Like African-American culture, African American literature got spurred by the harsh realities of life that the Black community went through in North America. During these times, Whites subjected Blacks to severe pressures, which inadvertently eroded their African identity. In particular, the notion that blacks were an inferior community only fit for slavery made it hard for Blacks to get educated and get treated fairly. The courts, slave owners, and the vigilante forces would severely punish anyone that broke the rules set forth to suppress Blacks. However, the determination of Blacks to get equal treatment as Whites quickly established literacy among them, a move that ultimately became a political and economic backbone for the Black community. This paper compares and contrasts Melvin B. Tolson and Toni Morrison’s approaches in addressing African American equality, with a close focus on their literal works and the associated themes.
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African American Equality
Melvin B. Tolson and Toni Morrison are some of the renowned writers who got the opportunity to get an education and mainly focused on African American equality in depth. Although their approaches differ, they particularly address similar issues. In “The Bluest Eye”, Toni Morrison explores the aspects of the identity of women of African American descent. She explores the challenges of growing up in a society that equates beauty with blue-eyed whiteness. Morrison especially points out how the media, adult approval, and a dismissive tendency lead to self-loathing among Blacks. This is mainly because of the internalization of white beauty standards. She further illustrates the aggressive and destructive consequences of rejection as an African American female from a socially inferior class. Similarly, her latest novel, “Home”, focuses on racial discrimination of a veteran of the Korean War. The veteran was forced to question his identity upon the return to America (Krumholz 220).
Unlike Tolson, Morrison’s approach revisits the past while simultaneously exploring destructive tendencies in North America, such as bigotry and racism. Her thematic connection with the vital and intimate relationship among people throughout her novels serves to explore the hardships that Black women in America had to endure under their slave masters. Within the relationships among her characters emerged other significant themes relating to the culture and political history of North America, mainly addressing racial segregation and inhumane treatment imposed on the Black community (Gates et al. 123). She highlights how Whites took advantage of the bond between a Black mother and her child to force them into submission. The children would often get whipped or mothers issued with threats of getting separated from their children if they did not submit to their masters. However, some took the risk and would often flee from plantations in search of freedom. Morrison’s fusion of history and myth in her works results in an exemplary collection of literature that completely submerges the reader into the struggles and determination of blacks in their quest for equality in North America (Moore 300).
Melvin B. Tolson, like Morrison, had considerable expertise in merging Afro-American perspectives with modernist trends. Although he was a poet, his written works were particularly abundant in intellectually sound and rich allusions. Although he focused on Black man’s freedom as the trigger of White transcendence, Melvin himself leads by example in the fight for equality in North America. He coached Wiley’s debate team, which won debates ten years in a row. Notably, this was during the times when African Americans could not visit elite White schools for competitions or social events (Asante 30). The team’s continued success symbolized equality and exceptional achievement on the part of the Black community. He further met President Lyndon Johnson, who invited him to the Whitehouse to present his newest poetry works to him. This was a truly remarkable achievement in his career, and also motivation to the Black community. Going by his brilliance and inventive spirit in poetry, Melvin drew from both the western tradition, as well as the distinctive rhythm of blues and rhythms.
In the 1930s, Tolson decided to write a manuscript entitled “A Gallery of Harlem Portraits”, which was rejected for publication by various editors. However, he published “Harlem Gallery; Book 1” before his death, in which he got to blend the traditions and conventions of western poets and poetics and Black American arts, which included oral arts, blues, spirituals, and jazz. These Black American experiences assert the means through which Melvin kept the African culture and identity intact. In essence, Tolson develops his literal theme in a manner that outlines the poems’ major subject of multidimensionality. Instead of developing the familiar character types associated with the contemporary urban community, Melvin uses diverse types of artists and art appreciators to “Focus the inner reality of Harlem”. Tolson’s unmatched skill for delineation of character and the ability to turn aesthetic discussions into social commentary, as well as his deftness with language, made him a critically acclaimed poet.
Tolson, just like Morrison, took exceptional interest in historical matters while paying particular attention to the Black community’s history that had long been forgotten. Tolson’s initial collection of poetic works, “Rendezvous with America,” won first place in America. “Dark symphony” was part of the collection that mainly celebrated the historical contribution of Black Americans, as well as their endeavor to gain recognition for their achievements (Asante 78). His writing later culminated with a proud and sure prediction of the Black community’s cultural achievements.
The main difference that presents itself between the two writers’ approach is the fact that Tolson mainly focused on poetry as a tool for divulging his social and political views of the world. Morrison, on the other hand, focused on writing books, in which she got to express and present hidden, cruel treatment of African American women, as well as their unrecognized strengths in ensuring that African heritage got preserved. The fact that the two great writers were exemplary good in their works is proof that African-Americans were equally capable of brilliantly showcasing their inborn talents just like their White masters. To date, their extraordinary lives get celebrated as part of the initiators of the Black movement that did not get deterred from fighting for Black people’s rights, but bravely fought for equal treatment. Tolson’s works mainly live on to date with a movie like “The debaters,” highlighting his landmark achievement of winning debates ten years in a row and facing the White community in a discussion that changed the perspective of the Black community’s potential. The two writers not only propagate Black equality in North America through their works, but they also unearth forgotten and overlooked happenings and narratives through the creative and subversive association of text, historical facts, and historical movements.
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Asante, Molefi Kete. The African American People: A Global History. Routledge, 2013.
Gates, Henry Louis et al.. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 3rd ed., W.W. Norton, 2014.
Krumholz, Linda. “Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination by Valerie Smith.” African American Review, vol. 47, no. 1, 2014, pp. 219-221.
Moore, Geneva Cobb. Maternal Metaphors of Power in African American Women’s Literature: From Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison. Univ of South Carolina Press, 2017.