Treating the popular and academic discourse surrounding Toni Morrison's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 as a case in point, this essay critiques the ways in which race and gender—“black” and “female”—have been used as loaded signifiers to limit, qualify, segregate, and even diminish the achievements of black women writers and their contributions to American letters. Sources from the New York Times to Henry Louis Gates Jr. labeled Morrison's win a “great day” for black women writers, for black Americans, and for African American literature; but few if any commentaries noted the significance for the novel, for American letters, and for literary and critical studies, even as black women writers like Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, and Gayl Jones—together with a rising body of black feminist scholars and critics—had been engaged in transforming the genre of the novel, the nature of literary studies, and the makeup of the academy at least since the early 1970s. This essay argues that while as a Nobel Laureate, as a distinguished university professor, as an exemplary literary and cultural critic, and as a legendary editor at Random House who guided the careers of authors like Angela Davis, Bambara, and Jones, Morrison herself might well be classified as the best thing to happen to the genre in the past fifty years, Novel, too, completely missed the black feminist literary revolution Morrison anchored in the 1970s and 1980s and has yet to afford her an appropriate place of honor and attention within the pages of the journal.
Of Race, Gender, and the Novel; or, Where in the World Is Toni Morrison?
ann ducille, Emerita Professor of English at Wesleyan University, is currently the Pembroke Center Distinguished Professor in Residence, Brown University. She is the author of Technicolored: Reflections on Race in the Time of TV (forthcoming), Skin Trade (1996), and The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction (1993), as well as numerous articles in the fields of American and African American studies, feminist theory, and popular culture.