ABSTRACT

The literary critical establishment has awarded Toni Morrison a place not only in the canon of literature by African-American women, but of “American literature.” However, dangers attend such a gesture. What relationship between the previously sanctified texts and the body of Morrison’s work is implied by this placement? As Brooks Thomas points out, “the West legitimated its imperialistic domination.... most effectively by constructing narratives of inclusion rather than exclusion. Today the most powerful version of control through inclusion is pluralism.... whose official voice ... domesticates subversive voices by appropria[tion]” (59). Within this context, Henry Louis Gates’s carefully balanced comments in “Canon Formation and African-American Tradition” sound even more clearly: “There can be no doubt that white texts inform and influence black texts (and vice versa).. . . But the attempts of scholars ... to define a black American canon, and to pursue literary interpretation from within this canon, are not meant to refute the soundness of these gestures of integration.... Just as we can and must cite a black text within the larger American tradition, we can and must cite it within its own tradition ...” (35). Morrison’s own stance towards an institutionalized literary tradition further problematizes her placement within a widely inclusive canon. She does, indeed, affirm that, “I, at least, do not intend to live without Aeschylus or William Shakespeare, or James or Twain or Hawthorne, or Melville, etc., etc., etc.” (“Unspeakable Things Unspoken” 5). But she protests against literary criticism that “justifies itself by identifying black writers with some already accepted white writer. If someone says I write like Joyce, that’s giving me a kind of credibility I find offensive. ... [T]he comparison has to do with nothing out of which I write” (“A Conversation” 121–22). It is not out of the authorization bestowed by a white male literary ancestry that black women take up the pen, and the difference in the content of their works reflects the difference in their source of authority. Gloria Naylor’s account of her own journey to becoming a writer illustrates this. Though acknowledging that the writers she had been “taught to love”—all “either male or white”—“were and are ... masters,” the “faintest whisper” of protest found a voice within her at that time: “Was there no one telling my story?” It was “a long road” from the act of writing to “gathering the authority within myself to believe that I could actually be a writer” (“A Conversation” 567).