English 6923: Working Class Literature
Chloe Anthony Wofford was born on February 18th, 1931 in the steel mill town of Lorain, Ohio. Her parents struggled during the Depression to provide for Toni and her three siblings. Her father, George, had three jobs and her mother, Ramah, took care of the home and children. The rest of her family had endured their share of hardships as well. Her great-grandmother had been kept as a slave and her grandfather had been born into slavery. He, however, was able to receive his freedom at the age of five. Toni excelled in high school and moved on to Howard University. It was during this time that she changed her name to Toni, a shortened version of her middle name Anthony. After attaining her bachelor’s degree in English in 1953, she continued on to Cornell and graduated from there two years later having obtained her master’s degree.
She has found a way, as so many other authors, of sharing her working-class experiences with the world through her writing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1969, followed by her second novel, Sula, in 1974, for which she was nominated for a National Book Award. A string of other novels followed including the National Book Critics Circle Award winning Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winning Beloved (1987), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1997). She was also the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993). Morrison has also won a variety of other awards for her writing.
Toni Morrison uses a combination of powerful language and relatable characters to create highly memorable stories. She can easily fall into any number of literary genres such as feminist, African American, as well as working-class literature. The theme of class runs deeps throughout her novels, often has an undercurrent, although it is brought into the foreground in at least two of her novels, Sula and Beloved.
In Beloved, the story revolves around the current events taking place in the lives of former slaves. They live in a community where the effects of their pasts are still being felt in the present, and they continue to be haunted by it. In this novel, some of the characters use their sexuality as a means of social control over one another. Perhaps Morrison’s characters, who had few other means available for coercing and using power against each other, used their sexuality to influence and control one another. In the novel Beloved, the title character uses her sexuality to control Paul D. When he becomes uncomfortable with her sudden unexplained presence in the house he begins to sleep in the storeroom. Beloved follows him there and he says, “What you want in here? What you want?” Beloved answers, “I want you to touch me on the inside part and call me my name.” After a few recurrences of this scene, Paul D. becomes extremely uncomfortable around Beloved, and he leaves his home. Beloved was able to use her sexuality to manipulate Paul D. into behaving as she wanted.
Morrison also uses sexuality in her novels as her characters main form of expression and entertainment. While their entertainment opportunities may be limited by their economic position, sex and sexuality are free of cost. Morrison’s extensive use of the themes of gender and sexuality are brought into relief by her ability to combine them with class. Although there are many authors who have previously used these themes in their writing, her ability to use her character’s working-class lifestyles to intensify their gender roles and sexuality are one of the reasons her writing is so powerful. In Sula, for example, the title character is a dominant female. She refuses to take a husband, something that deeply troubles her mother. In a scene from the text, Sula and her mother have a disagreement regarding her lifestyle choices and attitude when she returns home to The Bottom after having been gone for many years. Her mother asks, “When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.” Sula replies, “I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” Sula’s manner and tone of voice make her a much more forceful female than what we may have expected to see in society during the 1930’s, the time during which the novel is set. It could be argued that her economic position within the working class served to free her from the stereotypical gender constraints and allowed her to be the type of person she really wanted to be – a dominant, independent, single woman.
Class is by no means the only social issue discussed in Morrison’s work. One of the difficulties associated with defining Morrison’s works is making the judgment of whether or not the characters’ race leads to the bulk of the oppression that they experience. What I think makes her writing working-class, as opposed to strictly African-American, is the fact that the economic and social problems her characters face are not race specific. They are difficulties and experiences that anyone in the working class could experience, regardless of the color of their skin.
Toni Morrison’s novels continue to be enjoyed by readers, and taught in classrooms, because she is able to create such interesting and multidimensional characters through her ability to combine themes. Although her writing has the ability to speak directly to the female heart, men and women can both enjoy and learn from her stories and characters. It is possible to read her novels again and again and enjoy them more with each subsequent reading, while taking away new and thought provoking concepts each time.
Butler-Evans, Elliot. “Racial Discourse, Aesthetics, and Desire in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye & Sula.” Race, Gender,and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philidelphia:
This article discusses various ways in which race, as well as myth and folklore, are used in Toni Morrison’s writing, specifically in her novel Sula, though the article refers to The Bluest Eye as well. The relationships between the blacks and whites in the novel are not only based on differences of race but differences in economic class as well. This article also highlights the way race and class affect the characters’ gender roles and sexuality.
Kastor, Elizabeth. “Toni Morrison’s Beloved Country: The Writer and Her Haunting Tale of Slavery.” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Ed. Barbara H. Solomon. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998. 53-58.
This article discusses Morrison’s feelings about writing Beloved as well as the factual core of the novel. It tells how the novel is loosely based on the life of a woman named Margaret Garner, and how her story had haunted Morrison for a decade prior to the writing of Beloved. The article discusses the struggles Morrison faced in the recreation of Garner’s story while also giving us a brief overview of Morrison’s life and career. It discusses the difficulties Morrison encountered in accurately representing the lives of slaves during that time.
Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness. New Jersey: Associated University
Presses, Inc., 1991.
This book discusses the way in which Toni Morrison uses the theme of class consciousness within her novels. In the chapter dedicated to her novel Sula, it discusses how the issues of class surfaced as a result of the issue of race. The racial differences were also connected to economic differences, even if Morrison did not explicitly make this connection in the novel. The book goes on to discuss how issues of class became more prominent in her later works.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
Beloved tells the story of former slave Sethe and the important people in her life. Sethe struggles to escape the memories of her horrific past and is eventually forced to confront them. Morrison combines the issues of racial and class oppression with the themes of gender and sexuality in a very interesting way in this haunting tale.
Morrison, Sula. New York: Penguin Group, 1982.
Sula is the story of the title characters’ struggle to maintain her individuality in a small Ohio community. This novel explores issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and friendship. Morrison intertwines these themes with each other to create an extremely vivid and powerful story.