In Black Matters, Toni Morrison discusses “knowledge” and how it seems to take on a Eurocentric standpoint. The “knowledge” she discusses is the traditional literature that is “unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of the first Africans and then African-Americans in the United States” (Morrison 310). Morrison also addresses the treatment of African Americans in current society dealing with “racial discourse” (311), in addition, to ignoring matters of race. Morrison strongly argues that the traditional canon, taught and respected by much of society, ignores black’s contribution to society. She is also concerned with the lack of true African representation within the American canon, and says that what is within our American literature is an “invented Africa”.
Morrison states, “American literature has been clearly the preserve of white male views, genius, and power, those views, genius, and power are removed from and without relationship to the presence of black people in the United States” (310). I agree with Morrison, these inequalities do ignore the importance of black experience. In today’s society, why does the majority of teachers (K-12) only incorporate African American literature (writers) during the month of February? Is it because February is Black History month? As a child I learned and read about the black experience either at home or only during the month of February. Because of this, I always saw (or thought) whites as being the norm for literature in the school’s curriculum.
Along with treating white Americans as the norm, Morrison illustrates that American literature portrays the black experience as insignificant and unworthy of attention. When speaking of the canon, Morrison states that American literature is written in such a way “Africans and their descendants are there in no sense that matters” (312). This statement is depicted in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” through “the Negro servant” named Tobe. Although he is a character in the story, the reference to him is as “a doddering Negro man to wait on her… He talked to no one, probably not even to her, for his voice had grown harsh and rusty, as if from disuse” (Faulkner 76). I feel through literature, society and “white” writers show the African-American experience or (black life) as valueless.
Morrison also argues that society ignores issues of race by disguising the actual subject. She demonstrates this idea using a famous book within the canon, “Huckleberry Finn”. She says that, “the critique of class and race is there, although disguised or enhanced through a combination of humor, adventure, and the nave… the novel masks itself in the comic, the parody and exaggeration of the tall tale” (Morrison 320). Despite the serious subject matter within the book “it simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom” (321). Morrison also claims that society reduces the importance of the African-American experience by perpetuating negative stereotypes. She states that the ending of “Huckleberry Finn” has been labeled as a “brilliant finesse that returns Tom Sawyer to the center stage where he should be” (321). By replacing the black slave, Jim, with the white character of Tom at the end of the book, racial stereotypes are confirmed. This book clearly minimizes the importance of black people and slavery issues; however Tom Sawyer is in the spotlight as a “coming of age” child.
Morrison makes an exceptional statement in regards to race as well as summing up her viewpoint toward the issue when she says,
“It is further complicated by the fact that ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, liberal, even generous habit. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference; to maintain its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body” (321).
Overall, Morrison argues that the aforementioned contribution of African-Americans to society should be studied and respected. She goes on to say, “the contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature,” (310). In looking closely at “blackness,” one will discover his or her “whiteness” (311). I strongly feel that studying the African-American experience in literature will greatly change or shape society and help all Americans learn about their history. The connection between all Americans, whether black or white, will encourage pride and a true knowledge about the black experience. If we achieve this, we may achieve “a deeper, richer, more complex life than the sanitized one commonly presented to us” (322).
Morrison, Toni. “Black Matters.” Falling into Theory. Ed. Richter. 2nd ed. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 310-322.
Faulkner, William. “A Rose for Emily.” The Compact Bedford Induction to Literature.
Ed. Michael Meyer. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2000. 71-77.