- Locating Paradise in the Post–Civil Rights Era:Toni Morrison and Critical Race Theory
Home is not a little thing.Toni Morrison, Paradise
This article attempts to "locate" Toni Morrison's Paradisein the post-civil rights era by identifying its place within contemporary discussions about African American culture and the civil rights movement's legacy. Paradise is but one instance of an ongoing conversation among critical race theorists about the possibility of social, cultural, and legal reform. In the twenty-eight-year period between the publication of The Bluest Eye (1970) and Paradise (1998), the civil rights movement declined as a contemporary social force. By the early 1980s, critical race theory emerged and began "uncover[ing] the ongoing dynamics of racialized power, and its embeddedness in practices and values which have been shorn of any explicit, formal manifestation of racism" (Crenshaw et al. xxix). The 1990s brought groundbreaking books that developed critical race theory and blurred disciplinary boundaries to demonstrate how discursive spheres have been racialized, gendered, classed, and sexed (Bell, Delgado, Guinier, hooks and West, and Williams). Due to its engagement with critical race theory, Morrison's novel translates paradise from a universalized concept that transcends race, class, nation, and gender toward a smaller, more local, and more "manageable" version.
Paradise exemplifies and contributes to these new discourses on race and otherness by narrating the complementary histories of an all-black town (named Ruby) in rural Oklahoma and the nearby [End Page 276] convent that became a refuge for young women. The stories ultimately come together at the conclusion of the civil rights movement when the men of Ruby attack the "Convent Women" to drive them off and/or kill them. Through these interwoven stories, Morrison describes how the idealization of whiteness haunts the Convent and Ruby (spaces seemingly free from racism and white people), and how racial identity is always gendered and gender identity always raced.1 By situating the novel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Morrison captures the shift from the civil rights movement to the post-civil rights era, in which the realities of racial integration and gender equality, as putative paradises, were first being examined. Morrison insists that there can be no simple escape from the effects of race, racism, gender, and sexism without some sort of decolonization.
In Paradise, Morrison portrays how African Americans have houses, but not homes. Haven, this group's first settlement, and then Ruby fail to live up to their names because racist and sexist ideologies do not respect the borders established by the townspeople. These communities based on a utopian ideal are not homes because the racial ideologies that the inhabitants of Ruby sought to escape follow them within their hearts and minds. As in much of Morrison's work, racist ideologies transform "domestic" sites into racialized spaces due to the racism and sexism built into their foundations. Paradise thus testifies to the difficulties of building a real home within the racialized soil of the United States.
In her nonfiction writings, Morrison has explored how an unspoken African American presence haunts American literature [End Page 277] ("Unspeakable Things" 210, 212). Thus the very foundation of Morrison's fiction, the discipline of literature, is marked by racialization. These racializations come to shape how scholars and students understand literary texts, including her own. Morrison has argued that "[f]or the most part, the literature of the United States has taken as its concern the architecture of a new white man" (Playing in the Dark 14-15). Her interrogation of literature's foundations suggests that perhaps other disciplinary tools, methods, and concerns may be useful in uncovering the effects of literature. To do justice to Paradise, students of Morrison must not use the tools of the literary tradition to limit the meaning of her work. While at work on Paradise, Morrison stated in a speech that "[i]n the novel I am now writing, I am trying first to enunciate and then eclipse the racial gaze altogether" ("Home" 9). In that same speech, she characterized her entire oeuvre as seeking a way "to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home" ("Home...