“Quarts of Milk like Marble Statues”: Theorizing African-American Female Bodies and an Aesthetics of Black Womanhood in Toni Morrison’s Fiction
In Toni Morrison’s novels, milk and nursing serve critical programmatic and structural functions. For example, in The Bluest Eye (1970) Pecola Breedlove—the outcast girl with dark skin whose breakdown the novel traces—drinks milk lavishly from a blue-and-white Shirley Temple glass when she is fostered by the MacTeer family. In Sula (1973), the wild woman who is also the title character is domesticated by Ajax who incidentally brings glass quarts of milk to her door to woo her. In Song of Solomon (1977) the protagonist—nicknamed Milkman—nursed past infancy into early childhood and the revelation of this social transgression or taboo at the beginning of the novel is central to his psychological quest to become a man in the text. In Tar Baby (1981), set on a Caribbean island, Thérèse—ultimately a transcendent spiritual figure in the novel—had once made a living as a wet-nurse for the children of wealthy white Americans; the popularity of formula had left her impoverished and reduced her to doing laundry in her blind, old age. In Beloved (1987), not only is Sethe’s breastmilk taken from her in a traumatic act of sexual violence that haunts the text, at the center of the novel Morrison also depicts a horrifying scene of breastfeeding in which the child suckles her mother’s milk mixed with her dead sister’s blood. In Jazz (1992), we learn in flashbacks that the protagonist Joe Trace was nursed by women in the community where he grew up because the person who gave birth to him was incapable of functioning within society. She didn’t breastfeed him; she couldn’t mother him.
These notable examples from Morrison’s pre-Nobel career and work demonstrate that milk and practices of nursing or breastfeeding become symbolic. Morrison’s insistent engagement throughout her novels with milk and nursing reveals a complex and comprehensive metaphor for the place of women of African diasporas in the history of the Americas.
This paper theorizes Morrison’s symbolic attention in her writing to milk and the practice of nursing as elaborating, from its root, a metaphor that culminates in the articulation throughout her works of a particular and peculiar aesthetics of Black womanhood empowered by a radical embrace of sex and sexuality. I argue that this aesthetic is critical to how Morrison makes herself the canonical center of USA letters at the end of the 20th Century. In other words, I argue that Morrison’s meditations on the specificity of the African-American female experience and her representation of Black womanhood in fiction displace, by design, the historically universal center of the literary canon—white men. By exploring Morrison’s attention to milk and nursing in her texts, I aim to show that from the seed of the African-American female experience, Morrison achieves a literary aesthetic that manifests itself in its full plenitude within the particularity or peculiarity of Black womanhood, but in its context with consequences and ramifications on a global, universal human scale.