Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: the Journey Away from Self-Love in the Bluest Eye

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Although my students were unaware of it, in a sense what they were questioning from the standpoint of literary criticism is not only the theory of postmodernism with its emphasis on race, class and gender, but the theory of naturalism as well: the idea that one's social and physical environments can drastically affect one's nature and potential for surviving and succeeding in this world. In this article, I will explore Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye from a naturalistic perspective; however, while doing so I will propose that because Morrison's novels are distinctly black and examine distinctly black issues, we must expand or deconstruct the traditional theory of naturalism to deal adequately with the African American experience: a theory I refer to as "black naturalism."

But before I do this I think it is important to discuss why it is worth our while to "dig up" naturalism once again to explore not only earlier black novels but contemporary works as well. In Max's stirring defense of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son, he warns us to "remember that men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too!" (366). As the riots in Los Angeles and in cities across the country indicate, men and women are still forced to struggle for self-realization and one's environment remains a key factor in influencing and limiting an indiVidual's potentials and aspirations. Is the cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and violence in South Central today significantly different from the ghetto streets of Harlem Ann Petry described in The Street? Throughout her naturalistic novel 116th Sheet is a living, breathing, menacing force that attempts to reduce Min to a whispering shadow and to twist Jones into a crazed wolf who has lived in basements too long; for Petty, filthy tenement-lined streets such as these are more than symbols of oppression, inequality and racism--they are the instruments themselves.

Does this mean that by focusing on the influences of environment in literature we are labeling our main characters helpless victims? Absolutely not. In The Street Lutie Johnson fights the ghetto with a determination that can only be called heroic; her tragedy is that she loses her battle against her surroundings, but her triumph consists of her willingness to break the boundaries that both white and black society had created for African American women in the 1940s. In Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson," though Silvia is deeply affected by Miss Moore's lesson of "where we are is who we are," she remains undaunted and vows "ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin" (94,96).

During an interview of Alice Childress and Toni Morrison conducted by Black Creation magazine, Childress claims "that all black writers, whether they intended to or not have been writing about not being free. Always--from the beginning of America right up to now" (Walker and Weathers 92). The theory of naturalism is also about the primal struggle for freedom-- freedom to develop and realize all of the possibilities of our souls and intellects within a societal framework. One cannot think of African Americans without considering society's insidious racist attempts to retain black men and women as cheap sources of labor, whether enslaved or ostensibly "free." A universal characteristic of Morrison's published novels has been her depiction of male and female protagonists failing or succeeding on the difficult journey to freedom through self-awareness. Of course, the struggle to realize one's identity has surfaced repeatedly in literature; however, Morrison's steadfast concentration on the importance of the past indicates that for her, self-realization for African Americans can only be achieved through an active acknowledgement of one's cultural past. Only by understanding and accepting the past can African Americans achieve a psychological wholeness in the present and strengthen their power as a race in the...
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