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Reviewed by:
  • Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa
  • Vanessa K. Valdés (bio)
Jennings, La Vinia Delois. Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008.

In this carefully researched study, La Vinia Jennings opens a new area of inquiry within African American literary studies, arguing persuasively that, with some exception, literary scholars have been misreading Toni Morrison's oeuvre for the last forty years. Morrison, Jennings reveals, has consistently included in each of her novels extensive references to West and Central African cosmological systems. It is only in recognizing and understanding these coded allusions that we can better understand the fictional world of Toni Morrison. In her introductory chapter, "Finding the elusive but identifiable Blackness within the culture out of which Toni Morrison writes," Jennings plainly lays out her argument: "An aesthetic goal of Morrison's fiction is to dust off the survivals of West and Central African traditional civilizations that Christianity obscures in the Western hemisphere" (2). Her novels, then, expose "an African palimpsest upon which European-American culture superimposes itself" (2). Jennings cites the cross within the circle, the Yowa of the Kongo civilization, as the most easily identifiable African symbol, and demonstrates that Morrison utilizes this and other signifiers of African belief systems as a "substructure for her literary landscapes and interior spaces, and as a geometric figure performed by or inscribed on the bodies of her characters" (2). In addition to the religious beliefs of the Bakongo, Jennings cites Dahomey and Yoruba traditions as well as their New World expressions of Haitian Voudoun, United States Voodoo, and Brazilian Candomblé throughout her analysis. For her, Morrison uses these tools to record and recover the ancestral African past for all peoples of African descent so as to remind them of the riches of their heritage. These belief systems are not lost to history; they simply remain dormant in the collective imaginary of African-descended peoples. Jennings convincingly argues that Morrison's [End Page 1143] novels mean to rouse her readers, stirring belief systems long suppressed, as a means by which to live.

In her second chapter, "Dahomey's Vodun and Kongo's Yowa: the survival of West and Central African traditional cosmologies in African America," Jennings painstakingly explains, in clear and precise language, the intricacy of the Yowa, the cosmogram found in all of Morrison's novels (21). She recounts not only its historical origins but also its transmutation in the New World, citing the ring shout as a Yowa configuration within a Christian context (20). On both sides of the Atlantic, this symbol is used to recognize the ancestors, those who have passed away and who continue to influence the lives of their relations. Jennings puts forth that Morrison's deployment of this symbol challenges European Christian supremacy, uncovering a worldview that strongly informs the subjectivities of her characters.

In the following chapter, "Bandoki: witches, ambivalent power, and the fusion of good and evil," Jennings begins her literary analysis, looking at the representation of evil in Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Paradise (1998). She deftly explains traditional African beliefs about good and evil, revealing that these elements are conceived of as opposites that are to be balanced; there is demand for the annihilation of evil, as per Christian doctrine. Jennings notes that in all of Morrison's novels where Black communities exist in isolation, one can find vestiges of African thought. She thoroughly examines those characters that have confounded literary critics, arguing that they have used the moralizing lens of Christianity. She begins this analysis with Sula herself, identifying her not as a witch, but as a figure in the tradition of Dahomey's Mawu-Lisa, in which the masculine and feminine elements are in balance. Taking up Allen Alexander's argument that Sula is the fourth face of the Creator (26), Jennings traces this fourth dimension of God, uncovering the series of four's in this novel. From her perspective, "Morrison references the Christian Trinity as a foil to the African traditional quaternity" (27). Jennings explains that whereas Christian thought is dualistic, so that all elements can be binary opposites (evil being the opposite of God), traditional pre-Christian thought (she...


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