Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Shifting Masculinities and Evolving Feminine Power: Progressive Gender Roles in Toni Morrison's Home

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Shifting Masculinities and Evolving Feminine Power: Progressive Gender Roles in Toni Morrison's Home

Article excerpt

IN A JULY 2012 INTERVIEW IN THE TELEGRAPH., TONI MORRISON STATES that black male writers often write books about white oppressors. She implicitly evokes W. E. B. Du Bois's definition of double consciousness and the continuing presence of the color line (or the division of society into the separate worldview and experiences of black and white citizens) as a defining aspect of African American experience ("Souls" 359). Double consciousness is the psychological distress that occurs with the experience of being defined through the eyes of an Other (364). Indeed, according to Morrison, black male authors reveal how "the person who defines you ... is a white mind [who]--tells you whether you're worthy or what have you. And as long as that's your preoccupation, you're defending yourself against that. Reacting to it. Reacting to the definition--saying it's not true." As an African American woman, she does not want to waste her energy "refuting that gaze" (Leve). These remarks are indicative of Morrison's consistent position that male and female gender roles are interdependent and intertwined, and in her novel Home (2012) she focuses on the need for black men and women to become aware of how such roles are formed and maintained, knowledge of which might allow for change.

Indeed, Home acknowledges yet moves past a traumatic sense of double consciousness for both men and women, and honors (even as it refigures) the sense of womanhood that Du Bois evokes in "The Damnation of Women" (1920), where women are fundamental to the progress of democracy. (1) Du Bois argues that women are implicitly part of the "talented tenth" and promotes the idea of a powerful black woman, one who is not reduced to the role of Madonna or whore, mother or virgin ("Damnation" 953). This woman is politically active, economically independent, and a vital part of her community, particularly in raising the next generation. (2) In Home, even as Morrison grapples with the historical development of gender roles for black men and women, which are inextricably coupled with the history of institutionalized racism, she redefines African American gender roles by writing about 1950s America, showing that there are ways in which individuals can surpass the roles society assigns to them. Critics have focused on the novel's narration (Furman); issues of identity (Andres); trauma (Harack and Ibarrola); place, diaspora, and memory connected to home (Thomas; Schindler; Wall); and the maternal (Wagner-Martin). In contrast, my analysis examines race, gender, and trauma in the novel, as Morrison reveals the power of facing traumatic memory, the healing ability of community, and the deconstruction of traditional gender roles. Morrison postulates a progressive model of race and gender, emphasizing the importance of personal responsibility in confronting one's own past in order to become a productive member of the community who can care for others, pass on knowledge, and aid in the self-actualization of the next generation. Ultimately, she rejects a model of rampant individualism along with white, hegemonic, male ideologies of progress, and instead celebrates the communal, productive, healing power of women and men who have faced the past, celebrate the present, and look forward to a future that is not rigidly defined by existing race and gender ideologies.

To reveal this transformation, Morrison creates a novelistic structure that is less convoluted than that of her earlier works, with fewer narrative voices and flashbacks. However, she still circles around traumas and delays full disclosure of characters' memories. She tells the story of Frank Money and his younger sister Cee, who grow up together in Lotus, Georgia, and experience a childhood trauma that influences their gender roles. From the first chapter, with Frank's flashback to this trauma, certain gender roles are introduced only to be questioned later. …

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