Toni Morrison’s essay “Black Matters” delves into the impact that Africans and African-Americans have had on literature, while discussing the lack of credit given to these groups for the role they have served. Morrison immediately opens her essay with her main critique of the assumption that American literature has not been shaped by Africans and African Americans. I found Morrison’s idea particularly interesting because it relates a lot to our discussions of identity and power structures in class. The identity that has become associated with American literature is one characterized by white Americans and fails to recognize the contributions of Africans and African Americans as Morrison points out. Like identity, understanding the full cannon of American literature requires you to know all aspects of it, and the black presence in literature that Morrison speaks of impact is undeniable. Morrison also talks about the necessity of understanding Africans and African Americans role in literature in order to understand literary whiteness and the entirety of American literature. I found this point especially interesting and relatable to professor Quillen’s discussion of history and storytelling. Just like history, the identity of American literature is told by the winners, but understanding the other stories helps get a better understanding of the truth. Therefore, understanding the literary “blackness” Morrison speaks of is vital to knowing the full story of American literature.
If I were to put Morrison on a panel along with 2 other authors we have read this year, I would select Maalouf and Spivak to engage in a conversation about identity and power. My three questions to provoke a discussion would be:
- How much of an influence have power structures/powerful groups of people had on the identity of canonical American literature?
- What are the best ways to go about understanding the complexity of the identities of people, topics, etc?
- How would you define identity?