Boys in the mother 'hood: literary representations of black mother-son relationships in the works of Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison
Butts, Tracy Renee
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Very little scholarship exists on the subject of black mother-son relationships. However, black mother-son relationships have pervaded the literary works of African American writers since the slave narratives and continue to do so today. The abundance of primary texts and the scarcity of critical sources necessitated that I narrow my focus; after considerable thought and study, I decided to focus my attention on the literary works of Ernest J. Gaines and Toni Morrison because of my interest in determining to what extent gender inflects the author's view of the mother-son dynamic. The dissertation relies upon a number of theoretical approaches- anthropological, psychological, sociological, historical, and black feminist theory-in addition to personal interviews, literary criticism, and close readings of Gaines's and Morrison's literary works. Although Gaines and Morrison both insist that their works are not autobiographical, their works reveal that both their gender and their experiences shape their portrayals of mother-son relationships. Reared by his maternal great aunt, who was severely handicapped, Gaines writes from the perspective of the son. Consequently, his works often depict mothers, drawn in the image of the infallible, strong black woman, rearing sons who believe initially that their mothers seek to control their lives, but who eventually come to realize that their mothers only have their best interests at heart. However, as a single mother, Morrison writes from the perspective of the mother. Therefore, Morrison, who is aware of the difficulties and challenges of motherhood for black women, refuses to subscribe to the good mother versus bad mother dichotomy when portraying her mother figures. Some of her mothers succeed and others fail, but they are all flawed in some way. When looked at together, Gaines's and Morrison's works suggest that the black mother-son relationship, despite being fraught with difficulties, is, for the most part, loving and harmonious.