The global respect for Nobel Prize in Literature-winning author Toni Morrison is immeasurable. As the first Black woman ever awarded this highest level prize in writing and the last American in general, Morrison’s depiction of Black American life across an astonishing range of tapestries and historical periods trailblazed worldwide appreciation for a largely-subdued ethnic representation in books.
Her audacity to depict the pathologies and defects of Black Americans’ lives, along with their virtues and triumphs, paved the way for more well-rounded Black characters in literature; many had been hidden behind Black authors’ desperate efforts to foreground largely positive, but sometimes simplistic, images meant to repair our stereotypes.
At age 84 Morrison released her 11th novel, God Help the Child, last spring from Alfred Knopf Publishers in New York City. The slim novel centers upon a contemporary Black American woman who calls herself ‘Bride.’ Her successful life as a cosmetic executive at “You, Girl” (a venture comparable to Essence Magazine’s mission to black beauty), can not stop her emotionally-abusive childhood from coming back to haunt her. She was born a mysteriously dark child to lighter parents who resented her for it, and experiences a hard-hitting failed love affair and social overextension rooted in her unrecognized self-despair. The book’s California setting and more modern main character answer back to many critics of Morrison, who claimed her work’s concentration in America’s well-known slavery hotbeds and Jim Crow past was overkill and too easy for her now.
God Help the Child shows the effects of legal discrimination and punishments of racist structures have no statutes of limitation. Bride’s obsession with wearing and surrounding herself by the color white symbolizes this. Although in stark contrast to the color of her skin, her belief in the color white as an ideal mutes the confliction of her childhood mistreatment and her adult veneer of perfection. Similarly, Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye featured a young Black girl who thought blue eyes and Shirley Temple hair would rescue her from the turmoil poverty and racism brought. A wider cast of characters appears in God Help the Child to expose the ongoing effects of color politics in the Black community, drives to place Black men under penal supervision, and even sexual abuse.
Today, Morrison can be proud of other Black American women authors’ unabashed portrayals of Black American people as honorable but flawed, saintly but imperfect, and whole but struggling in ways both certainly and only gently connected to racism. Just as Morrison’s rigorous arts and letters education, coupled with her commitment to cultural activism, influenced her participation and innovation in global culture, many Black female authors stand in her footprints as products of elitist systems once shut to them. They give confirmation that others will continue to take cues from Ms. Morrison, and continually push thematic and genre envelopes to build literary truth of Black Americans.
Here are just a few of the recent literary titles and authors adhering to the more complicated standards Morrison’s writing instigates, where lives and truths and voices of Black people surface to counter current widespread news of racist victimhood for them.
Jam on the Vine: A Novel
by Lashonda Katrice Barnett
The tribulations and political barriers to Black women’s entrepreneurship in the early 20th Century serve as backdrops to a richly-detailed, refreshing play of Austenian hijinks— but this time the sisters are not White, British or rich. They are two Black lovers who helm a newspaper in Kansas City in America. Daughter of a cook and a metalsmith, the protagonist Ivoe steals a newspaper from her mother’s boss and falls in love with words. She pursues higher education and flees the Jim Crow South, only to discover the talons of prejudice clamp down on Northern Blacks too. The novel shows how extinct Black medias and Black women’s labor gave unsung power to fight racist violence and lynching in the Midwest of America, one of the lesser-examined ports of discrimination. Barnett has a PhD in American Studies from the College of William and Mary.
Blue Talk and Love: Stories
by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Sullivan’s pure American stories introduce a far-reaching and necessary imagination into the literary landscape. The touching worlds feature common and not-so characters: girls in complicated families in Harlem, early 20th Century freak show acts, a stocky brown girl among model-thin classmates at an upper crust boarding school. One story narrates the idyllic days and friendships of a group of Black lesbians who form an uplifting social band, only to find a White man’s homophobic assault will land them in terror before jail. Sullivan, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania’s PhD program in English Literature, is Assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst.
Lighting the Shadow
by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Griffith’s latest poetry collection has established her as a representative face of American lyric, with her both ethereal and narrative verses a reflection of her dual occupation as a writer and visual artist. Far from an impulsive outpour of personal anecdote and memory, Griffiths’ poems dare readers to occupy their own very delicate and deep-seated psychic spaces along with the more communal and politically-charged ones we all share as human beings who constantly create in our unique ways. Her subjects include love, grief, body inhabitance, personal creativity and national identity all written to inspire the finest images in our minds. Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
Remember Me to Miss Louisa: Hidden Black and White Intimacies in Antebellum America
by Sharony Green
Green, an Assistant Professor of American History at University of Alabama, tears the lid off the uncomfortable subject of consensual and “mistress” relationships between enslaved or freed African-American women and White men who captained their lives. She locates her examination outside a more granted Southern center of racism to the Midwest, via a complex tunnel of river and land travel migrating Black women who held the affections of White men to look after them and their children for mutual benefit. An atypical scholarship, the book has a novel feel in its close look at three cases in particular where hidden relationships between a White man and African-American woman made the difference between freedom or death, profit or loss, and adultery or something else.