Toni Morrison
Looking back from our perspective at the beginning of a new century, one thing seems increasingly clear. The novels of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner join together to form the most remarkable meditations on race written by American novelists in the century just ended. Both write as they must—he from a segregated Southern world of the 1920s and 1930s, she from the vantage point of civil rights turmoil in the 1950s and Black Power in the 1960s. Both are of their time, and both transcend their time. Readers and scholars, myself included, have explored commonalities in their work, even though Morrison herself has insisted (whenever the question arises): "I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense." So let's compare them, while avoiding two major pitfalls. We should not judge her work as though it were trying, and failing, to measure up to his. (You probably won't be tempted to do this.) And we should not judge his work as though hers corrected his brutal treatment of race. (You may well be tempted to do this.)

Certainly Faulkner's work can offend. Racist language fills Faulkner's novels, but not because he is a racist. Rather, he is quoting, accurately, his white culture's most vicious terms for thinking and talking about (and to) blacks. Light in August (1932) tells the story of a man who does not know if he is white or black, yet who is eventually castrated and murdered as a "nigger rapist." Attentive reading of the novel reveals that we cannot know if he is black; and that his killing of Joanna Burden occurs at an ultimate moment of self-defense (she is firing a pistol at him at pointblank range). Because we are permitted to know this, we see all the more powerfully that none of the whites in Faulkner's Jefferson even ask about it, so intent are they on exterminating Joe Christmas as an "uppity nigger" who strays from his place. Joe Christmas is doomed; Faulkner's art lets us see that the horror of such doom is its abiding lack of justification. A racist novel would pass off its racism to the reader without even knowing it is racist. By contrast, Light in August is not racist, but rather focuses on a murderously racist social dynamic that no one in that culture is prepared to understand, let alone prevent.

How can Light in August be one of Faulkner's greatest novels about race, if there are no major black characters in it? The answer is that white racism operates essentially among whites, as white pathology. As Go Tell it on the Mountain author James Baldwin put it, "the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men." No writer has dramatized that "insanity" better than Faulkner. Morrison would surely grant this, but she would take such racial turmoil elsewhere. The black lives she wants to explore are not shadowy victims of white prejudice. They are instead full-blooded black people, disfigured by racism but not merely disfigured. Starting with Sula (1973), Morrison begins the task of imagining black lives nourished by black cultural values (even as they are damaged by white ones). Song of Solomon (1977) pits Macon Dead (a propertied man, with middle-class aspirations, full of disgust for his own race) against Pilate Dead (Macon's repudiated blood sister, yet a compelling figure radiating tribal values) and asks a question Faulkner's work never poses: Where are the missing black parents whose courage and character might guide us today? Song of Solomon (appearing at the same time as Alex Haley's Roots) is a song in search of Solomon, a lament for absent ancestors, and an attempt to imagine them nevertheless.

NEXT STORY

Comment

LONG FORM
ONE WORD