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Race and slavery (Toni Morrison's novels)

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Kata Simon

on 19 February 2017

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Transcript of Race and slavery (Toni Morrison's novels)







“I'm interested in the way in which the past affects the present and I think that if we understand a good deal more about history, we automatically understand a great more about contemporary life.”

Toni Morrison

I am interested in Toni Morrison's works.

Black history impressed me.
I consider that it is important to know and understand our history

We are all the same.

Morrison’s novels
Tar Baby
focus upon the aspects of slavery and present the realities of black life in America.

The characters encounter varied power struggles in form of racism and capitalism.
to present the oppression and treatment of black slaves

to reflect on the relationships between masters and slaves

to show these relationships' impact on one's identity

to examine the dehumanizing effect of slavery

to prove the importance of the solidary community
increasing interest in Toni Morrison's novels

a better understanding of black history and culture

to fight stereotypes and racism

to be proud of our own history and race

to accept and respect other cultures
Working methods
For the two themes I have chosen, race and slavery, there have been a great number of researches. I have spent many time reading slave narratives, articles and black literature. I have read criticism about Morrison and I have also watched films, videos related to slavery.

My working method had the following steps:

• deciding on the scope/area of my dissertation
• reading bibliograhy and notemaking
• drafting a plan/revising the initial plan
• defining the purpose of the project and identifying the research methods to be adopted
• writing, revising and rewriting the text
• proofreading and final editing
Theoretical parts:
Chapter One: Race
1.1. What is 'race'?
1.2. 'Race' through history
1.3. The three major races
1.4. Racism
Chapter Two: Slavery
2.1. What is slavery?
2.2. Types of slavery
2.3. Slavery through history
2.4. Slave life
2.5. The abolition of slavery
Practical parts:
Chapter Three: Toni Morrison
Chapter Four:
Tar Baby
4.1. The myth of the tar baby
4.2. Historical background
4.3. Race and class conflicts
4.4. Black cultural community and identity
4.5. The blind race
Chapter Five:
5.1. Historical background
5.2. "Beloved" - existence, love and the haunting past
5.3. Race oppression
5.4. Solidarity as solution
the motivation

the objectives

the methodology

the organization of the whole thesis
Chapter One
1.1. What is 'race'?
an important and early dimension of self-identification

a social relationship (sociologists)

a scientific phenomenon: Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the development of the human race, according to which homo sapiens was originated in Africa and evolved from apes 5 million years ago (scientists and biologists)
1.2. Race through history

1.3. The three major races
the Caucasian (the white)

the Mongolian (yellow)

the Ethiopian (black)

1.4. Racism
- is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another because of skin color, language, customs, place of birth etc.
Chapter Two
2.1. What is slavery?

- a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work.

2.2. Types of slavery
The bond labor
Domestic slavery
Productive slavery

2.3. Slavery through history:

- The ancient world; Western Europe in the Middle Ages; The New World; The twentieth century

2.4. Slave life
- Food and clothing; Education; Slave marriages and families; Punishments

2.5. The abolition of slavery
Chapter Three
Toni Morrison
“A writer's life and work are not a gift to humankind; they are its necessity.”
Chapter Four
Tar Baby
4.1. The myth of the tar baby
The myth of the tar baby is well known in the cultures of the southern black in America and the West Indies slaves from Africa.

The image of the tar is like African masks, which were “ancient, alive, and breathing, their features exaggerated, their power mysterious". Just like African masks, so are the characters of the novel: mysterious.

"The tar baby is black and visible, maybe it has a power, however negative or dangerous and it should not be ignored or repudiated. " (Harold Bloom)

4.2. Historical background
the novel's setting: outside the borders of the United States - the Caribbean island and Europe
“The U.S. is a bad place to die in.”
characters: European Americans (ruling class), black people (slaves)
time: before and after Christmas in 1979
oppositions: North South; black white; high low culture
4.3. Race and class conflicts
Conflicts between “white masters”

The Street family:

Valerian (husband)
Margaret (wife)
Michael (son)
the "white masters"
Valerian and Margaret Michael and his parents
he is 22 years older than she and dominates her
he argues with his wife of three decades
he criticizes her
he does not let her develop a friendship with their black laundress
criticizes her lack of interest in his friends
they sleep in separate beds
she finds escape in her inner space, where her husband criticism cannot reach her.
he bears the physical and psychological pain of Valerian’s domination of people
when he was little, Margaret often hurt him: she had stuck needles into him and burned him with cigarettes
Valerian considers that Margaret has separated Michael from his family and made a bright, handsome, young man into a loser.
Class struggle – freedom and oppression
Valerian Street

a symbol of American capitalism and imperialism

black servants
Sydney Childs – the butler.
Ondine Childs – the cook
Gideon – the yardman
Therese – the laundress
Alma Estee – a black girl
"White folks play with Negroes."
Conflicts between black servants
"white" blacks
servants who wish to belong to the ruling class
The Childs
merely tolerate the American blacks
4.4. Black cultural community and identity
Son Jadine
a representative of black cultural identity a cultural and racial betrayer of a genuine black self
William Green, originated from Eloe, Florida
calls himself Son, "the son of his people"
is a representative of an ideal black cultural identity
is a black Messiah who came to save Jadine from the streets/Streets of Babylon (cultural confusion)
in his presence, lies are uncovered, aspirations are revealed and confessions are made
has a special love for the African people, and the African poor especially
is defined by his black heritage. He believes that it is important to understand our own culture
understands that the United States is the capitalist capital of the world and the African’s worst enemy
is an orphan and the 25-year-old niece of Sydney and Ondine Childs
is a "Copper Venus" - a high fashion model in Paris and New York
is a "yalla", light-skinned and beautiful
has ruling class aspirations
is a creation of capitalist America
as a European art history student she is more interested in the symbols of the white culture, than of the African culture
loves New York and hates Eloe
in Eloe she acts like a typical European tourist
does not care much of his aunt and uncle
is the one of the tar babies of the novel: the trap built by Europeans for other Africans
Chapter Five
Toni Morrison dedicated this novel to “Sixty Million and more” referring to the black people who died in the Atlantic slave trade.

5.1. Historical background
the novel is based upon the historical narrative of Margaret Garner, a slave mother who killed her daughter

5.2. “Beloved” – existence, love and the haunting past

= BE (
) + LOVE (
) + D (
the haunting past
what does it mean to be a human being mother love/ the spirit of the murdered child
love between adults
5.3. Race oppression
Morrison presents a capitalist world, where African people are oppressed by white people and where slavery has negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self.
Sweet Home – dehumanization of the slaves
“There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks”
Schoolteacher came to represent the racist white slave master and the slaves suffered his will to power and brutal treatments:

The five male slaves at Sweet Home possessed the last name of Garner, a fact that suggested their dehumanization by their owner
Female slaves were often raped by their masters (Sethe, her mother and her mother-in-law)
children were constantly sold
those who wanted to escape, were burnt alive then shot, mutilated and hung on the trees, forced to wear an iron bit, men were locked in cages in the ground

Slavery's negative impact on the former slaves’ senses of self:

slaves were told that they are subhuman and were traded as objects, whose worth could be expressed in dollars: Paul D oppressed his feelings and tried to forget who he was and what he went through; like a cow, Sethe was milked by her masters; she filled herself with self-loathing and saw the best part of herself as her children. Like their mother, her children had unstable identities.
Death for children is superior to a life in slavery
- a slave mother, who would do anything in her capacity to keep her children from growing up in slavery as she did she kills her daughter
“The slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standards as others.”
(Harriet Jacobs )
Solidarity as solution
Solidarity is the solution for confronting the common enemy: capitalism (Cincinnati’s black community).

“In “Beloved” life is hell, but togetherness, shared experiences, and brotherly/sisterly love help the characters to survive."
Morrison's novels can be described as revised slave narratives with themes that were omitted from previous slave narratives. They present historical events and are characterized by the great African oral tradition.

She incorporates in her works the importance of community, which always makes its voice heard (e.g. the haunting spirit of Beloved is chased away by the women from the community singing).

The black communities of Eloe ("Tar Baby") and Cincinnati ("Beloved") serve as an example; they teach us to love our history, even if it was not easy and full of good memories, because knowing and keeping the traditions, finding the connection with our ancestors, will form our own identity.

If we love our history and our people, and we are not ashamed of where do we come from, we will not became cultural and racial betrayals like Jadine in "Tar Baby". If we are proud of who we are and keep in touch with our community, we will succeed, like Son ("Tar Baby") and Denver ("Beloved").

"Beloved" suggests that tomorrow is only made possible by yesterday and the contemporary African-Americans need to gain knowledge of the past. We have to forgive our own mistakes and accept the past in order to have a future. Everybody should remember that "You are your best thing."

Morrison also suggests that the black woman is sometimes seen as the Earth Mother. She portraits women like Baby Suggs, Sethe ("Beloved") and the African woman in yellow ("Tar Baby"), who are the embodiment of history and traditional values and keepers and transmitters of those values. They are presented as the key to how one should place oneself and react to white society and its pressures.
Thank you
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