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Why You Need to Read Toni Morrison

Updated on July 2, 2020
Maisie Mayne profile image

Enthusiastic English graduate sharing and discussing powerful literature.

Why Morrison is Essential Today

As the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1993, the importance of Toni Morrison’s work is no secret to the literary world. Having said this, following the tragedy of George Floyd and the ignition of the ‘black lives matter’ movement, a revision of Morrison’s work has become even more critical in 2020. In 1989, Morrison claimed that ‘there is no place, where you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves’. Therefore, her literature has evolved into a platform to recollect these absences, give a voice to those who have historically been silenced, and fill in the blanks of our history which is often left untouched or breezed over by the curriculum of European and American education.

The Novels to Begin With

The sharing of the history of slavery on social media, raising awareness of factual inequalities and explanations of systematic racism undoubtedly play a vital role in educating people on how racism and exploitation have been the building blocks for the most influential powers on our planet. Having said this, I want to highlight the significance of Morrison’s novels, as facts and explanations may be forgotten or misunderstood, but literature's power in terms of emotions and empathy enables a universal understanding. There can be no comparison between acknowledging slavery and actually being placed in the ironically named plantation of ‘Sweet Home’ in Morrison’s Beloved. In this setting, we are vicariously exposed to the unspeakable horrors of slave life through the character of Sethe. In this novel, we are not only plunged into life on a Kentucky plantation that involves slave masters, beatings and sexual assault, but we also come to understand the haunting effects of such experiences. After escaping Sweet Home, the appearance of her former slave master at her home 124 causes Sethe to murder her third child in order to prevent her from being admitted into slavery. The tragedy of this event proves that slavery does not end after the escape or abolition, and the legacy of its effects are felt for generations to come.

The legacy of slavery can be seen most agonisingly in The Bluest Eye. Set in Ohio in the 1940s, this novel centres around the experiences of young black girls, whose age, gender, and skin colour tragically render them the most vulnerable and powerless members of society. This novel explores how the legacy of slavery still permeates daily life, in terms of how the black population are still working and living underneath white dominancy. The tragic story of Pecola shows how racism can be internalised, as she believes her blackness to be ugly and inherently wishes to possess blue eyes in order to fulfil white standards of beauty and consequently be accepted into society. However, in reality she is looked at by a shopkeeper with ‘a total absence of human recognition’ and a ‘glazed separateness’. Society’s racial out-casting of Pecola leaves her vulnerable to an abusive family, and so when her father rapes her, there is little care or intervention from her community.

There is no doubt that Morrison's novels are not a comfortable read, the topics are difficult and the events which occur are chillingly awful to comprehend. Nevertheless, in order to fully understand and empathise with the grotesque aspects of our past, there is no doubt that they must be read and remembered.


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