Social injustice and segregation in literature

Hey everyone,

Long time no see huh? I have to admit that the blog wasn’t my priority those past few weeks; in fact, my last article was written 106 days ago!

So here’s a little update…FINAL_CRIT_PLEASE_by_photografever

Last week, we started working on a new subject : “The author in his century”. At every english literature class, we are supposed to present a topic based on this theme. We need to answer one question : “Can an author influence social changes?”

Last Friday’s topic was: “Social injustice and segregation in literature”. Here’s a little  historical recap on the American-African history:

frise chronologique segregation

(Click on the picture if you want it larger!)

Many authors and songwriters have dealt with this topic and among them are Toni Morrison and Abel Meeropol.

Toni Morrison:

Toni_MorrisonThe American novelist was born on the 18th February 1931 in Ohio. She graduated from the Howard university with a B.A. in English and earned a master of arts in English at the Cornell University as well as a doctorate in Letters from several universities, including Oxford. After her divorce with Harold Morrison, she moved to New York and became a teacher and an editor. In 1970, she wrote her first novel: “The bluest eye” while raising her two children. She also published “Sula” in 1973 which was nominated for the National Book Award and “Song of Solomon” in 1977 which caught the attention of the entire nation. In 1987, “Beloved” was an undeniable success and  was considered as a masterpiece. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction and the American Book Award. It was also turned into a movie in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Other novels: “Tar baby” (1981), “Jazz” (1992), “Paradise” (1997), “Love” (2003), “A mercy” (2008), “Home” (2012). (Her books are mainly about black women.)

(If you are interested in this author, why not take a look at the Tony Morrison society?)


Beloved is the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver. Sethe, the mother, used to be a slave in “Sweet Home”. After running away from the plantation, she raised her four kids (Two boys, Denver and a baby girl) in Cincinnati with the help of Baby Suggs , the grandmother. But soon, a threat appears; her master, Schoolteacher, is after her and wants to take her children away. That’s when the tragedy occurs: when Sethe kills her baby girl to protect her from being enslaved. Ever since, the guilt and sadness have haunted her. She lives on with bitter memories and a sorrowful heart. She won’t ever forget. One day, a strange girl arrives and awakens the past… Her name is “Beloved”.

Here’s an extract (Chapter 1):

I24 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old–as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny band prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once–the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.

Abel Meeropol:

meeropol abel This American teacher and songwriter was born on the 10th February 1903 in New York city. He is mainly famous for his poem “Strange fruit” written in 1937 after the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. It was published in “The new Masses” under the pseudonym of Lewis Allan and was sung by Billie Holiday in 1939. Abel Meeropol also wrote “The house I live in” and “Apple, peaches and cherries”. In the sixties, he adopted Michael and Robert Meeropol, the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The songwriter died on October 30, 1986.

Strange fruit:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The “Strange fruit” is a metaphor the author uses to talk about the bodies of black people hung in trees. The allusion goes on until the end when the author shows his true feeling about these “fruits” : “strange and bitter crop”. The song has received many honors: It was elected best song of the century by the “Times” and was added in 2002 to the National Recording registry. Want to listen to it? Click here!

Toni Morrison and Abel Meeropol have had (and still have!) a huge impact on society and became an inspiration to many people. Through their works which became symbols, they could express the horror and the unfairness of social injustice and segregation. Words have power, and they sure knew it!

(picture credit: Photografever deviantart – no copyright infringement intended; for educational purposes)

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