Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal

Black Hybridity and the Return to the Rural South in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Column by
Houda Hamdi


If anything I do, in the way of writing novels or whatever I write,
isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it isn’t about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my
imagination…which is to say yes, the work must be political…
Toni Morrison “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1977, p. 340)

Taking as its main corpus Toni Morrison’s (1977) Song of Solomon this paper studies the ways this politically engaged author foregrounds the importance of the hybrid African American heritage as stipulated by the theories of W.E.B. Du Bois (1903), Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988), and Paul Gilroy (1972). Hybridity in the 1970s was unique to Black Studies. It celebrates plurality and liminality, concepts that resist single stratifications, which traditionally claimed the body and the soul of the Black folk. Song of Solomon was published in the 1970s, an era where the concept of hybridity revolutionized the conventional belief in the purity of race and culture. Hybridity in most of Morrison’s fictions, Song of Solomon in particular, is accomplished through the re-writing of the western canon and through the conventional return to the old rural South, which epitomizes Africa in miniature. Despite the strong resistance to the retrospective return to the old South by some contemporary Black theorists and writers, this article, nevertheless, foregrounds the importance of this epistemological return of hybridity in articulating the ‘‘double-voicedness’’ and, therefore, the power and the richness of the Black culture and identity. By stressing the importance of hybridity, Morrison’s literary artwork boosted the political agenda of Black Studies and literature.

African American writers and theorists have often been concerned with displaced subjects. Given the fragmentation of the Black identity within the framework of the western discourse of slavery, racism, and the Great Migration from the South to the North, many African American writers tackle the issues related to “double-consciousness,” which involves not only what Du Bois terms as the state of “twoness,” or identity split, but also, to use Gates’ (1988) assumption, the re-writing of the white canon through the transposition of the “Africanist” aesthetics on the literary material.

Blacks are tagged by the western culture as people who have no culture and whose poets and writers have no originality of their own. Philosophers and thinkers, in mid-eighteenth Century, like David Hume and, later, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson, among scores of other commentators, proclaimed that Black authors were not original in their writings. They were mere imitative. Hume associated the Black poet Francis Williams (who was educated at Cambridge university and wrote in Latin verse) with “a parrot,” who “speaks plain words,” a mockingbird poet,” “a trope which was associated with Black authors generally thought to lack originality but who excelled at mimicry and at what was called mindless imitation and repetition with little revision” (Gilroy, 1972,  p. 89). In order to subvert the conventional belief that African Americans have no culture of their own, Morrison (1977) focused on the oral tradition, the spiritual belief in the return of the spirit, and the belief in the magic. Using the aesthetics of the African American vernacular art of signifying upon the white canonical word and world, Morrison, in most of her novels, rewrites the mainstream canonical discourse to subvert from within the racial bias toward African Americans. This subversion is purposed to affirm the humanity and the productive imagination of the African Americans who have long been silenced and misrepresented in “grand-narratives.”

As a Black author, Morrison further rejects previous representations of African Americans, which she considers to be fictive fabrications. She insists that Black art must be political and performative in a way that it must shape a new vision of the Black experience, which exists outside the colonial gaze of the racially biased western culture. Because Blacks have historically been victims of racial dichotomies, Morrison, in a fashion similar to Gilroy (1972) and Du Bois (1903), stresses the importance of hybridity that celebrates double-vision and the richness of the Black culture, which stands in sharp contrast to the logocentric culture of western world.

In delineating the “hybridity” of African American epistemology, Paul Gilroy (1972), in The Black Atlantic, argues that the nation-state is not an appropriate unit of analysis for the study of Black diaspora populations, because it leads to a counterproductive and even destructive “ethnic absolutism” rather than a truly liberatory politics (p. 5). Alternatively, he proposes the metaphor of “the Black Atlantic,” which links the Black peoples of Europe and the Americas to Africa, as an alternative area for study of the “compound culture” of Blacks (1972, p. 5). Instead of relying on “national culture,” Gilroy  (1972) places more emphasis on identity formation through “routes” (the circulation of peoples, ideas and other cultural forms and forces) than “roots” (a specifically distinct and “authentic” culture embedded in a particular place). Gilroy (1972) further writes, “dealing equally with the significance of roots and routes […] should undermine the purified appeal of either Africentric or the Eurocentrism” (p. 190). The metaphor of the Black Atlantic concerns the “world of flows, exchanges, and in-between elements that call the very desire to be centered into question” (p. 190).

Gilroy’s (1972) argument implied that all cultures are intermixed and transculturated. Put differently, in the global world, the transnational undermines the conventional belief in the purity of the national. That is, all cultures are hybrid entities. In the same vein, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1988) also emphasized that Du Bois’s (1903) concept of “double-consciousness” is a positive state which enables the Black person to have a broader and double vision of life, and that this doubleness manifests itself in the creation of hybrid arts of improvisation, such as the blues and jazz music. In short, “double-consciousness” becomes a provocative and even an oppositional act of political insubordination that has to do with the theoretization of creolization, metissage, mestizaje, and hybridity (Gilroy, 1972, p. 2), concepts that inevitably challenge the western totalitarian and absolutist discourse.

Toni Morrison does not diverge from these perspectives of duality. She recognized the cultural fluidity in the formation of the Black subject, but, in order to also preserve the African heritage, which is already fluid, she perceived herself as the cultural heir who is accountable for the preservation of her roots amidst the postmodern world of routes and globalization. She contended that, amidst the postmodern world of uprootedness, her work must also be politically concerned with the issues of “Blackness.” In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Morrison (1984) yearned for a closer identification of the Black American artist with his or her community: “There must have been a time when an artist could be genuinely representative of the tribe and in it; when an artist could have a tribal or racial sensibility and an individual expression of it” (p. 330). According to Morrison, “[t]here were spaces and places in which a single person could enter and behave as an individual within the context of the community” (1984, p. 339). In her literary work, language became “a place of struggle,” because, as bell hooks (1989) writes, “[t]he oppressed struggle in language to recover our selves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew. Our words are not without meaning, they are an action, a resistance” (p. 146), “a struggle of memory against forgetting” (p. 147). African American yearning to recover the past is not a simple nostalgia for things as they were, but a politicized memory constructed to give a new take on the old. It is a form of recovery of what has been lost with a new mode of articulation, to illuminate the present (hooks, 1989, p. 147). In this respect, African American writers and artists become the custodians of their Africanist culture.

In Song of Solomon, Morrison (1977) champions the fluidity of the Black subject through Milkman Dead’s characterization. Milkman is portrayed as a deracinated Black city-dweller in Michigan who has lost touch with his African American background because of his obsession with the discourse of owning property. Finally, lured by the gold that he thinks his aunt Pilate took and hid in Shalimar, the old rural South, Milkman found his roots by knowing his family genealogy and their rooted past. Milkman’s perception of Shalimar as a primitive, authentic, and poor place is a fictional re-imagination of Africa, the land of his ancestors. In Song of Solomon, Shalimar becomes the re-imagined Africa in miniature. Milkman notices that women are free from all types of artifice. He notices that “their hands were empty. “No pocketbook, no change purse, no wallet, no keys, no small paper bag, no comb, no handkerchief. They carried nothing” (Morrison, 1977, p. 259). They just “sat on porches and walked in the road swaying their hips under cotton dresses, barelegged, their unstraightened hair braided or pulled straight back into a ball” (Morrison, 1977, p. 263). What strikes Milkman is not only the simplicity of the place but also the sameness of the Shalimar people. They all look alike save for some light-skinned and red-headed men. As Milkman observes: “Visitors to Shalimar must be rare, and new blood that settled here non-existent” (Morrison, 1977, p. 263). If Milkman’s northern lifestyle is a focus on the present and newness, Shalimar, on the other hand, presents the past that is never perishable. Mr. Solomon’s store, the gathering place of the Black men, is “residualistic,” a place wherein “the sacks, trays, and cartons of persishables and semiperishables were plentiful” (Morrison, 1977, p. 261) and well-preserved. Shalimar is “a place so small nothing financed by state funds or private enterprise reared a brick there” (Morrison, 1977, p. 259).

Milkman’s journey South to Shalimar enabled him to enjoy the beauty and the simplicity of the Southern Black life. Through his return to the old Southern past, he discovered the genealogy of his past through oral performance and songs of the Shalimar children.[1] He also comes to the full knowledge of his African culture, which celebrates the oral transmission of knowledge, the value of the human life and community, and the futility of the materialist and capitalistic yearnings, which he has bequeathed in Michigan. Milkman is no longer a deracinated Black city-dweller. In the end, he becomes a mature Black character whose existences as a Black subject is not only founded on the present, ‘‘the here’’ and ‘‘the now’’ but also on the constructive past. “He learns that he must look backward in order to look forward, that he must remember the past in order to know the future” (Rushdy, 1997, p. 153).

Morrison’s (1977) celebration of the Black rural South in Song of Solomon is not an instance of the primitivization of the Black culture nor a limited vision of the Black experience, as some Black critics have argued[2]. By portraying Milkman’s journey back to the ancestral rural past Morrison does two things: she puts forth the hybrid experience of her Black subjects who oscillate between the white Northern milieu and their Black Southern roots, and implies that knowing one’s past is indispensable to the sense of identity, the great purpose of all who, their humanity denied, must struggle for a sense of their own value as human beings.

In the end, to know oneself and one’s real worth, one needs at least to know one’s history. As a custodian of the Black thought, Morrison insisted that Black history and culture should always remain as weapons in the struggle for racial uplift, because, to use Carter G. Woodson’s (1933) words, ‘‘there is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering’’ (p. 20). As long as Black communities remain discriminated against, there will always be the need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past, because through that inspiration, people will inevitably find tools and ways that will help them survive and continue their struggle against racial discrimination and violence.

Endnotes

[1]  Milkman comes to understand that Solomon, or Shalimar is, in fact, his great grandfather, the eponymous progenitor, who flew to Africa. Fleeing slavery and leaving behind twenty-one slave children. He also left his wife Ryna “out of her mind” (349) crying inconsolably in a gulch, which is now called Ryna’s Gulch. Milkman also discovered that he has a mixed blood Indian grandmother, Sing, who ran with Jake- his grandfather- on the wagon of ex-slaves to the North, and that his great grandfather was the last of the twenty-first children whose father attempted to carry him, but, finally dropped him in the arms of Sing’s mother, who, then, becomes his surrogate mother.

[2] In Signs and Cities Madhu Dubey (2003) admits that in the postmodern world of surfaces, images, and in a culture of “virtuality,” mediation, simulation, and hyper-reality, African American writers’ call for authenticity results in a further devaluation of the African American body and culture, which become subject of the colonialist gaze (p. 229). Quoting from Samuel Delany, Dubey (2003) writes: “the notions of premodern communities uncontaminated by technology typically primitivize the others of the modern West as ‘a people . . . without history’” (Stars in my Pocket, p. 204 qtd. in Dubey, 2003, p. 230) and underwrite material as well as symbolic violence against these “others” (p. 230). “The notion of pure culture (the presumed object of anthropology) becomes one with an imperialistic ideology that justifies abuses toward a society because that society has ‘no history’” (Stars In My Pocket, p. 204 qtd. in Dubey, 2003, p. 230).

Hazel Carby (1987) insists that “Afro-American cultural and literary history should not create and glorify a limited vision, a vision which in its romantic evocation of the rural and the folk avoids some of the most crucial and urgent issues of cultural struggle, a struggle that [African  American writers] recognized would have to be faced in the cities, the home of the working class” (Reconstructing Womanhood, p. 175).

References

Carby, Hazel V.  (2008). The politics of fiction, anthropology, and the folk: Zora Neale Hurston. In Harold Bloom (Ed.), Zora Neale Hurston’s their eyes were watching God. (pp. 23–40). Bloom’s Literary Criticism.

— (1987). The quicksands of representation: Rethinking Black cultural politics. Reconstructing womanhood. Oxford University Press, 163–176.

Dubey, Madhu. (2003). Signs and cities: Black literary postmodernism. University of Chicago Press.

Du Bois. W.E.B. (1903). The Souls of Black folks. A.C. McClurg & Co.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. (1988). The signifying monkey: A theory of African-American literary criticism. Oxford University Press.

Gilroy, Paul. (1972). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Verso.

hooks, bell. (1989). Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking black. South End Press.

Morrison, Toni. (1977). Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage.

–. (1984). Rootedness: The ancestor as foundation. In Mari Evans (Ed.), Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. (pp. 339–45.) New York: Doubleday.

Rushdy, Ashraf, H. A. (1997). “Rememory”: Primal scenes and constructions in Toni Morrison’s novels. In David. L. Middleton (Ed.), Toni Morrison’s fiction: Contemporary criticism. (pp. 135–164). Garland.

Woodson, Carter G. (1933). The miseducation of the negro. The Associated Publishers.

Author Bio

Houda Hamdi is a professor of Drama at Christ-Roi in Longueuil, Canada. She is also a professor of French language at La Commission Scolaire de Montréal. She holds a PhD in American literature from the University of Montreal (2016) and completed her Master’s degree in African American literature in 2009. Dr. Hamdi has several publications addressing the issues related to discursive perceptions of language and identity.

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