The Critical Life of Toni Morrison and America’s Nightmare with Lipstick

Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  Beloved, Toni Morrison’s magnum opus on America’s racial past, may just as well have been written about contemporary race—and the American Dream she deems a nightmare with lipstick.  Alluding to the beleaguered slave haven at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved’s first lines are: “124 was spiteful.  Full of a baby’s venom.” These lines convey the timeless haunting that assures Beloved’s place in the canon of American literature: the bottled-up fear and rage of characters like Sethe, whose rejection of the “benevolent” slavery of Kentucky’s Sweet Home plantation includes slitting her baby daughter’s throat to prevent her being returned after twenty-eight happy days of freedom on Cincinnati’s Bluestone Road.

They reflect the timeliness of The Critical Life of Toni Morrison as well. The book is as much a cultural history of America as a reception history of an American writer, who generated a literary-critical methodology that recognizes and embraces rather than ignores the African American presence in US literature.  The most widely read African American public intellectual of the last half century, Morrison exerted profound influence as a writer, critic, editor, teacher, and scholar: she changed the face of literature and literary criticism in the US, if not worldwide.  The ever-expanding field of Morrison scholarship outlined in The Critical Life underscores her impact on the transformation of American academics’ attitude toward American letters. 

Beloved’s opening passage also exposes why some people still try to ban Morrison’s work from public school shelves.  She never lets us forget the racial tensions that plague American culture.  As Dana Williams, current president of The Toni Morrison Society, puts it, “When it is convenient, the past and the present can coexist.  But when we suppress ugly truths, the past doggedly haunts us.”[i]

Beloved’s first lines, then, expose hauntings that extend outward from the novel to our political present and, indeed, future.  The lines accentuate the novel’s African American blues tones filled with a sacrificed baby’s venom, and the 1987 novel itself continues to instill the American canon with that baby’s venom and to insist that the history of slavery remains full of a baby’s venom.  They also, however, illuminate the real flashpoint at the center of Virginia’s recent gubernatorial race.  Its winner, Republican Glenn Youngkin, ran a commercial that condemned his opponent, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe’s rejection of a bipartisan bill requiring schools to notify parents of assigned books containing explicit content.

Said commercial featured Laura Murphy, a white mother from Fairfax County, Virginia, as Exhibit A in Youngkin’s argument that parents should control what their children read in the classroom.  Beloved, according to Murphy in 2013, gave her son “night terrors.”  The ad did not mention that Murphy’s son, then a high school senior, was assigned Beloved in a challenging, college-level Advanced Placement literature class.  Nor did it mention that Blake is now working as the associate general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee.  Murphy did blame its “explicit” sexual content for the fact that, when her boy brought Beloved home, her heart sank.  Blake Murphy told the Washington Post that “It was disgusting and gross…. It was hard for me to handle.  I gave up on it.”[ii]

In an October 28th article for the Washington Post on Morrison’s novel and this Virginia controversy, literary scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin maintains that any “obscenity” in Beloved arises from the obscene institution that is slavery: “The novel is about slavery—including, but not limited to, the sexual abuse that it encouraged and relied upon as a tool of power.”  Griffin argues that “Banning Toni Morrison’s books doesn’t protect kids.  It just sanitizes racism.”[iii]

As The Critical Life of Toni Morrison reveals, it’s not especially unusual for Morrison’s oeuvre to be at the center of censorship battles.  Since the 1970 publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, her books have often come under fire.  The American Library Association cites Morrison’s novels among the most commonly challenged or banned books; Beloved ranks 26th on its list of top 100 most frequently banned books of the past decade.  In 1997, Texas prisons deemed Paradise too dangerous for their libraries because it might incite “strikes or riots.”  In 2020, a Southern California school board announced the reversal of its decision to remove The Bluest Eye from its core reading list for AP English literature classes.

This latest iteration of the controversy surrounding Beloved, however, occurs in the context of nationwide debates about race and history, including the misrepresentation of an analytical framework delineated in The Critical Life—critical race theory—and in light of a pivotal political campaign.  As columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr., concludes: “all this fits as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle piece with the ongoing GOP push to pass laws that ban the teaching of African-American history.  To hear them tell it, ‘critical race theory’ is out to burn their fields and sack their storehouses, and they must stop it by any means necessary.”[iv]  Griffin determines that “bringing the book back up now, nine years after the mother featured in Youngkin’s ad first complained about it, is less about the comfort of teenage readers and more about parents trying to elide the harsh truths and realities of our nation’s history.”[v]

While we often ask sociologists, historians, and journalists to explain the black American experience, critics like Williams insist that “There are some stories only fiction can tell,” finding it ironic that Beloved’s themes “mirror what’s playing out on the campaign trail.”  Morrison always told her students: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Latina children’s author and Newberry Medalist Meg Medina echoes these conclusions about the time[li/less]ness of Morrison’s reception history uncovered in The Critical Life: “To pull books from a school library because of the discomfort they create in adults is a recipe for disaster.  It erodes the trust that young people have in the adults in their lives and pushes them to secrecy.  It undermines the studied opinion of professional librarians and educators.  It supports a false idea that there is one version of life that is acceptable.  And it denigrates the work of authors who are brave enough to name experiences that are difficult and real.”[vi]  Although “haunting” can suggest something insubstantial and otherworldly, in the case of Beloved and the reception history outlined in The Critical Life of Toni Morrison, racial haunting is difficult, real—and of this world.

Ironically, the brouhaha has once again made Beloved a best-seller.

SUSAN MAYBERRY is Professor of English at Alfred University. She is author of Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine and Morrison (2007; winner of the book award of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender, Copenhagen Business School, 2009).

The Critical Life of Toni Morrison
by Susan Neal Mayberry
9781571139344, Hardcover, £40 or $49.50

[i] Williams, Dana.

[ii] Pitts, Jr., Leonard.

[iii] Griffin, Farah Jasmine

[iv] Pitts, Jr., Leonard.

[v] Griffin, Farah Jasmine

[vi] Medina, Meg.

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