Politics and Form in Song of Solomon

 Originally Appeared in: Social Text: 39 | Published: Summer, 1994


Toni Morrison wrote her 1977 novel Song of Solomon on historic uncertainties. The outcome of the black political m two previous decades, from the nonviolent Civil Rights Black Power, was in doubt. These movements had seen their leaders harassed, jailed, murdered. The visions through which integrationists and nationalists had imagined a just society were losing their hold. The Promised Lands of interracial harmony, Nation of Islam, Islamic brother-

hood, and Black Nation were fast becoming slogans of the past rather than designs for the future. By 1977, the only New Day to dawn in America was going to be bathed in the murky sunlight of Reaganism illuminating a landscape of decay and sorrow.

Though Song of Solomon was published in 1977, its story breaks off in the fall of 1963. At first glance Morrison might seem to be avoiding politics and contemporary history altogether. The years left blank in the gap between the end of the story and the beginning of the writing were filled historically with the major phase of the black political movements. More- over, Morrison sets her story in a segregated black community in Michigan so isolated that it is barely aware of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sit-ins, marches, or boycotts and knows Malcolm X only as “that red-headed Negro named X.” The political discussions that enliven Tommy’s Barber- shop do not yet give rise to organized political activity; there is only the Seven Days, a secret organization of seven men who plot random revenge killings of whites to answer for unpunished acts of racial violence against blacks. There are the barest hints of the massive political learning process that would reach the North in the intervening years and transform the consciousness of communities like Southside.

Even though the story itself contains no auguries of events to come between 1963 and 1977, the missing years do of course inform the narration. In fact, they suffuse it. The story could not have been told before King’s movement and his death, before Malcolm X and his death, before the Black Panthers and their deaths. And in any case, one cannot read the main character’s story from his birth in 1931 up to 1963 without drawing upon the historical awareness acquired after 1963. Why, then, does Morrison respond to the political situation of the late 1970s by incorporating this historical awareness as a gap in the very structure of Song of Solomon. Why does she inflect the disjunction of story and narration with the sense of a missing history?

Her decision certainly runs the risk of producing a merely quaint representation of a community on the eve of its plunge into world history, a version of the picturesque that would grapple with history with no more bite or relevance than a small town paper’s Way Back When column. But in fact, Morrison’s writing is not at all nostalgic. Nor is it merely historicist. Rather, she seems to be reaching from 1977 back to 1963 to explore anew the elements of everyday African American life-the practices, values, beliefs, and memories-that gave the Civil Rights and Black Power movements their underpinnings and their impetus. Morrison’s is not so much a project of rewriting history as of recovering what it was that had given sustenance to the popular hopes of the 1960s. By the same token, as I’ll eventually argue, this literary act of recovery has a critical edge as well, for it suggests that the movements of the 1960s did not adequately articulate the potentials of the everyday life-world-taking “articulate” in the double sense of expressing and joining, connoting and connecting.

A second problem posed by the context in which Morrison wrote Song of Solomon concerns the very tasks and purposes of African American literature. The debates among black critics and writers in the 1960s had pitted integrationists against nationalists; the nationalists charged that the integrationists’ cultural politics was mere assimilationism, while the integrationists rejected the emergence of predominantly political criteria in evaluating literary practices and purposes. By the late 1970s these antagonisms were giving way to a new sense of impasse, corollary of the political crisis, and many black writers and critics looked to reframe the debate.

The stakes of the reframing are apparent in the highly charged debate between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston A. Baker Jr.-a debate all the more striking for the fact that by the time Gates’s 1979 essay “Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext” and Baker’s 1981 “Generational Shifts and the Recent Criticism of Afro-American Literature” reappeared in their respective books, Figures in Black (1989) and Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984), a new common ground was being tentatively explored in terms of Baker’s notion of the vernacular.

Gates had sharply criticized the Black Arts movement and the Black Aesthetic-exemplified for him by Baker, Stephen Henderson, Addison Gayle Jr., and Amiri Baraka-for stifling black writers by assigning literature narrowly political tasks. The attempt to define in a single stroke What is African American culture? and What makes African American literature “Black”? yielded formulations like Henderson’s definition of black poetry: “Poetry by any identifiably Black person whose ideological stance vis-a-vis the history and aspirations of his people since slavery [is] adjudged by them to be ‘correct.'” This definition smacks of dogma and tautology. The critics who actually want to make the judgments about “blackness” rest their claim to representing the people and its judgment only by projecting their own ideological stance onto the people and then valuating the literature accordingly. Warning against “an alarming disrespect for the diversity of black experience itself,” Gates also bridled at the terms in which Gayle couched his polemical calls for African Americans to repudiate white-dominated interpretations of their culture and art and to set their own cultural and aesthetic criteria: “To evaluate the life and culture of black people, it is necessary that one live the black experience in a world where . .. the social takes precedent over the aesthetic, where each act, gesture, and movement is political, and where continual rebellion separates the insane from the sane, the robot from the revolutionary.”

Ultimately, the call for a revolutionary art was made to rest on a dou- ble claim. First, the culture African Americans create for themselves-through folklore, music, and everyday language practices-was itself deemed a culture of repudiation. And second, authentic black literature was seen to derive more or less directly from this popular culture of repudiation. Baker, for example, had earlier argued that “black American culture” was distinguished from “white American culture” by being, in Gates’s paraphrase, “oral, collectivistic, and repudiative.” Gates’s skepticism about these claims was based in part on the fact that many traditions

in world literature, including some Western traditions, have drawn substantially on oral and popular culture. The mere fact of an active relation between the vernacular and the literary culture did not seem to get at the distinctive achievements of African American literature.

Gates’s central preoccupation and point lay elsewhere, however. Among the sources of African American literature, he argued, is its rich and complex encounter with European and Anglo-American literature-an encounter not reducible to an act of repudiation. Moreover, the on-going production of African American literature is shaped by African American literary history itself. Consequently, neither race nor the folk culture can be isolated as the determining context of African American literature. Such assumptions, Gates concluded, were hampering black criticism by short- circuiting an investigation of “literature as system,” of the text “as a system of signs,” and of “Blackness” itself as “a complex structure of meanings.”

Baker’s rebuttal came in the form of a masterful historical, political, and theoretical account of African American criticism since the 1950s. Baker first chastised Gates for casting the Black Arts movement as a mere antagonist to be defeated rather than as a predecessor to be joined and then transcended. The Black Aesthetic had challenged what Baker called Integrationist Poetics and its assimilationist position. Were it not for Henderson, Gayle, Baraka, and Larry Neal, African American writing might have been fated to a deadly choice: either conform to the prevailing tastes and assumptions of white-dominated culture or risk utter invalidation and imposed marginality. Before this criticism born of the protest and militancy of the 1960s was allowed to be superseded by one nurtured in the Ivy League of the 1970s, some accounting was needed….

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