A Critique of Monist Afrocentrism in Toni Morrison's "Paradise"

Essay, 2015

11 Pages


A Critique of Monist Afrocentrism in Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1998)

First coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in the early 1960s then popularised by Asante a couple of decades later, the term Afrocentrism represents a talking back against the hegemonic attitudes and discourses that have been disfiguring and marginalising the African Americans’ cultural legacies and historical realities both before and after the Transatlantic Passage.[1] As Wilson Jeremiah Moses points out, the rise of Afrocentrism is a reaction to disparaging stereotypes that “doubt the capacity of black people for ‘civilization,’ meaning self-government, mechanical invention, economic independence, and abstract reasoning.”[2] Early American politicians, intellectuals, and slave-owners classified black people as biologically and intellectually of a lower rank than Caucasians. Thomas Jefferson, for example, could write that:

This unfortunate difference of color and perhaps of faculty is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people I advance it therefore as a suspicion only that the blacks whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of the mind and body.[3]

In the face of such cultural racism, Afrocentrists, such as Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Mohammad, Malcolm X, Ron Karenga, Ivan Van Sertima, and Molefi Kete Asante, to name but a few, attempted to promote and consolidate African- and African American-based forms of knowledge to convey the urgent need for the rehabilitation of Africans and African Americans. In the words of Asante:

Afrocentricity seeks to re-locate the African person as an agent in human history in an effort to eliminate the illusion of the fringes. For the past five hundred years Africans have been taken off of cultural, economic, religious, political, and social terms and have existed primarily on the periphery of Europe.[4]

In rewriting her people’s history in Paradise,[5] Morrison touches upon the issue of Afrocentrism as a cornerstone in the social, political and cultural understanding of black America. Her steadfast interest in black peoples’ lives and destinies may be read as a self-evident concern with Afrocentrism. Both her literary art and cultural criticism overlap, in one way or another, with moderate forms of Afrocentrism. As a case in point, “Recitatif” evokes the writer’s convergence with an alternative Afrocentric feminist epistemology, as articulated in Patricia Hill Collins’ essay “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought.”[6] Similarly and to the credit of Afrocentrism, one of the main points that her introductory essay in Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power analyses is Eurocentric distorted and distorting knowledge of black people. She critiques how racial stereotypes disseminate essentialist fictions about blacks in America: “On the one hand, they signify benevolence, harmless and servile guardianship, and endless love. On the other hand, they have come to represent insanity, illicit sexuality, and chaos.”[7] To Morrison, these stereotypical dichotomies form a superficial, prejudicial oversimplification of real meaning, which is, of course, always dependent on context, relationship, and perspective.

Many of Afrocentrism’s beliefs, especially the common origins of African cultures, the distinctive epistemologies of African civilisations, and the cultural contribution of black peoples to today’s Western societies relate back to 1960s and 1970s black political and cultural nationalism.[8] Correspondingly, the temporal setting of Paradise extends across a critical historical period of 1968 to 1976, which, suggestively, marks, first, the escalation of the Vietnam War in which blacks were disproportionately sent to deadly frontlines and, second, the rise of Black Power that overtook the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s when America underwent upheavals at home and military crises abroad, blacks demanded their rights. Met with a violent white extremist backlash, black movements, like Black Muslims and Black Panthers, called for racial separatism.[9] They nourished the idea that their people’s positive identity resided in their return to their resources, either morally by identifying with African-based views of the world and systems of thought or physically by actually returning to Africa as a place of hope and promise. In his reading of Paradise in terms of history and race, Peter Widdowson refers to the warning that the final report of the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders in March 1968 issued:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal…. What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.[10]

Losing hope of receiving more than minimal integration in mainstream America, black separatists wanted to undertake their own economic, political social and religious sustenance and self-empowerment. In a similar sense, Paradise presents the Ruby people attempting to maintain their difference from other communities. When Morrison describes them as “different from other communities in only a couple of ways: beauty and isolation” (P 160), she alludes to the psycho-cultural Afrocentric slogans of Black pride and Black beauty. However, in her approach to Afrocentrism Morrison is aware of the “New Black Psychology”[11] agenda of creating positive black self-images and promoting the demand for the recovery of collective black culture, and the group of 1960s black radical psychologists whose “wild” Afrocentric views pontificated about the existence of “a distinctive ‘black personality’” and an “inherent black psychic superiority.”[12] In point of fact, her attitude toward the Rubyites’ sense of Afrocentrism is marked by irony. She channels that irony by juxtaposing the sense of their beauty with that of their isolation. Here, Morrison seems to signify on The Bluest Eye —but in a very differently inflected fashion. In that novel Pauline Breedlove understands beauty in terms of white culture and shuns the ancient properties of her own, identical people, unlike the Rubyites’ sense of beauty and isolation. If the cult of beauty, in Paradise, is a commendable objective to abolish centuries of ill-founded physiognomic and epidermal judgments, the choice of isolation and exclusionism is criticised for it cuts off all possibilities and chances for dialogue and rapprochement. Thus, the Rubyite patriarchs’ sense of racial purity and moral superiority comes down, unfortunately, to their own self-aggrandizement, the attitude that convicts them of reiterating the same ethnocentric purist biases against which they originally fought. Morrison is quite clear in voicing her dissension from such inverse deep blue-black ethnocentric racism when she writes:

They [the Ruby patriarchs] think they have outfoxed the white men when in fact they imitate him. They think they are protecting their wives and children, when in fact they are maiming them. […] Born out of an old hatred, one that began when one kind of black man scorned another kind and that kind took the hatred to another level, their selfishness had trashed two hundred years of suffering and triumph in a moment of such pomposity and error and callousness it froze the mind […] Soon Ruby will be like any other country town: the young thinking of elsewhere; the old full of regret. (P 306)

Through Reverend Misner’s judgmental lamentation, she expresses her critique of racial divisions that make people blind and unprepared to face the future. With such divisions the progeny enters a distorted, maimed history fraught with ethnic and racial hatred that absolutely cannot reinforce the human values of mutual respect and tolerance.

Morrison articulates her rejection of strong or “wild” Afrocentrism. She doubts its efficacy because its appeal to intellectual separatism and cultural nationalism is more disabling than enabling and its characteristics are, in the words of Stephen Howe, “barriers to or digressions from the development of effective strategies against racism and for social justice.”[13] Asante, alias Arthur Lee Smith, is one of the proponents of strong forms of Afrocentrism. His overenthusiastic Afrocentric “delinking”[14] leads him to conceive Africans as one whole group disregarding in this way ethnic, racial, gender, class, historical, national and cultural differences. He admits “Regardless of our various complexions and degrees of consciousness we are by virtue of commitments, history, and convictions an African people.”[15] Addressing blacks the world over, Asante asserts “there can be but one true objective for us in the contemporary era [:] to reconstruct our lives on an Afrocentric base.”[16] Asante’s short-sightedness in his presentation of Blacks as essentially one homogeneous group of people with one past, or history, deflates his Afrocentric perspective as an idealised understanding that risks turning black peoples’ cultures into Black Culture. His idea of a recoverable tradition overlooks the fact that both identity and tradition are cultural constructs that are liable to change in accordance to different historical moments and ideological interests. Asante’s essentialist model of Afrocentricity is undercut by Eric Wolf’s statement that cultures are not

[I]ntegrated totalities in which each part contributes to the maintenance of an organized, autonomous, and enduring whole. There are only cultural sets of practices and ideas, put into play by determinate human actors under determinate circumstances. In the course of action, these cultural sets are forever assembled, dismantled, and reassembled, conveying in variable accents the divergent paths of groups and classes.[17]

Asante is blind to the fact that traditions, when they are the constructs of the ruling classes, become an impediment to any form of emancipation or ethnic identity protection. As Michel Foucault observes, any project of total history is inclined to ignore micro-narratives and thus puts a curb on voices that would disrupt the apparent continuum of macro-narratives set and claimed by the project of historical totality.[18] In the novel the patriarchs of Ruby preclude themselves from any chance to move away from the inherited traditions of their ancestors. They keep to their Old Fathers’ passed-on memories and commandments as if they were sacred inscriptions never to be questioned.

It is quite significant that Morrison does not use Patricia to level her criticism of the community’s blind attachment to past traditions. Though Patricia is conscious of her undesirability in the deep blue-black community, she does not seem to question a sense of tradition. She decries the patriarchs’ unyielding exclusionism, but does not urge for change from their inherited traditions: “She didn’t seem to trust these Ruby hardheads with the future […], but neither did she encourage change” (P 209). It is Reverend Misner, a newcomer and outsider, who is made to express Morrison’s critique of such people:

Over and over and with the least provocation, they [the Ruby patriarchs] pulled from their stock of stories tales about the old folks, their grands and great-grands; their fathers and mothers. […] why were there no stories to tell of themselves? And about their own lives they shut up. Had nothing to say, pass on. As though past heroism was enough of a future to live by. As though, rather than children, they wanted duplicates. (P 161)

To the Reverend, the Ruby patriarchs seem to live and rely on the deeds and traditions of their past forefathers. The present, for them, is overlooked since the past is directly linked to their future. This defective historical dependence on the Old Fathers’ traditions is accountable for the present disruption of the community. Symbolic of this crisis is, indeed, the course of Steward’s life which is, as his wife Dovey acknowledges, replete with a series of losses: from personal gustatory blandness to a religious loss of calling, from political ineptitude to business decline, and from biological sterility to physiognomic unattractiveness (P 82).

Although Reverend Misner and Patricia Best are presented as sharing much in their critique of the Rubyites, Morrison depicts them as holding different attitudes toward Afrocentrism. Patricia expresses her desire to implant and assert her own self on the American soil while Misner argues for a return to the sources—some pre-Middle Passage Africa—as the most valid way to assert his African-related identity, values and immaculate past: “There was a whole lot of life before slavery. And we ought to know what it is. If we’re going to get rid of the slave mentality, that is” (P 210). In his efforts to advance and perform an emancipatory project, Reverend Misner finally succumbs to cultural nationalism and idealism, not dissimilar to Asante’s and other fervent Afrocentrists’. Misner suggests to Patricia that those black Americans who think they have nothing to do with Africa are “never going to get rid of the slave mentality” (P 210).


[1] Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (Buffalo, NY: Amulefi Publishing Co., 1980), 43.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Toni Morrison, Paradise (New York: Plume, 1999). Future references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically.

[6] Patricia Hill Collins, “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought,” in Malson et al., Black Women in America, 297-325. In her narration of the story, Twyla embraces the four dimensions of Afrocentric feminist epistemology as expounded by Collins: 1) concrete experience as praxis for attaining and claiming knowledge and truth, 2) dialogic interaction as a means of communal connectedness, 3) the ethic of caring and fellow-feeling, and 4) the ethic of personal accountability.

[7] Morrison, “Introduction: Friday on the Potomac,” xv.

[8] Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1999), 265.

[9] Widdowson, “The American Dream Refashioned,” 326.

[10] Ibid., 327.

[11] Howe, Afrocentrism, 265.

[12] Ibid., 265-266.

[13] Howe, Afrocentrism, 5.

[14] Ibid., 234.

[15] Asante, Afrocentricity, 27.

[16] Ibid., 85.

[17] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California P, 1982), 390-91.

[18] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 9.

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A Critique of Monist Afrocentrism in Toni Morrison's "Paradise"
University of Nottingham  (School of Canadian and American Studies)
American Studies
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Toni Morrison, Paradise, Afrocentrism, African American History, All-Black towns
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Mohamed Sghir Syad (Author), 2015, A Critique of Monist Afrocentrism in Toni Morrison's "Paradise", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/322691


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