Islamic Azad University
Central Tehran Branch
Faculty of Foreign Languages
Department of Postgraduate Studies
The Quest for Racial Identity In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
Under the Light of Derridean Deconstruction
A Thesis Submitted to the Department of Postgraduate Studies as a Partial Fulfillment for the Degree of MA in English Literature
Dr. Hasan Shahabi
Dr. Jalal Sokhanvar
Presented by: Nazanin Siavoshi
In The Name Of God
I would like to thank my family—my father, my mother, and my husband, —for their love and support through all my studies at universities.I am especially grateful to my father,who supported me emotionally and financially.I always knew that you believed in me and wanted the best for me.
Primarily, I would like to state my honest appreciation to my supervisor Dr. Hasan Shahabi for his continuous support through my research accomplishment, for his patience and his vast knowledge of the study. Besides, I would like to thank Professor Jalal Sokhanvar for his perceptive and beneficial recommendations. Last but not least, I would like to thank my family for supporting me throughout my life and educating career.
This study aims at close reading and investigating the popular novel of Toni Morrison (1931), Song of Solomon (1977). The appealing idea of rereading the text which is a notable instance of Afro-American fiction concentrating on the question of racial identity from a deconstructive perspective has become the base of the present project. The researcher attempts to analyze and investigate the novel through the viewpoint of Derridean deconstructive methodology. Derrida as a post-structuralist thinker attempts to challenge the whole pre-determined binary structures which are decided to rule through various contexts and discourses. He tries to deconstruct the presupposed binary oppositions in the traditional western discourse such as white/ black that is considered to be one of the identity constituents of the cultural discourse. For Derrida subjects are the products of a wavering, differential and deferral system of signs. Undertaking this argument, the thesis attempts to show that how systems and discourses, which are assumed to be fixed and authentic, are vulnerable to the deconstruction and redefinition. Finally, the study extends Derrida’s ideas of deconstruction to the notion of identity as a cultural construct and particularly to the racial identity in western discourse. The study advantages the deconstructive approach through investigating one of the greatest products of African- American literature Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Extending Derrida’s deconstruction to literature and literary reading with close attention to the African- American literary context the thesis thus attempts at applying deconstruction to the investigation of the black identity in Song of Solomon. Indeed, in Morrison’s novel the blacks are in search of their true identity in the racialized white society in order to escape the alienation which has surrounded their lives.
Key words: black identity, white hegemony, racial society, deconstruction, reconstruction, redefinition of identity.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Introduction 1
1.1. General Background 2
1.1.1. An Introduction to Afro- American Cultural Identity 3
1.1.2. African- American Literature and Black Aesthetics 4
1.1.3. Toni Morrison an Afro- American Writer 4
1.1.4. Deconstruction and Deconstructive Reading 5
18.104.22.168. Deconstruction the Theory and Deconstructing Literature 6
22.214.171.124. Deconstructing Afro- American Literature and Song of Solomon as a Working Model 7
1.2. The Argument 9
1.3. Methodology and Approach 11
1.4. Literature Review 14
1.5. Research Outline 17
1.6. Definition of Key Terms 18
Chapter Two: Afro- American World of Literature and Deconstruction 20
2.1. African-American World 21
2.1.1. African Soul 22
2.1.2. Black Identity out of Slavery 25
2. 2. Racism in Development of Afro-American literature 28
2. 2. 1. Historical Development of African- American Literature 29
2. 2. 2. Racial Identity in African- American Literature 32
2.3. Construction of Collective Identity in Toni Morrison’s Narrative 36
2.4. Theoretical Concept: Deconstruction 37
2. 4.1. Deconstruction and Literature 40
2. 4.2. The Language of African- American Literature and Racial Identity 42
Chapter Three: Construction and De-construction of Identity in Morrison’s Fiction 46
3.1. Toni Morrison’s Fiction Depicting African- American Identity 48
3.2. Toni Morrison Deconstructing African-American Literature and Black Identity 53
3.3. A Critical Review of Song of Solomon: A Deconstructive Narration of the Black 55
3.3. 1. Formation of Identity in Song of Solomon 60
3. 3.1.1. Milkman Dead Reconstructing Identity in Gold Quest 60
3. 3.1.2. Macon Dead Constructing Identity in World of Wealth and White 62
3. 3.2. Tension and Paradox in the Construction of Individual and Collective Identity
in Toni Morrison’s Narrative 68
Chapter Four: Black Narrative Signifying Racial Identity 72
4. 1. The Mythic and the Historic, Fiction and Reality in Song of Solomon 73
4. 2. The Urban and the Rural: Space in Identity Formation 78
4. 3. Black Manhood, Black Femininity in Morrison’s Narrative 89
Chapter Five: Conclusion 96
5.1. Summing Up 97
5.2. Findings 106
5.3. Suggestions for further reading 108
Works Consulted 116
1.1. General Background
All through the history of western culture, the ruling system has based the structure of society on categorization primarily. Through such a structural system, the dominancy has belonged to the white population regarding the oppositional categorization of white majority and black minority. Therefore, the black identity has been denied and suppressed through a long history of slavery and marginalization by the authoritarian ideology, socially, culturally and politically. Nevertheless, there has been a vital need for the black identity, such as African-American, to raise voice against such imposed oppression upon its life and gain the true position that it required in the western society. Searching through the process of African-American’s endeavour to present its own voice, history, culture and tradition, a variety of expressive forms emerges such as slave songs, autobiographical fictions, political and motivating speeches, rap or jazz music and films dedicated to the lives of the blacks. Through this process of self-recognition and self-expression, the African-American writers also find the inevitable impression of writing in recovering the denied black history. Toni Morrison, thus as an African-American living in the white dominated culture, is not exceptional regarding the job to recover the denied identity of the black through story narration.
1.1. 1. An Introduction to Afro-American Cultural Identity
In the words of Manning Marable:
Identity is not something our oppressors forced upon us. It is a cultural and ethnic awareness we have collectively constructed for ourselves over hundreds of years. This identity is a cultural umbilical cord connecting us with Africa. (quoted in Campbell and Kean 71)
The western master/slave system was grounded in denial of black history, identity, humanity, community, knowledge and language. This denial was, therefore, a method of control, a device to impose the norms and values of the majority on the minority group who were derided because of an inherited European view of the African as inferior. African-American Cultural identity has been the struggle to position oneself rather than be positioned by others. In 1965, during the struggles for civil rights, and consequently the political demands for Black Power in the 1960s, black people were going to use the words of their own to indicate a strong stream of resistance which was conveyed through the arts of expression, especially song and story-telling. Interestingly the use of memory has become central to this process for it allows the inclusion of stories excluded from the versions of white history. Thus through the appraisal of black memory the black identity regains its cultural roots in which its identity is grounded (Campbell and Kean 71-78).
1. 1. 2. African-American Literature and Black Aesthetics
Most of the Afro-American writers since the beginning of the eighteenth century to the contemporary period seek to raise a voice against white cultural supremacy and to find the secure, recognizable place and acquire the certain acceptance of black identity in the larger American society. They seek to bridge the tension between black and white Americans. The sense of marginality and racial differences are the dominant issues raised by the black American writers. Generally it may be said that African-American literature has focused on a number of recurring historical and sociological themes, all of which reflect the realities of black American experience. African-American products are designed for changing themselves from mere slaves to the recognizable American citizens and lead them towards liberation and advancements (Guragain 3).
The black aestheticians involve themselves in emerging out of the western-controlled discourse. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s seeks to define the black’s world and their literary products, and provides an artistic direction for black writing. The theoreticians such as Amiri Baraka(1935-1965), Lary Neal(1937-1981) and Alian Locke(1885-1954) seek to formulate an adequate, accurate and empowering explanatory model for the study of black literature. Black aesthetic envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of black America. It proposes the radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic, which always marginalized black people and black literature. Houston A. Baker Says, “an artist must combine sensitivity to his cultural heritage with a sharp knowledge of the general artistic limits and possibilities surrounding such a heritage” (Baker 154).
1. 1. 3. Toni Morrison an Afro-American Writer
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a year after the publication of Beloved (1987). She was the first black American and only the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.Toni Morrison has written seven novels: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), The Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998).
Regarding Toni Morrison’s Fictions her fascination with the different ways people interpret the world, difference without hierarchy and specially re-memory is visible for the reader of her works. The reader confronts characters who are trying to block memory which eventually breaks and reveals itself. They have to learn to do something with the memories. Her novels are, in a sense, historical novels that explore the history of American slavery, emancipation, migration and integration. History, which unearths the reality of the oppression of the whites over the blacks and the myth, which gives early history of Afro-American race, assist in Morrison’s fictions to draw a reliable picture of Afro-American community and its culture. In her novels Morrison humanizes black characters in fictions that strive to overcome and uncover enforced invisibility of the African-American’s social reality. Characters in her novels have close affinity with their ancestors, Afro-Americans who underwent hardships, enslavement and racist oppression. She wishes ‘to implement the stories that I heard’ so as to ‘fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left’ and to reposition the African American into ‘the discourse that proceeded without us’ (quoted in Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean 81).
1. 1. 4. Deconstruction and Deconstructive Reading
Although deconstruction is no longer a new phenomenon on the academic scene, the theory was inaugurated by Jacques Derrida in the late 1960s. Deconstruction seeks the ways in which our experience is determined by ideologies of which we are unaware because they are built into our language.
1. 1. 4. 1. Deconstruction and Deconstructing Literature
According to Derrida, language is not the reliable tool of communication. He rewrote the structuralist formula signifier + signified as; sign = signifier + signified . . . + signified to explain how communication is a sliding chain of signifieds. Derrida also, challenged the idea of ‘binary opposition’ in structuralism and noted that these binary oppositions are little hierarchies. That is, one term in the pair is always ‘privileged’, or considered superior to the other. To deconstruct binary oppositions, deconstruction attempts to reveal that the binary oppositions are not really opposites.
Deconstruction asserts that our understanding of ourselves and our world is produced by the language, and because all language is an unstable force-field of competing ideologies, we are, ourselves, unstable and ambiguous fields of competing ideologies (Tyson 257-258)
As the key word here is ‘unstable’, then, for deconstruction, literature is as dynamic, ambiguous, and unstable as the language of which it is composed. Meaning is not a stable element residing in the text for us to uncover or passively consume. Literary texts, like all texts, consist of a multiplicity of overlapping, conflicting meanings in dynamic, fluid relation to one another and to the reader. Therefore, literary texts can be deconstructed through ever new readings from new points of view. There are generally two main purposes in a deconstructive reading: 1- to display the text’s ‘undecidability’ that is the meaning of the text is really an endless, plural conflicting array of possible meanings, or 2- to reveal the complex operations of the ideologies of which the text is constructed (Tyson 259). Often a valuable first step in deconstructing a literary work is to find the central tension at work in it, the tension between the binary opposition in which one member of the pair is privileged over the other, the binary opposition can be deconstructed: that is to find the ways in which the opposing elements in the text overlap or aren’t really opposed. And this is how we can learn something about the limitations of the ideology the text serves.
1. 1. 4. 2. Deconstructing Afro-American Literature and Song of Solomon as a Working Model
Until recently, the literary canon has been used to be the white cultural hegemony. This situation has begun to change. The antiracist politics of early African-American writers have remained relevant to the needs of black Americans over the long history of their struggle for justice. Besides, black critics were called on to interpret literature in terms of its representation of the political and economic situation of African-Americans. As Barbara Christian observes, the abstract discourse of deconstruction, which argues that such concepts as ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ are illusory and which allows those few who are especially fluent in deconstruction “to control the critical scene,” emerged “just when the literature of peoples of color . . . began to move to ‘the centre’ ”(quoted in Tyson 365). In addition, deconstruction criticises the concept of a stable, inherently meaningful cultural identity.
The novels of Toni Morrison, in particular, demonstrate the imaginative reconstruction of black history, using fiction to tell a whole denied and marginalised history.
Song of Solomon, which won National Book Critics Circle Award, is basically a story of discovering a family name, indeed entire black heritage, of Milkman Dead, a central character in the novel who has lost his name and his ancestry and it shows the importance of historical reality of Afro-Americans. Morrison’s characters often seek to immerse with their African roots. During the time of emancipation, migration and integration the physical and cultural shape which African-Americans inhabit expanded. So they have had constantly to negotiate their relationships with their cultural pasts and the separate cultural traditions. The tension between blacks and whites is exemplified by Guitar’s hatred of white and his decision to join ‘The Seven Days’, a group of seven blacks with a commitment to an equivalent vengeance against the white community for each black person killed by a white. Morrison’s depiction of ‘Dead’ family in the novel demonstrates the incompatibility of received assumption and demands the life back in the black American communities. Milkman Dead’s quest criticizes the faith in self-sufficiency and individual identity. Through Milkman Dead’s story Morrison questions the conceptions of individualism and offers destabilized construction of identity.
1. 2. The Argument
The presented research intends to investigate Toni Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, which reflects the aspiration of African-Americans for a return ‘home’. This would be a deconstructive study regarding the quest for racial identity in this Afro- American fiction. The concern of this research is to come across the cultural world of the novel and study the stories of a dominant ideology and marginalized Afro-American culture and identity.
In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison tries to question the essential cultural problem of racialized American society and the Afro-Americans’ connection to and separation from their cultural root. Slavery has denied and marginalized the black identity for a long time through its oppressive force upon the blacks. Morrison like any other writer concerning the life condition of Afro-American identities attempts to reunite the degenerated, dislocated Milkman Dead, as a typical Afro-American identity, with his ancestral past in order to establish a meaningful connection and a certain kind of respect in the racialized society (Guragain 9).
The main problematic question that this study aims to undertake is that why Milkman Dead, the protagonist of the novel, needs to go through a long journey leading him towards the ancestral past for recovering his displaced status and disregarded identity in American society. Moreover, the novel concerns a community of blacks who have experienced the same history of identity construction that Milkman has, although each of them goes through a different way of self-recognition and definition of identity in order to secure their position in the white dominated American society. The examination of the main tensions of the novel such as the one between blacks and whites or between modern city life and the traditional rural life, finding and deconstructing the ideological oppositions in the American society and also analyzing the denied cultural identity of the Afro-Americans serve as the primary focus of this research. The research attempts to find the answers to the following questions which form the main ideas for the critical reading the study targets at.
• How is the black identity denied and disintegrated in racialized America?
• How are the Afro-American history, culture and identity revived and reconstructed?
• What is the role of Afro-American root culture, myth, folklore and past as a whole, in African- Americans finding the confidence to assert their position?
• What significance do Pilate Dead, a major woman character, and her navel-less stomach have with the quest of the protagonist, Milkman Dead?
• Is Morrison rejecting the existing values and identifying the characters with past Dead values to dismantle the concept of individual, separate identity? If it is not, what are the causes that disintegrate and destroy the identity of blacks in America?
Giving serious consideration to the questions raised above this present academic research can be worked upon under the light of Derridean deconstruction so as to analyze whether Morrison merely presents blacks’ physical and psychological disintegration from their cultural past or she exclusively presents her arguments for the continuity of their culture, their identity and their tradition.
Moreover, the researcher here is interested in the significance of Song of Solomon as an Afro-American fiction that centrally is the saga of a young man finding his ancestral marginalised root culture essential to redefine his identity. In fact, Song of Solomon is the first of Morrison’s novels to have a male as a primary protagonist. Through the evolution of Milkman, the primary character in Song of Solomon, Morrison demonstrates the need for African- Americans to maintain or to re-establish continuity with the past in order to create the sense of identity necessary for survival. Milkman Dead is a member of a minority group, and, perhaps, excluded from the narrative structures of the dominant culture. As a result of the dissipation of a relevant cultural mythology, Song of Solomon suggests that African- Americans must validate their individual existences by personally reconnecting with their past. Accordingly, Morrison emphasizes the fundamental, intrinsic importance of a larger relevant narrative to the formation of individual identity and structures her novel around the protagonist’s simultaneous acquisition of self-affirmation and his ancestral/racial narrative.
In the researcher’s view what makes the novel so specific to study is that Song of Solomon is a strong Afro-American fiction challenging the majority of the dominant American culture and highlighting the significance of the marginalised Afro-American culture as inevitable for the definition of a disintegrated unstable identity. Some critics criticized this novel simply as a study of myth while other studied this as a novel of racism and cultural phenomena. Some of them even commented this novel as a novel of journey forward, a perfect solution and identity. Mostly the novel has been studied in terms of mythology, biblical allusions and tensions which serve the final determined interpretation of the novel. In spite of such interpretations the present research attempts a close reading of the novel from a deconstructive perspective which is going to challenge all the interpretations seeking for a unified meaning for the text.
As much as