Representation, Race, and the "Language" of the Ineffable in Toni Morrison's Narrative

By Khayati, Abdellatif | African American Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Representation, Race, and the "Language" of the Ineffable in Toni Morrison's Narrative


Khayati, Abdellatif, African American Review


bell hooks has made the insightful remark "images that of race and representation have become a contemporary obsession," yet "little progress is made if we transform images without shifting paradigms, changing perspectives, ways of looking" (4-7). This essay argues that Toni Morrison brings together the art of story-telling and questions of race in a decisively political and ethical relationship centered in a language of felicity and liberation. Morrison's use of suppressed popular communicative forms - visual, oral, musical, and more - is, as Trudier Harris has pointed out, an integral part of her uncovering "discredited" knowledge.(1) While this reactivation of local memories is certainly among Morrison's cultural objectives, it is the grounding of her outlook in a "race-specific yet race-free prose" that molds a literary form to the exigencies of racial difference: "My vulnerability," she says, "would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it" (Playing x-xi). In Morrison's narrative project, these cautious remarks take shape in two principal ways: She both dis-articulates African American experience from its place in a system of negative associations in the cultural imaginary of what she terms the American "Africanist" discourse, and she re-articulates the concept of black American experience around the diversity, not the homogeneity, of its historical forms.

In what follows I will elaborate on these points, first, in the context of the new cultural politics of difference, drawing on Morrison's criticism itself with regard to her own positionality as a black woman writer, and, second, in the act of her narrative writing, which participates not only in an historical struggle among subaltern communities but also in forging a new non-hegemonic realm of being and meaning. Morrison, I will argue, negotiates a very complex matrix of reality in which the articulation of antagonistic or contradictory elements becomes the very possibility of opening up a new space of cultural practice. To give the past a different reading, to represent black American experience not simply as it has been measured by dominant norms but as it has emerged in terms of a multi-leveled and differential struggle over meaning and subjectivity since slavery, involves a re-invention of tradition and of dominant language tropes. Positioning herself in the tradition of African American writing, Morrison states that for her - "a writer who is black and a woman" - writing fiction is "very different" in that, more than the authors of slave narratives did in the past, she is interested in "how to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.' The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or who belongs to any marginalized category, for, historically, we were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its topic" ("Sites" 110).

First, where the tradition of slave narratives is concerned, Morrison is attentive to silences and gaps in these narratives. She is concerned with things unsaid or unsayable in those narratives of struggle, with how a particular sexual economy and masculinity underpinned the writings of black authors, and with these writers' inability to mine the recesses of memories deemed shameful. We may note in passing the scene in The Bluest Eye in which Pecola is raped by her father, though this scene is related to an earlier one in which the latter was exposed to ridicule by two white men who happened to run into him while he was having his first sexual experience as a boy. Morrison is, in other words, offering a new kind of cultural positioning that is more attentive to black women and their role in the larger racial struggle, Cornel West is right to point out that the recent decisive move toward a new cultural politics of difference has been made more powerful by "the black diasporan womanist critique," which has led to the end of "the innocent notion of the black essential subject" (Keeping Faith 19).

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