Politics, aesthetics and diverse sexualities in the work of James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison
Sussman, Kathryn Judith
The thesis investigates the ways in which James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison’s fictional portrayals of forms of love, eroticism and sexuality that are excluded or prohibited by social norms, destabilise heteronormativity as the only legitimate option for non-harmful and pleasurable sensual and sexual expression. It aims to situate Baldwin, Walker and Morrison in a continuum of African American authors, beginning with Harlem Renaissance writer Bruce Nugent – the first African American writer to openly explore the relationship between homosexuality and Blackness – that have examined the intertwining issues of transgressive sexuality and race in increasingly explicit ways. By highlighting the ways in which Baldwin, Walker and Morrison decentre heteronormativity, the project aims to uncover how their novels expose the systems of power and knowledge by which racial forms of oppression are maintained, thereby debunking both the notion of Black “authenticity” and Black sexual stereotypes. Finally, the project hopes to show how the process of “queering” heteronormativity in these ways effectively serves to legitimise all forms of love, eroticism and sexuality that are non-harmful, opening up a new trajectory for contemporary twentieth-century authors who delve into these themes. Theoretical Approach: The thesis will argue for a queer reading of Baldwin, Walker and Morrison’s novels that underscores the writers’ treatment of sexuality as a discursive construct. Specifically, this theoretical perspective looks to their legitimisation of alternative forms of love, eroticism and sexuality that are non-harmful – a process that, in each case, serves to counteract and denaturalise White heteronormativity as the only rightful option for sexual desire and practice. Through this approach, the thesis strives to reveal how by working to legitimise such taboo expressions, these writers deconstruct the idea of the “other” as aberrant, thus calling attention to the specific political and moral systems by which love, eroticism and sexuality are judged in the modern Western world. Chapter Break Down: Chapters one and two of the project situate my argument in the context of critical earlier American writing encompassing canonical fiction, including political protest and African American folklorist novels, political polemics, Puritan captivity narratives, slave narratives, political essays, and experimentalist fiction. Together, these chapters provide a detailed overview of discourses surrounding sexuality, considering what is socially determined to be sexually “perverse” as a shifting concept, the meaning of which changes in tandem with changes in social and historical context. They also extensively analyse Black cultural specificity, examining both the sociological genesis of Black sexual stereotypes that led in part to the justification of the modern slave trade and the subsequent impact of slavery on African American sexual practices. In chapter three, the literary analysis begins with a consideration of the broadened possibilities of sexual acceptability Baldwin puts forth in his anti-protest style of fiction, by examining relationships between characters that do not fit conventional racial or sexual stereotypes, their social contexts, and the narrative perspectives employed by the author. Chapter four examines how Walker’s work carries forward Baldwin’s ideas, by further opening up the spectrum of socially acceptable forms of love, eroticism and sexuality through her presentation of an even wider array of erotically transgressive characters, and her effort to write about them during sustained periods of American conservatism. In chapter five, I examine how Morrison complicates the traditional understanding of what constitutes legitimate sexuality by infusing positive elements into sensual and sexual acts that appear to be nothing other than violent, illegal or psychologically regressive, thereby exposing the impact of social and historical context on the individual, further emphasising the changing and discursive nature of sexuality. The thesis finally argues that Baldwin, Walker and Morrison’s particular depictions of alternative sexuality roll back into a bigger idea of human experience that claims as necessary a re-thinking of social norms based on ethical considerations, rather than arbitrary social codes of morality that lead to both racial and sexual discrimination. Their novels thus ultimately involve us in human issues of justice and responsibility beyond the boundaries of race and sexuality.