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Reviewed by:
Tessa Roynon. Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition: Transforming American Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 234 pp.

During the same week in June 2015 when Rachel Dolezal was making her media rounds to explain why she, as a white woman, chose to identify as black, the twenty-one-year-old white supremacist, Dylann Roof, was arrested on charges of murdering nine congregants at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, at a prayer meeting. Roof’s hatred of blacks unearthed an ugly layer beneath America’s transracial overlay. That Dolezal called her own passage from white to black transracial was not lost on the media at a time when Caitlyn Jenner was publically transitioning from male to female. Race remains one of the many public performances in American life, notwithstanding declarations of post- or transracial times. Judith Butler herself addresses racial embodiment in her response to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

In the life and times of race in America, Tessa Roynon’s evaluation of Toni Morrison, one of the country’s most important authors and public figures living or dead, is opportune, perceptive, and deeply provocative. As Roynon shows, Morrison’s treatment of race, gender, and the American journey toward a more perfect nation is timely—even [End Page 562] urgent. Columbia University, for example, has recognized the necessity of a sustained conversation on race by making Morrison the first black female author in its core curriculum. Any literary or culturally critical treatment of Morrison that studies her work deeply and seriously adds to a necessary national and global conversation.

In this context, the classics—Greco-Roman and, ultimately, African—as a discourse is most suitable for us to think with, given the nexus of convergences: Morrison’s own classical training in college, already attested to in many studies that Roynon mentions (such as Rankine’s and Walters’s work); America’s rooting in the discourse, from the founding fathers to contemporary intellectuals such as Suzan-Lori Parks; and even its role as at times polemical and antithetical to black aesthetic, and here Roynon cites Martin Bernal copiously, but we might also include any number of American phenomena.

Rather than landing on a potentially fossilizing hypothesis about Morrison’s relationship to classical texts and traditions, Roynon offers an almost Derridean play regarding the possibilities inherent in the texts of a number of novels, from The Bluest Eye to A Mercy. From the outset, Roynon wants to explore what Morrison offers “transracially” (7), and she asserts early on that Morrison problematizes race throughout her writing. It should be emphasized (as Roynon does) that Morrison makes any claim to classical allusions problematic as well. Roynon highlights the ambivalent, parodic, and revisionary nature of the novelist’s approach. Rather than arranging her study by particular novels, Roynon wisely and deftly toggles between thematic and chronological organization. The early chapters evoke mythic legacies that naturally point to classical traditions. The reader moves in time from the discovery of America through the colonial period, revolution, slavery, and so on, but we also have the opportunity to explore foundation myths. The rape of Lucretia, for example, after which revolutionaries ousted the last tyrants of early Rome, is an etiological tale that traditionally tells about the problems of monarchy. While for early Americans such a story might have been somehow empowering, Morrison’s narratives of Sula, Hagar, and others point to the “ethically problematic nature of the trope of rape-as-symbol” (36). America’s foundation in Morrison’s hands is “less a process of miraculous metamorphosis than an act of deliberate and destructive domination” (43).

Roynon’s themes are provocative and build her argument about Morrison’s ambivalent engagement with the European classical tradition. Just as she cites no single novel of Morrison’s at a time but engages all at once, so too her treatment of classical texts is wide-ranging, though Aeschylus (in chapter 5) and Ovid (throughout) emerge as pivotal. In like manner, there is no single hero to America’s [End Page 563] foundation myths. Roynon cites John Quincy Adams’s statement that democracy has no single monument, medal, or hero. There...

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