- Tribal Paradise Lost but Where Did It Go? Native Absence in Toni Morrison’s Paradise
I hope to interpret Toni Morrison’s 1997 novel Paradise, set in Indian Territory and, later, after 1907 statehood, in Oklahoma, a work that recalls the history of African American self-rule towns, in ways that might advance new methods for studying the intersections of African American and Native American representations in both fiction and criticism. I cannot examine all scholarship on Afro-Indian relations, so I would like to focus on criticism that speaks to issues of representation in creative works: Tiya Miles and Sharon Holland’s collection Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country (2006) and Joseph Brennan’s When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African-Native American Literature (2003).1 While some recent criticism has celebrated Toni Morrison’s treatment of Native characters by interpreting her portrayals as affirmations of Native culture, I want to look at the tensions between African Americans and Native Americans inside and outside of Morrison’s work, especially in light of the burgeoning body of criticism on black-Indian literature. While surveying these responses, I want to discuss my own position that fits somewhere in between dismissal of Morrison for missing the boat on Indians and ecstasy over any mention of Native people whatsoever no matter the quality of her depictions.
Miles and Holland’s path-breaking anthology, Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds, is an interdisciplinary volume of essays that ranges from autobiographical analysis to scrutiny of tribal elections contested over treatment of African American constituents, to the way [End Page 20] hip hop has influenced Indigenous Hawaiian music, and to critical pieces about plays and novels. In the latter regard—that is, the book’s literary content—I will first turn to an essay titled “Native Americans, African Americans and the Space That Is America: Indian Presence in the Fiction of Tony Morrison,” written by Virginia Kennedy, who teaches English at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, a critic I hope to both honor and challenge for calling our attention to Morrison’s references to Native people.
Kennedy’s project, like other critics writing in the anthology, is to bring to light the intertwined histories of African Americans and Native Americans. Kennedy seems to hope, further, to credit the Nobel Prize–winning author for reinvigorating these shared stories in creative work. In Kennedy’s own words, “The fiction of Toni Morrison . . . explores legitimate historical connections between black and Indian peoples on American soil that have remained outside the realm of traditional historical accounts” (197). Kennedy goes on to say that, “In Morrison’s fiction, African Americans and Native Americans bump into each other, come across each other, and interconnect with each other. They share experiences and bloodlines, because as these fictions assert, they are together in the American landscape” (198).
Paul Pasquaretta, author of “African-Native American Subjectivity and the Blues Voice in the Writings of Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie,” which is part of When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote, seems to agree: “the interrelationships between black and Indian communities are central, if subtle elements of the writings of Toni Morrison” (279). For my purposes here, I am as interested in the subtle as the central.
Thus, it is the quality of the bumps, so to speak, the crossed paths, and the interconnections that concern me as much as the mere fact of their occasional crossing. By noting the difference between a crossed and a shared path, I want to comment on the rather fleeting examinations of shared African American and Native American destinies in Morrison’s work. Specifically, I will argue that it is not the actual historical interactions that have been ephemeral but their depictions in Morrison’s writing that do not achieve their full potential. [End Page 21] Rather than concentrate on all three of the novels that most frequently reference Indians, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Paradise, I will focus on the latter, which hits closest to home in my case since it takes place in Oklahoma, where my family and tribe hail from, at least in terms of our recent history since Indian Removal in the...