Toni Morrison mentioned on many occasions that she was writing for her community, not white American or European readers. Did Marcel Reich-Ranicki prove her right when he denied that "we" have access to her novel Jazz? What puzzles me about their comments is the question "how do they know if I have access to a novel of Toni Morrison´s?" I would even go so far as to ask "how do these people know what access is and means to me as an ordinary white Western European reader?" If Toni Morrison dismisses me as not being able to feel with and understand her characters, I, on the contrary, would like to blame her for not being able to feel the way I feel and understand her characters the way I understand them. I thus would like to prove her wrong just by simply telling you that I, although I am not the most emphatic reader imaginable, had an excellent time reading Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved. I laughed with Morrison´s characters, suffered with them, flew with them and cried with them. Summing it up: No matter what color your skin is and no matter what continent you come from - read her!
Toni Morrison didn´t write especially for me, but Homer didn´t write for me either. If access to a work depends only on the same cultural and social background of writer and reader. I would have gone through all the books that are understandable for me in less than a year, because that would reduce my consumption to those that are written by German middle-class, Catholic, female students in the nineties whose worst experience is a bad mark in sports. I think as long as a work deals with human beings that love and hate, act right or wrong, anybody who tries to understand can find access.
As the Wright brothers flew a bit longer each try, so Toni Morrison's protagonists seem to progress--or at least move in a new direction--in each succeeding novel:
Pecola, in Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye, is not so much a heroine as a victim: she is mentally destroyed before reaching adulthood. Since she is the weakest member of the family, all the social misery, racial oppression, and familial problems bear down upon her.
Sula meets a lonely death at the age of thirty. But she creates her own self: she opposed the rules of her community, and her subsequent sufferings and loneliness are hers. She risks the free fall; but she is not pushed like Pecola - she jumps deliberately.
Pilate is the strongest of all the women in Song of Solomon (which focuses mostly on men). Not only does she succeed in keeping her individuality, but she also fulfills what the shape of her name meant to her illiterate father: a big tree protecting smaller ones. Of course she is not able to fend off every danger, but the reader cannot help thinking that she is the only real "man" in the book.
Jadine, in Tar Baby, has a college education and can thus live in white society as an equal. When she has to decide whether she wants to go back to her own race in order to follow the man she loves--which in this particular context means being reduced to motherhood and an atavistic "primitive" life in poverty--she decides against it; the allegiance to her lover would have meant spiritually amputating the white culture from her sense of self as well as relinquishing new modes of identity for black women.
For me Morrison's most successful heroine so far is Sethe in "Beloved." Under most terrible conditions she succeeds in escaping from slavery with her children. But not all of them survive; out of love she feels forced to kill one daughter to protect her from a life in slavery. As a result she is haunted for twenty years and excluded from black society. In the end she finds a way back to the other black women, a potential life at peace with herself, and a rewarding partnership. Paul D has become a wise lover and friend when he tells Sethe that it is not her children but she who is the "best of herself."
The first protagonist is destroyed as a child -
The second is a heroine who decides on her own destruction -
The third keeps her own identity and protects others -
The fourth can choose between the white and black worlds -
The fifth one snatches herself and her children from the hands of the white slaveholders however dearly it costs her.
Do we white Europeans have access to these women's stories? I unabashedly identify at least partially and in complex ways with all of them!