As an African American woman writer, Toni Morrison's relationship with myth is complex and multilayered. In an interview with Charles Ruas, Morrison calls myths the “nourishing stories”(115) that we are raised on. Myth educates future generations about values and strategies for survival. It “provides a transition, a way to see what in fact the dangers are, what are the havens, and what is the shelter”(113). Myth provide a sense of connection with the past, a sense of continuity and purpose, giving perspective to collective struggles: “the connection with time in a large sense was the most important thing, to get through this because afterwards you can join all those others before you, and it would be like this”(116). In particular, Morrison cites myth's role in African American culture as a tool to cope with the horrors of slavery and preserve culture despite all odds.
Yet while Morrison seems to relish creating African American myths in Song of Solomon and Paradise, she also raises skeptical questions about the role these myths play in communities. In particular, myth's treatment of gender, its marginalization of women and cultural “others”, and its tendency to assert one “official version” over all others, seem problematic. In his essay on myth in Toni Morrison's texts, Michael Awkward cites feminist critic Rachel DuPlessis, who argues that women writers such as Morrison has a complicated relationship to myth:
When a woman writer chooses myth as her subject, she is faced with material that is indifferent or, more often, actively hostile to historical considerations of gender, claiming as it does universal, humanistic, natural or even archetypal statues. To face myth as a woman writer is…to rehearse one's own colonization or “iconization” through the materials one's culture considers powerful and primary.
[...] Milkman's family history is the community of Shalimar's history as well—a collective myth that is passed on in the form of song. Pilate, who is in many ways Milkman's guide, contains in her birth an allusion to Odysseus' guide, Athena. Both women are born without the aid of a mother. Pilate crawls out of the womb of her dead mother and Athena bursts fully formed out of the head of her father, Zeus. Thus both women are self-nurturing and self-completing. [...]
[...] Song of Solomon is not The Odyssey, and just as Morrison has been reworking the original myth into an African-American context, she also reworks it in terms of feminism. Song of Solomon reconceptualizes gender in its epic structure to far greater a degree than Awkward supposes. While having the potential to mirror characters like Calypso in The Odyssey, who is nothing more than a sexual pit-stop for Odyssey, Morrison presents Sweet as a more complicated character. Sweet and Milkman's relationship is characterized by its mutuality: put salve on his face. [...]
[...] Morrison uses her Odyssey references to connect Milkman's journey to an epic journey, but does quite a bit of reinventing in the process. For example, the legend of the flying Africans, although recalling Icarus' and Deadalus' flight from captivity, takes on a unique resonance. It is the story of slaves transcending captivity, and carries the emotional relevance that such a tale would. Rather than an Icarus-like parable of striving too high, the narrative invokes a complicated metaphor for escaping from slavery. [...]
[...] As Morrison suggests, this Old Testament-style myth not only “nurtures” but can be “very exclusive rather than inclusive: it tells you who can or can't be in, and what you have to do in order to be in”(117). According to Phillip Page, Ruby's mythic beginnings have become a tool by which the ruing generation of men silences the view of the new generation and of the town's women The ruling men have becomes as narrow-minded as the whites and the light-skinned blacks who excluded them and their fathers as a result of the New Fathers' attempts to freeze the town in the monological ideology of the past, new divisions spring up—between men and women, between generations, and between families. [...]
[...] To elevate her own myths to universal levels, Morrison offers a retelling of well-known mythologies, offering up a re- conceptualization of the “Odyssey” myth in Song of Solomon to reflect Milkman's odyssey of African American identity, and a retelling of the biblical paradise myth in Paradise to reflect the identity of the community in Ruby. Morrison problematizes her own use of mythology to incorporate a feminine perspective into these patriarchal myths, using the figure of Pilate in Song of Solomon to re-envision Milkman's odyssey in feminine, domestic terms. [...]
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