winners. Back in the fifties and into the sixties, women weren’t business professionals or serious artists, so many women writers weren’t taken seriously. Women writers were seen as writers of cookbooks and “how to’s” for the home.
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Toni Morrison was the eighth woman and first black woman to break through the norm of accomplishing something bigger than recognition for romance novels. The Nobel Prize was primarily awarded to people for their great works in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature and peace work, and very few of those people were women. To date, only 43 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize, out of 862 people and organizations who have been named laureates. (A total of 44 prizes have been awarded to women: Marie Curie won twice. Part of the reason for this is that three of the prizes are for science, and the sciences have not always been friendly to women (npr. org). Morrison wrote in the seventies when women were better respected and noticed for their intelligence. She wrote gruesome stories that told the true lives and feelings of black men and women in the late fifties and sixties that could not be ignored. The following quote from her Nobel Prize winning lecture defines her issues and challenges; “Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man… What it is to have no home in this place…
What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company. ” (Morrison’s Nobel Lecture) Toni Morrison knew what it was like to be oppressed because she grew up in a time when black people were plagued by dirty looks and racial remarks. All of Morrison’s books were about blacks growing up in a harsh white world. In her book, The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove wished desperately to have bright blue eyes and light skin that would get her noticed by everyone in her life.
Pecola is “constantly victimized and humiliated” throughout the novel, causing her wishes to be beautiful to skyrocket into desperation. “It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds – cooled – and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path” (The Bluest Eye pg. 65).
Morrison was able to capture the feelings of Pecola Breedlove and many other black men and women in those days because many of her characters were either influenced by her own life or a life of someone she knew personally. The influence had a lot to do with the fact that beauty was marked by how light skin was, how bright eyes were, and how clean and proper one was. Blacks didn’t get a lot of positive attention then because they usually didn’t possess any of those characteristics. The next quote reflects the time; “White kids; his mother did not like him to play with niggers.
She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (The Bluest Eye pg. 77) Migration, whether forced, voluntary, or tempted, and the changing patterns of temporary movement are forms of territorial crusades which inform Morrison’s fiction. The Great Migration in Jazz, the Ohio crossing in Beloved, the temporary and repetitive movement in Paradise and the forced migration in A Mercy are some of the spatial journeys traversed by women. tonimorrisonsociety. org) Women of the sixties had more social rights, but they were still being oppressed. Their oppressions came from the social need to be a good housewife and mother. Women who worked were highly looked down upon and were encouraged to stay home as much as possible. Women were meant to be “docile and unchallenging”(Shmoop Editorial Team), much like Hannah in Sula: “While Eva tested and argued with her men . . . Hannah rubbed no edges, made no demands, made the man feel as though he were complete and wonderful just as he was. ”(Sula, pg. 38).
Eva was such a strong character in this book; her disability did not prevent her from doing other things. Eva is a very positive portrayal of a woman. Being a black woman, her color was an issue that could have been considered negative at that time, but it was not for her. Her power was used unselfishly, her disability caused by the same reason (Shmoop Editorial Team). Morrison portrayed Eva with such a strong character that was almost uncanny for women in that time. Sula took after her grandmother very much in this aspect. Like Morrison, her self-reservoir of independence kept her strong and reserved.
But she also learned from her mother how to handle men without letting her emotions and feelings get the best of her. Morrison was very similar in this aspect in that after she divorced from her husband, she went on to become one of the most famous black women writers in American Literature. All of Morrison’s books have very strong female characters that can do the work of men with the class and grace of a woman. That message spoke volumes to men and women in the time that Morrison wrote, because it was so uncommon to see women characters portray such bravery and independence.
In addition to her characterizations mentioned above, Morrison shifted literary importance during that time by highlighting the striking works of prominent black women writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angleou, and she was well appreciated for it by novelists everywhere. Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou are two women who have also made a huge impact in African American Literature. Hurston was recognized for her distinctive way of relaying her feelings and ideals about racial division and for her efforts to connect both the artistic world and the African American population.
Through her creativity, meaningful and ornate words, and undeniable talent, Hurston helped develop a common identity for her people during an influential time in history (J. Chambliss). During the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was adamant about preserving African culture and influence. She used her paintings, writings, and music to keep the heritage alive. Maya Angelou wrote strongly on identity for the African American woman, which is also reflected in Toni Morrison’s writing. An example of her straightforward writing is seen in the following quote: “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between. (goodreads. com). This quote aptly describes both authors outlook on life. Morrison used the ideals from both of these influential women and imitated the same style in her works. Likewise, Hurston’s style of writing was very similar to Morrison’s. An example is seen in the quote from her book, Their Eyes are Watching God, “She starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see. ” (goodreads. com) Here Hurston, just like Morrison, showed the difficulty women had of gaining respect in the eyes of men.
The struggle Hurston had with men was the same struggle Morrison had with the Nobel Prize society, and by winning the Nobel Prize Morrison brought more attention to women writers and she was described as an individual “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”(nobelprize. org). Because of her distinctive writing, Morrison was able to capture the minds of her readers more profoundly than that of Hurston or Angelou. She set the stage for modern writers to express thoughts and ideas that may have been otherwise discouraged.
An example of a modern writer who wrote on a difficult matter is Dave Pelzer. In his book, A Child Called It, Pelzer wrote plainly about the horrific events in his life- much like Morrison wrote plainly about the oppression the characters in her books faced. Pelzer is a “living testament of a self-made man”(DavePelzer. com). Morrison’s “in your face” stlye of writing may have inspired many other modern writers including Dorothy Allison. Her novel, Bastard out of Carolina, is much like Morrison’s works in that it is set in the south and deals with issues of gender, parent relationships, sexuality, and crimes committed against children. Jake Jacobs) Similar to Morrison’s Pecola, Pelzer’s “resilience enabled him to overcome extreme life threatening obstacles,” his child showed the “courage to survive” according to DavePelzer. com. In conclusion, Morrison shifted American Literature in three main ways: she paved a path for many authors who wrote on difficult subjects, she captivated the minds of her audience in ways other black women authors had not, and she was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize by bringing real life topics into the mainstream of literature.