Formation of Identity in Toni Morrison’s African-American Fictional Characters

Farid Parvaneh


Many of Toni Morrison’s African-American characters attempt to change their circumstances either by embracing the white culture that surrounds them or by denying it. In this article the researcher explores several ways in which the characters do just that—either embrace or deny the white culture’s right to dominion over them. This discussion is, of course, a slippery slope in that both cultures’ histories are for better or worse inextricably linked. But the following questions seem to remain for Morrison’s characters: From what angle and in what way should this problem be attacked? If the characters decide to turn their backs entirely on the white culture are they unrealistic idealists, and if they decide to embrace the white culture are they betraying their own cultural identity? Finally, is there perhaps some middle-ground between these two extremes? Morrison’s novels are about the politics of social structure. How living spaces can shape her characters’ personas is a question central to her novels. Her novels also question how the construction of identity is influenced by the types of clothing her characters wear. The central question appears to be whether or not the African-American characters’ homes and clothing should reflect the white culture. Some of her characters fight to be different. They build or live in houses that are strange or different. They wear loose and ragged clothing that is not respectable. Some of the women shave their heads. They repurpose rooms and make cellars into bedrooms. They wear glamorous flashy clothing—clothing that calls attention to precisely what they are: African-American women. Fundamentally, the characters react to the pressures put on them by the white community in one of two ways: they either given in to or fight the influence of the dominant culture. Some of Morrison’s characters attempt to exert some control over their own lives by controlling and organizing objects—sometimes objects as small and seemingly in significant as cans of food, but these small objects are far from insignificant in characters’ lives. These tiny objects symbolize the characters’ desires for cultural autonomy, and they function as talismans for the characters, helping them to channel their discontent into something tangible. These objects facilitate change. Some of her characters are unable to deal with the pressures put on them by both the white and the African-American communities. These characters, hungry and desperate for fellowship and equity, turn on and fight with other characters within their own African-American communities. Their displaced anger causes a chain reaction which eventually affects entire communities. Morrison’s novels suggest that this displaced anger should be redirected and turned outward towards the dominant white culture that serves as the African-American culture’s oppressor. Some of Morrison’s characters not only survive but seem to thrive in the worlds of her novels. Interestingly these are the characters that make the biggest cultural compromises. They exist with their feet in both the African-American world and the white world. Somehow they inhabit a middle ground between the two extremes, and though Morrison and her novels seem uneasy with the characters that refuse to choose between the two worlds, it is an unavoidable fact that they are the individuals who prosper in her novels. Morrison seems to be asserting that for better or worse these characters are to be the inheritors of the African-American race’s future.Keywords: Tony Morrison; Formation of identity

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