Themes and message

Race and discrimination

The main themes in Toni Morrison’s short story “Sweetness” are race and discrimination and parenthood.

The story explores issues related to race and discrimination in different times. The narrative follows an African-American woman brought up by parents who lived through segregation, and who raises a dark-skinned daughter of her own in the 1990s.

Backstories about the narrator's parents and grandmother outline the way African Americans were openly discriminated against during segregation: “When she and my father went to the courthouse to get married, there were two Bibles, and they had to put their hands on the one reserved for Negroes.”

Those who had a light-enough skin tone could pass as white and avoid some of the discrimination they would normally been subjected to. However, this could also mean giving up one’s family and one’s identity, as indicated by the story about the grandmother: “You should’ve seen my grandmother; she passed for white, married a white man, and never said another word to any one of her children.”

The main character’s attitude towards whiteness suggests that, even though she is African American, she has also adopted a discriminatory attitude: “Some of you probably think it’s a bad thing to group ourselves according to skin color – the lighter the better – in social clubs, neighborhoods, churches, sororities, even colored schools. But how else can we hold on to a little dignity?”

She sees being light in skin tone as something positive, while her daughter’s dark skin is something negative: “Her color is a cross she will always carry. But it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not.”. Furthermore, she dislikes any African feature her daughter has (hair, lips) and adopts racist terms such as “pickaninny” when referring to her. In this way, the character helps with exploring internalised racism.

The narrative also follo...

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