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Construction of Black and White Masculinity in Beloved and Song of Solomon

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In Morrison’s work, concerned as it is almost exclusively with the female locus, it might be easy to overlook issues of masculinity. Indeed, if these issues are to be found at all, they are found in the corners of her narratives, occupying a peripheral discourse that stands as a secondary concern to black femininity. Where Morrison does offer representations of black masculinity, these are complicated, and seem deliberately problematised to imply a critique of negative masculine ideals. For the sake of clarity, masculinity is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the assemblage of qualities regarded as characteristic of men’ such characteristics recognisably being “strength,” “bravery,” “control,” and so on.[footnoteRef:1] With a focus on Beloved and Song of Solomon, I aim to examine first how Morrison constructs black masculinity within the context of slavery, the ways in which she constructs and implicitly critiques the versions of black masculinity that arose upon emancipation, and finally the alternative ideals of masculinity she presents to the constructions she criticises. [1: 'masculinity, n.' OED Online, Oxford University Press, (2018), [accessed 1 February 2019].]

A sparsity of critical literature analyses the matrifocal Beloved as a masculinist text, yet as a neo-slave narrative Beloved is also notably concerned with the issues brought to bear on black masculinity by slavery. Disseminated by white slave owners was a view of African-American men as violent and sexually promiscuous, irresponsible and incapable of becoming breadwinner, and so incapable of meeting the traditional requirements of the all-American man. Through the character of Paul D, Morrison ably demonstrates the oppression and denial of selfhood experienced by black men during slavery - which complicated the image of the black male as both bearer and perpetrator of violence. Paul D, whilst at Sweet Home and subject to Garner’s ownership, is confident that he is a man, because he is ‘so named and called by one who would know’. [footnoteRef:2] Here there is an acknowledgement, even if only subconscious, that Garner, as white slave owner, possesses authority over the label - as though manhood is neither inherent nor independently achievable, but a quality ascribed one by another. Carden remarks that Paul D is ‘the child of benevolent white parents, embedded in hierarchies that modelled those of a patriarchal family,’ but nevertheless ‘is not a son – Sons inherit manhood with patrilineage; Paul D borrows a provisional second-order manhood from a master.’[footnoteRef:3] According to Garner, the hallmarks of manhood are the ability to wield a gun, and the ability to make decisions, though he is sure to limit the options from which his slaves are able to choose. Paul D acquiesces to the naïve belief that ‘in their relationship with Garner was true metal: they were believed and trusted, but most of all they were listened to,’ when in actuality their masculinity is defined by Garner’s higher authority and in his acknowledgement of worth in their thoughts and feelings.[footnoteRef:4] Garner elevates his slaves’ status to “men” because, in maintaining control over four men, rather than four inferior animals, his sense of personal power is significantly increased. Garner fosters in them a sense of manhood purely to fortify his sense of his own manhood. [2: Toni Morrison, Beloved, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), p.125.] [3: Mary Paniccia Carden, “Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved”, Twentieth Century Literature, 45.4, (1999), 401-427 ( p.405). Emphasis added.] [4: Morrison, Beloved, p. 125.]

When Sweet Home’s ownership passes from Garner to Schoolteacher, Paul D’s donated sense of manhood suffers. He soon learns that his identity is inhibited by the individual perspectives of his white slave owners. Schoolteacher has none of Garner’s condescension, and – rather than characterise them as men – affords his slaves sub-human classification. They are refused the prerequisites of Garner’s brand of masculinity: Schoolteacher denies Paul D ‘first his shotgun, then his thoughts, for Schoolteacher didn’t take advice from Negroes.’[footnoteRef:5] Paul D is suddenly reduced to nothing more than a white man’s product, without value beyond the profit his body collects. Sitter comments at this juncture that ‘Morrison shows how every natural instinct and emotion is in some way twisted or stunted by the experience of living in a culture that measures individual worth by resale value and the ability to reproduce oneself without cost.’[footnoteRef:6] Indeed, Sethe is worth more because she is able to ‘breed.’[footnoteRef:7] When Paul D is sold and removed from Sweet Home, he suffers another blow to his masculinity: he is forced into chains, made to wear a collar and a bit. As he leaves, bestially bound, he passes Mister, the rooster (and it is worthwhile to acknowledge the masculine title that the bird here is granted, a title which is notably absent from Paul D’s name) and notes his defeat: ‘Schoolteacher changed me. I was something else and that something was less than a chicken sitting in the sun on a tub.’[footnoteRef:8] Herein lies the binding power of white language over the slave, for when Garner termed Paul D “man”, so he was one, and when Schoolteacher decided he was an animal, an animal he became. As such, it is clear here how slavery impedes a complete construction of black masculine identity. [5: Morrison, Beloved, p. 220.] [6: Deborah Ayer Sitter, “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved”, African American Review, 26.1, (1992), 17-29, (p.18).] [7: Morrison, Beloved, p.227.] [8: Morrison, Beloved, p.74.]

Shortly after his reselling Paul D attacks his new owner, Brandywine, not knowing ‘exactly what prompted him to try other than Halle, Sixo, Paul A, Paul F and Mister.’[footnoteRef:9] The Sweet Home Men here represent Paul D’s ideal of manhood, and inspire the attack in order to keep said manhood intact. Also of note is the trembling Paul D experiences prior to the attack and then thereafter, which is ‘gentle at first – and then wild,’ a trembling that begins with his last look at a Sweet Home tree he names ‘Brother,’ and grows wilder the further he is removed from the tree.[footnoteRef:10] As Sitter comments, ‘Paul D’s image of the tree seems at all moments to be an index of his sense of his own manliness. At Sweet Home Paul D is confident that he is a man.’[footnoteRef:11] Consequentially, the deconstructive cycle is perpetuated with increasing severity, and he is sent to a chain gang, forced into a ‘wooden [box]’, a ‘grave calling itself quarters.’[footnoteRef:12] Here, Paul D realises he is worth less than an animal, barely more valuable living than dead. Once given a gun to carry as a symbol of his masculinity, he is now positioned at the opposite end of the barrel. The chain gang men ‘[wake] to rifle shot,’ and the butt and barrel of their masters’ guns force their compliance to repeated oral rape.[footnoteRef:13] Suffering such a blow to his manhood, Paul D can no longer picture Brother, ‘old, wide and beckoning,’ and can see only an aspen, ‘too young to call a sapling.’[footnoteRef:14] The slave trade has reduced Paul D’s masculine identity almost entirely. [9: Morrison, Beloved, p.106.] [10: Ibid.; Morrison, Beloved, p.21.] [11: Sitter, p.24.] [12: Morrison, Beloved, p.106.] [13: Morrison, Beloved, p.107.] [14: Morrison, Beloved, p.221; 220.]

While not largely concerned with the slave narrative, Morrison’s first male-centric novel Song of Solomon examines the changing black masculine ideal in the period after abolition. In 1869, having received his free papers, Macon Dead I begins the construction of what will become a male-dominated familial empire. He initiates a definition of black masculinity based on capital, and amassing a material wealth that his son, Macon Dead II, believes characterises successful white masculinity. Even beyond the context of slavery, then, the white man’s definition of manhood is the authoritative definition. Macon II’s conviction, that the key prerequisite for manhood is material wealth, is strengthened following the murder of his father, and comes to vitiate his character and his relationships thereafter.

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Bell hooks argues that masculinity is deemed to be about demonstrating violence and strength, and thus men are ‘socialise[d][…]to believe without their role as patriarchs they will have no reason for being,’ and in the home, Macon II certainly endorses patriarchal supremacy.[footnoteRef:15] The first to suffer his hypermasculine domestic dominance is his wife, Ruth. He marries her to ‘co-opt her physician father’s social position,’ and ‘his hatred of [her] glittered and sparked in every word he spoke to her.’[footnoteRef:16] During sex, he becomes aroused not by her, but by the removal of her underwear – ‘the most beautiful, the most delicate, the whitest and softest underwear on earth.’ His sexual appetite for her white undergarments and disinterest in her naked body, ‘as moist and crumbly as unbleached sugar,’ indicates the white colonialism that Macon aspires to, his attempts to ‘unlock the most intimate secrets of white male dominance.’[footnoteRef:17] Ruth does not suffer his dominance alone: he keeps his family ‘awkward with fear,’ and in his daughters he ‘chok[es] the lilt out of what should have been girlish voices.’[footnoteRef:18] He denies his daughters autonomy and agency, coercing them into epitomes of feminine purity. Tellingly, though he loathes Milkman for much of the first quarter of the novel, Macon II still affords his son considerably more personal freedom than his daughters. Milkman is allowed to indulge in various alcoholic and sexual deviancies, with no fear of reprimand, though when Corinthians, at age 40, takes up a new boyfriend from the impoverished southside, Macon II locks her in the house and forces her to abandon her housekeeping job. The disparity between his treatment of his daughters and of his son is such that when Milkman punches his father after an assault on his mother, Macon II in fact begins to treat him with greater respect, allowing Milkman to become his business partner. Magdalene called Lena later informs Milkman of the absence of heroism in his act, telling him that ‘you think because you hit him once that we all believe you were protecting her […] It’s a lie. You were taking over, letting us know you had the right to tell her and all of us what to do.’[footnoteRef:19] Here in the domestic realm black masculinity gains a new aspect, being predicated on violence, and the subordination of women. [15: bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, (New York: Atria, 2004) p.115.] [16: Susan Neal Mayberry, Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007) p.82; Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, (London: Vintage, 2006), p.10.] [17: Morrison p.16; Mayberry, p.82.] [18: Morrison, Song of Solomon, p.10.] [19: Morrison, Song of Solomon, p.215-16.]

Beloved, too, shares a notion of a masculinity predicated on patriarchy, though to a less severe extent. Whilst the men in Song of Solomon assert themselves over their female counterparts, Paul D does not, and suffers a crippling blow to his manhood as a result. After arriving at 124 Bluestone Road, Beloved challenges Paul D’s manhood more than any white slave owner. So she might have her mother all to herself, she supernaturally forces him out of the house, and he comes to see himself not as a man but as ‘a rag doll, picked up and put down anywhere at any time.’[footnoteRef:20] In his effort to avoid her he sleeps on a pallet in the shed like an animal, ‘because he wasn’t man enough to break out.’[footnoteRef:21] When Beloved successfully seduces him, his inability to resist proves him feeble, less than a man: ‘whenever she turned her behind up the calves of his youth (was that it?) cracked his resolve.’[footnoteRef:22] Unable to oppose her on his own, Paul D must then look to another woman, Sethe, for assistance. He attempts to establish his masculinity in a ‘different but standard way: he wants to prove himself a man by way of being a father.’[footnoteRef:23] Carden judges that ‘in American culture, “man” signifies head of the household, protector of wife and children, giver of law, guardian of culture.’[footnoteRef:24] But in having to supplicate for Sethe’s permission to get her pregnant – ‘I want to get you pregnant, Sethe. Would you do that for me?’ - Paul D’s ultimate position becomes clear.[footnoteRef:25] He can never be the head of the household – this role has been Sethe’s for far too long that she should be displaced or supplanted, and she is far too independent to require his rescuing. Paul D fails to make Sethe pregnant as a means of ‘document[ing] his manhood,’ and his sense of fatherhood is further shaken when he learns from Stamp Paid of her infanticide.[footnoteRef:26] He leaves 124 Bluestone Road, choosing instead to sleep on the floor of a church basement, assigning himself to the role of animal impressed upon him by others. [20: Morrison, Beloved, p.126.] [21: Morrison, Beloved, p.127.] [22: Morrison, Beloved, p.126.] [23: Sitter, p.24.] [24: Carden, p.404.] [25: Morrison, Beloved, p.128.] [26: Sitter, p.24.]

Whilst Paul D acts passively, the men of Song of Solomon do not. They assume the attitude of the Black Power Movement, the strong arm of the black liberation movement of the 1950s and 60s. The Black Power Movement espoused two notions of black masculinity – one predicated on violence, the other on the subordination of women. Guitar Bains - in joining the Seven Days - Milkman, Macon II, and even to some extent Solomon, advance the masculine ethos of the Black Power Movement by attempting to regulate women exclusively to the domestic sphere, or disavow them completely. hooks argues that ‘a man who is unabashedly and unequivocally committed to patriarchal masculinity will both fear and hate all that the culture deems feminine and womanly.’[footnoteRef:27] Black masculinity becomes in the novel a construction defined by female absence. This negation of the feminine echoes a folkloric trope from the slave period, whereby black men were able to attain freedom by either symbolically or literally flying away from their thraldom, and in so doing, from their families and communities. Male flight in the novel comes to represent both a freedom from a life of slavery, and an abandonment of family and community. It must be admitted, at this juncture, that Morrison herself acknowledged that she did not find ‘men who leave their families necessarily villainous,’ though Demetrakopoulos finds that flying with no real point of return comes at the cost of ‘maturation, individuation, connections,’ and results in what Mayberry calls a ‘polarised, soulless masculine.’[footnoteRef:28] Still, Morrison comes to critique this construction of black masculinity in the novel by presenting the tropes and symbols of male flight negatively, in favour of the feminine comfort of orality. The novel grants privilege to oral telling and retelling of black history and culture, largely by women, and subordinates the written word of the white male, which aims to erase black history and culture. In one of the first examples of oral storytelling in the novel Pilate relives her father’s death to Milkman and Guitar, telling how he was blown ‘five feet into the air’, and it is Circe who tells Milkman the history of his family, his grandmother’s name, and his grandfather’s real name.[footnoteRef:29] Even Morrison herself was ‘amazed at how little men taught one another in the book.’[footnoteRef:30] Macon II in particular is heavily associated with the masculine print culture: he views his father as a victim of illiteracy, remarking that ‘everything bad that ever happened to him happened to him because he couldn’t read.’[footnoteRef:31] Moreover, he paints the word ‘OFFICE’ on the front door of his business, in imitation of the ‘white town fathers’ literate, authoritarian mode of signing.’[footnoteRef:32] He is, furthermore, obsessed with his wall calendar and account book. As such, black masculinity in the novel comes to rely not just on the domination of women, but on a complete denial of the feminine. [27: hooks, p. 108.] [28: Nellie McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison”, Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr and K.A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993) 396-411, (p.402); Karla F.C. Holloway and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (New York: Greenwood, 1987) pp.86-90; Mayberry, p.72.] [29: Morrison, Song of Solomon, p.40.] [30: McKay, p.410.] [31: Morrison, Song of Solomon, p. 53.] [32: Morrison, Song of Solomon p.17; Mayberry, p.83.]

If Morrison constructs these versions of black masculinity to critique them, then so too does she offer a less problematic alternative. The alternative in Song of Solomon is Pilate. Though she is not a man, she is notably androgynous: tall, strong, bearing a man’s name. She also represents the character in the novel with the strongest sense of personal identity – the most complete individual that Song of Solomon offers us. Morrison in fact admits that she chose a man to be the central character of Song of Solomon because she felt a man had considerably more to learn than a woman.[footnoteRef:33] In Pilate, Milkman finds a satisfactory model of freedom and transcendence: ‘now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.’[footnoteRef:34] Pilate is grounded, a part of the community, but still she transcends this grounding through her own distinct identity. In this way she occupies both male and female roles: she has the masculine gift of flight, but the feminine grounding in community. So too does she provide a suitable alternative to Guitar’s violent vigilante justice. Her justice does not involve retaliation, but rather forgiveness: she forgives the man who beats Reba, her daughter, just as she forgives Milkman for attempting to steal from her. Pilate is perhaps what the ideal masculine should be, and indeed it is the case that she represents for Milkman an ideal. If there is an identifiable male alternative to the problematic masculinity replete within the novel, this alternative is presented by Milkman at the end of the novel. His masculinity is constructed in the same vein as his fathers, or as Guitar’s in the earlier phases of the novel, but under Pilate’s mentorship becomes ‘a feminine masculinity, a maleness connected to women, anchored by delicately balanced dualities, and based on flying without ever leaving the ground.’[footnoteRef:35] [33: Mayberry, pp.78-9.] [34: Morrison, Song of Solomon, p.146.] [35: Mayberry, p.73.]

Looking to Beloved for an alternative to Paul D’s other-affirmed masculinity, we find Sixo. Sixo is drawn on a heroic scale, not defining himself by the opinions of others, or his judgement of their superiority or inferiority. Morrison, as Sitter notes, suggests that Sixo represents an African ideal of masculinity, by accentuating his ‘Africanness.’[footnoteRef:36] His manliness stems not from the approval of others, nor from the disempowerment of others, but from an unfailing respect that he demonstrates for everyone, whether alive or dead, and for the natural and supernatural worlds. When Sixo arranges to meet his Thirty-Mile Woman in a stone shelter ‘that Redmen used way back when they thought the land was theirs,’ he asks the spirit of the Redmen for permission to enter.[footnoteRef:37] When she loses her way, and fails to meet him, he asks the wind for assistance, and gets it. Sixo does not live contrapuntally to anyone or anything, but rather in harmony with the world around him. By Garner’s standard of manliness, whereby the measure of a man depends on his control of others, Paul D’s exodus from 124 Bluestone Road seems righteous, justified, but held against Sixo’s brand of masculinity, it ‘makes him feel ashamed.’[footnoteRef:38] [36: Sitter, p.23.] [37: Morrison, Beloved, p.24.] [38: Morrison, Beloved, p.267.]

In summation, it can be judged that Morrison’s prominent constructions of masculinity, those she places most obviously within her reader’s field of vision, are granted place on such a stage as a means of exposing their flaws. Morrison implicitly critiques violent and Eurocentric notions of masculinity by proving their fragility, their isolating qualities, and sets up alternatives, either in the ambiguous androgyny of Pilate, the eventual roundedness of Milkman or in the traditionally Africanist figure of Sixo.


  1. 'masculinity, n.' OED Online, Oxford University Press, (2018), . [accessed 1 February 2019].
  2. Carden, Mary P., “Models of Memory and Romance: The Dual Endings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved”, Twentieth Century Literature, 45.4, (1999), 401-427
  3. Holloway, Karla F.C. and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (New York: Greenwood, 1987)
  4. hooks, bell, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, (New York: Atria, 2004)
  5. McKay, Nellie, “An Interview with Toni Morrison”, Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. by Henry Louis Gates Jr and K.A. Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993) 396-411
  6. Mayberry, Susan N., Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007)
  7. Morrison, Toni Beloved, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987)
  8. Morrison, Toni, Song of Solomon, (London: Vintage, 2006)
  9. Sitter, Deborah A., “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved”, African American Review, 26.1, (1992), 17-29
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