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Writing and Orality in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon Morrsion's novel Song of Solomon is a powerful plea for a black aesthetics founded on orality.The novel's protagonist Milkman, grown up in a family which has distanced itself from the oral heritage of the black community, travels south and in the course of this voyage discovers not only traces of his ancestors but recovers this very oral heritage.Usually, white abolitionists edited or published the narratives of escaped slaves, yet never without stressing the authenticity of the texts by way of a speaking title or a prologue to the publication.
The origins of black writing are to be found in the slave narratives.
Or, to be more precise, slave narratives are the origin of black literature in print.
Slaves who did learn to read and write did so clandestinely or after their escape to the liberal states of the north.
As Morrison observes in her essay "The Site of Memory," the texts written by ex-slaves, in which they narrate their experiences, have a distinct functionality.
With his metaphorical expression of blacks having to "steal" the ability to read and write from their white masters, Frederick Douglass coined a phrase that has been quoted time and again for its meaningfulness.
The enforced lack of literacy to blacks in turn perversely confirms the racist conviction that blacks be unable to reach such cultural heights due to lack of intelligence or humanity.As Morrison goes on to argue, the slave narratives during a considerable period of time had quite a large readership and more so for their modesty and pseudo objectivity.As works of art, however, they were as dependent on the literary conventions of their time as they were on their audience.Writing and even more so (written) literature, both associated with reason, were thought to be reserved to the supposedly superior western cultures.By learning to write, therefore, slaves could subvert und counteract the ideology of their oppressors.What is more, literacy for them as for any member of society meant the access to the legal rights guaranteed in the constitution.Morrison stresses this aspect of literacy in her essay, remarking that "these writers knew that literacy was power" (Morrison 1987: 108).The present analysis intends to trace both the thematical and the performative aspect of orality and to explore the different and sometimes contradictory connotations which orality acquires in the text.A short summary of Morrison's poetics with respect to orality and its role in black aesthetics will provide the theoretical bedrock on which a textual analysis may rest.While a racist society supposed blacks incapable of reading and writing, let alone the production of literature, learning these techniques was a means of proving their humanity.Both Morrison and Henry Louis Gates in his study The Signifying Monkey mention Immanuel Kant, Descartes and other philosophers of the enlightenment who proclaim a belief according to which blacks were incapable of any major cultural expression.