Race and Symbolism in Toni Morrison's Work

The author I chose for this assignment is Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison wrote her first book at thirty-two years old, as a single mother ( Morrison 9). She started writing after the divorce from her husband, to combat her loneliness, and wrote mostly in the morning as her kids were still small (Morrison 9). She is both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner. (Morrison i).She is thought-provoking writer. Her use of symbolism to portray race is what sets her apart. This type of writing is most prevalent in her works “Song of Solomon” and Recitatif”.

“Recitatif” tells the story of two girl, Twyla and Roberta. She doesn’t use specifics to describe the girls, as she writes so you use your own experiences to describe them. They, Roberta and Twyla, are roommates at a shelter. What we know is: Roberta’s mother is sick so she can’t take care of Roberta, while Twyla’s mother, Mary, likes to dance all night. Miss Morrison does hint at racism in the story, by saying that one girl is black, the other is white.

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It’s up to the reader to figure out which character is which race and to apply Twyla’s statements to Roberta. The two girls are called “salt and pepper”, again hinting at being black and white while Twyla says that Roberta “smells funny” and looks different, again being vague about race. (Morrison 1). She (Twyla) later notes that Roberta is illiterate, a trait that can be attributed to both blacks and whites, preserving the racial ambiguity (Morrison 2).

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Roberta and Twyla grow up together in the orphanage, but Roberta does leave eventually, leaving Twyla alone. They do meet outside the orphanage a few times, first at a store where Roberta was going to a concert and Twyla was working as a waitress. They meet again a few years later. This time, Roberta is married and has a Chinese driver, her husband being rich. Twyla is also married and has a son but isn’t as rich as Roberta. Twyla reflects on this fact by thinking “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world (Morrison 9)”. This, along with the fact that Roberta sends her friends away, making me think that Roberta is white, and Twyla is black. The reader can speculate by calling on their own experience or expectation as to who is who. It ends with the fate of Maggie the woman at St. Bonny’s fate uncertain.

“Song of Solomon” is set in the nineteen sixties in the south, and follows the main character, Milkman, starting with early childhood until age thirty-two where he begins the journey to find out who he is. Miss Morrison crafts a second narrative under the first, a narrative of black identity and political smarts of the civil rights movement that are explicit in the story’s arc. She mentions the non-fiction murder of Emmett Till, a young black teen killed in 1955, along with Dr. King and Malcom X (p.81). The fact that Emmett Till is mentioned three times, a black fourteen year old from the North that was murdered, shows the bleak reality of North and South in this time period.

This isn’t the only device she uses in her novel. “Song of Solomon” is rife with imagery that provokes the reader to think, a fact she stated that she is proud of in a Paris Review Interview. One way she uses imagery to provoke readers to think is placing white animals in a predominately black story. The first animal we see is a white bull (Morrison 111).

When you think of a white bull, what do you picture? Tall, intimidating, almost oppressing? In a way, Miss Morrison is using the bull to convey the attitude towards blacks in this time period: Second class, less than, something to fear and monitor. We as humans fear the unknown, and that’s the same with whites, they fear blacks because they were different. On the other hand, the bull could be a fear of whites by the blacks. This makes the most sense, due to the political climate and the story that Freddie, the janitor, tells Milkman how his (Freddie’s) mother gave birth to Freddie then died after seeing the ghost of the white bull. Freddie then mentions how he was brought up in the local jail, as there were no places to house black orphans. A quote that proves this theory about the bull is by Guitar, in his talk with Milkman about the Seven Days. Guitar talks about how whites are “unnatural” and it’s necessary to get rid of them by saying that no whites are innocent (Morrison 156,159). This type of attitude towards whites was made due to the black oppression and fear, hence the white bull in Morrison’s work.

The second animal we see is a white peacock, that could symbolize the ideal life. Both Milkman and Guitar are poor, Milkman working for his father as a land lord and Guitar working at an auto plant (Morrioson 159). Whites in the sixties were rich, had privileges and were treated better than the blacks. The white peacock is first seen when Milkman tells Guitar about what he had learned: that Pilate has gold in her house. As Milkman tells Guitar this, a white peacock jumps off a building and struts in front of them. They try to catch the peacock, but it evades them (Morrison 178,184). This may symbolize that they will never have the white life, which is the cold hard truth in the sixties. No matter how hard Dr. King and Malcolm X fought, they had to wait for true equality. This could also symbolize the personal dreams of both Guitar and Milkman. Guitar’s was to make a difference with the Seven Days, and to have the whites fear them. For Milkman, he wanted to become his own man and lessen his father’s grip on him. At the end of the novel, neither dream comes true.

She uses race and symbolism not just in “Song of Solomon” but also in “Recitatif”. She stated in an interview that she doesn’t use racial codes (Morrison 13), but she does use the phrase “Salt and pepper” to show how one girl is different is than the other (Morrison 1). There is also symbolism when Twyla meets Roberta’s mother for the first time. She describes Roberta’s mother as having a big cross on her neck and a big bible making me think that Roberta is a stereotypical Christian (Morrison 5). The next clue about race that made me think that Roberta is white, and Twyla is black is an interaction at a grocery store. Roberta waits outside until Twyla joins her and she (Twyla) notices her Chinese driver. She bitterly thinks to herself “Easy. Everything is so easy for them. They think that they own the world” (Morrison 9). Miss Morrison skillfully drops hints of each girl’s race but is still ambiguous about it. Near the end, we are also left wondering what Maggie looks like, and was really happened to her St. Bonny’s. She ends on a cliffhanger that satisfies the reader, and lets the reader come up with their own conclusions and answers, instead of giving it to them.

I believe one of the reasons that Miss Morrison is a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer prize winner is not only her use of race and symbolism, where she shows black representation as different almost foreign, but also, she is a emotional writer. She shows this through “Song of Solomon”, by writing characters and instances that provoke sympathy. The main example is Hagar, the granddaughter of Pilate that died of a broken heart due to Milkman’s ignorance of her love for him. Morrison mentions how she wrote this horrible scene in her book “Beloved”, as well as some scenes in “Song of Solomon”, stating in her interview that “I wanted to give the reader all the information and consequences surrounding the act, while avoiding engorging myself or the reader with the violence itself” (18). By sparing the audience the gory details of the infanticide scene in “Beloved”, Miss Morrison shows the emotional toll on Seethe and her love for the baby that drives her to do this unspeakable act. Earlier on in the interview she states, “It’s not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for others people’ pain” (8). Through “Song of Solomon”, she shows this by mentioning the civil rights movement, mentioning Dr. King and Malcolm X, along with showing the actions of Guitar and the Seven Days. She also shows the political climate of the sixties by mentioning how whites move out of Milkman’s way as he crosses the street and mentioning the real live murder of Emmett Till in 1955 as stated before (Morrison 78, 81). All in all, a lot of factors influence Miss Morrison’s work: her life, experiences, and emotion make her a better writer. Her use of race and symbolism don’t just make her stories win prizes, but also make readers think, reflect and see the world with new eyes.

Works cited

  1. Morrison, Toni. “The Art of Fiction No. 134” By Elissa Schappell. Paris Review, Strick& Williams and Tierra Innovation,1993.pp.1-28, www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/toni-morrison-the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-morrison. Accessed 10 April.2019
  2. Morrison, Toni “Recitaif” Genius. Genius Media Group, Inc. www.genius.com/Toni-morrison-recitatif-annotated. Accessed 10 April.2019. pps. 1-20
  3. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Vintage Books, 2004, pps. 111, 156,159, 178,184

Cite this page

Race and Symbolism in Toni Morrison's Work. (2019, Nov 25). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/race-and-symbolism-in-toni-morrisons-work-essay

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