What Toni Morrison taught me about masculinity



Song of Solomon might be the most accurate, intimate and harrowing account of boyhood I have ever read. And it was written by Toni Morrison, a woman; someone not usually associated with having such vast knowledge about growing up masculine. Yet Morrison’s ability to critically analyze the role of gender and race in 1930 to 1963 Michigan allows her to craft a bildungsroman that speaks more accurately about boyhood and its role in society than most male writers I’ve experienced.

Toni Morrison accentuates her account of Macon “Milkman” Dead’s journey from adolescence to adulthood by juxtaposing the roles of men and women in black-urban society and how those societal roles feed into their personalities and ultimately their choices. Milkman is allowed more personal freedoms than his sisters Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena by their domineering father, Macon Sr., despite the fact that Macon Sr. spends much of the first quarter of the book loathing Milkman and doting his daughters.

While Milkman is allowed to indulge in every bit of drunkery and sexual deviance possible, his two sisters are coerced into becoming the epitomes of feminine purity with little autonomy of their own. Thus, Milkman speaks and acts with more aggressiveness and aloofness towards the people around him since he has been conditioned to believe that no one can hinder his ability to be himself absolutely. In fact, when Milkman punches out his father after a moment of domestic abuse towards his mother, Macon Sr. actually conveys more respect and intimacy towards his son, revealing more of his past and allowing Milkman to become his business partner.

When Corinthians at age 40 takes up a new boyfriend who lives in the impoverished Southside, Macon Sr., at 72, locks her in the house and forces her to quit her housekeeping job. Magdalene Called Lena relays this information to Milkman and states “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.” (page. 216) This statement accentuates Milkman’s masculine privilege whereby he can knock his father to the floor and earn more love from him, while Milkman’s sisters continue to be domineered even as they reach middle age.

This sense of masculine privilege hangs over Milkman as battles bouts of depression, argues politically with his best friend Guitar, and struggles to learn the difference between lust and love. When Morrison is inside of Milkman’s head, no thought is ever restrained by adhering to societal standards. Whereby whenever Morrison is inside women’s heads, every decision they plan to make is weighed down by how they will be perceived by their familiars, to the point where even the simple choice to fall in love becomes a great act of courage. Toni Morrison’s take on boyhood feels so real because she studied how society compels us to behave in certain ways based on the gendered meta-narratives conferred upon us, begging the question of whether we are truly living the way we want, or the way we are boxed in.

(featured image flickr-Cliff)





2 thoughts on “What Toni Morrison taught me about masculinity

  1. This book sounds very interesting and something I might enjoy reading.

    You mention that our society and social roles feed into our personality and choices. This point is very imperative simply because no one wakes up one day and is the person they are for the rest of their life. It’s a molding and shaping of a person because of the role they play in society or the role society has “bestowed” on them, and what choices they make from there.

    It’s important that you mention too how men (or masculine beings) are free to express themselves fully, or as you say “…ability to be himself absolutely”. Not only are men seen as more powerful, valuable, privileged and right versus that of women, men are also able to be themselves more fully–without repercussions (in most cases), without hinderance, and without problems really. This is one point that I think we don’t really think about, or at least not in that way.

    You last question was great, and so relevant! The way we are living our lives is it a direct result of how we want to be living, and making the choices we want to make, behaving the ways we want to. Or is it because we are so hindered and restricted in other ways that we are forced into certain avenues of living, behaving or making choices.


  2. The big thing I took away from “Song of Solomon” is pretty much all the stuff you outlined above, specifically the last part in terms of finding out whether the way in which you live your life is based primarily on your decisions or how external forces shape you i.e friends and family. In many interviews with Toni Morrison, she outlines how how sense of insecurity and personal integrity is often shaped by the meta-narratives that swirl around us, particularly when it comes to sexism and racism. “Song of Solomon” ultimately becomes a tome on how we deal with those with narratives, whether by spitting in their faces, letting them consume us completely, or attempt to craft new metanarratives for ourselves. Its a harrowing experience.


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