Toni Morrison: 1931-2019

 

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As I’m sure everyone is aware by now, the great Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88.  She was the first (and only) African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first American to do so since John Steinbeck.  More than the prizes, she was an utterly transforming voice in contemporary literature.

I’m not going to pretend to recap her incredible accomplishments, as the media is already doing so.  If you’re interested in getting the details of her extraordinary career, check out these pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post.  I’m writing this little piece because I feel I owe it to a writer who transformed my view of the world.

I grew up as a white Southerner under a system that is best described as apartheid: “Whites only” drinking fountains; “White” and “Colored” restrooms; and restaurants and diners that legally refused to serve Black Americans simply because they were Black, to mention only a few things.  I attended public schools that Black children could not attend.  I did not sit in a classroom with an African American student until I was sixteen, when one incredibly brave kid exercised her legal right to attend an all White school and dared, actually dared, to enroll in a Latin class intended to prepare my home town’s elite White kids for admission to the local, and still segregated, state university (our governor, a soul mate and harbinger of the current occupant of the White House, was busily fomenting racial hatred and division by blocking the admission of Black students to its hallowed halls)  The American history I had been taught was that the Civil War was a tragic misunderstanding over states’ rights; that slavery, while “regrettable,” wasn’t really that bad; that the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics may have been a little extreme, but its violence was an understandable response of Confederate veterans deprived of their citizenship; and that Reconstruction’s insistence on Black participation in the political process was an unmitigated evil.

Although I grew up in a system that privileged all Whites over all African Americans, unlike many White southerners I never deluded myself that all Whites were equal; I could see for myself that kids descended from the landed gentry and former plantation owners were  treated with much more respect and consideration than kids from poor backgrounds.  My South wasn’t the Tara Plantation or cotillion balls of Gone With the Wind; it was the hardscrabble south of Norma Rae, of generations of coal miners and sharecroppers and “poor White trash,” of people who died young from malnutrition and overwork, of incredibly bright men and women who could barely read and write because the South they lived in saw no need for them to be educated.  My own mother picked cotton when she was a child (from “can’t see to can’t see”  —  daylight to dusk, for you non-Southerners) and I grew up hearing tales of how frightened she was of the overseer who would ride his horse around the fields and how often she and the others were cheated when the cotton was weighed at the end of the day.  I also knew that for a portion of her adult life my mother was “legally” barred from voting because she was unable to pay the poll tax that kept so many poor Whites, as well as African Americans, from participating in elections.

My family were survivors against the odds — we weren’t intended to flourish, or to survive beyond a subsidence level, but we did.  My blind spot (one of many, I’m afraid) was that I equated my own family’s experience with that of African Americans.  We were both poor, both denied education (poor white kids couldn’t afford to buy the textbooks they needed to learn, faced ridicule from their classmates and were expected to leave school young) and both were cheated economically and politically.  I thought the South’s poor Whites and Blacks were essentially in the same boat. Toni Morrison and her books about the Black experience in America made me realize how foolish was my belief, that White people, even very poor White people,  always had it better simply because they were white.  This truth came home to me when, many years ago (but not soon enough) I read Morrison’s Beloved, her story of Sethe, the slave woman, who kills her own child because being dead is better than being a slave.

Reading Beloved was one of those experiences that don’t come very often in a lifetime, when you’re one person before you read a book and just a little bit different afterwards, that what you have read has shifted your view of your world in a significant way.   My family picked cotton and so did Morrison’s characters, but my mother and grandmother weren’t deprived of knowing each other and they weren’t sold on an auction block; they (or more realistically me) could move into the world of privilege simply because of the color of their skin in a way that African Americans of their (and my) generation could not.  Although it was painful to realize that I was a part of the system that created these horrors, just as much as the arrogant rich kid sitting next to me in that high school Latin class, I wouldn’t trade that insight for my master’s degree, or my law degree or for anything else I have.  Thank you Toni Morrison.

12 thoughts on “Toni Morrison: 1931-2019

  1. I am speechless.

    Thanks for the gift of this post.

    Ashamed to admit that I didn’t know about this writer or what she meant. Her book Beloved would be my next read.

    Thank you.

    I am going to read it once more.

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  2. Hi Silvia. I’m glad you found my post worthwhile. I think a lot of these reflections had been drifting around in my mind for quite awhile, waiting to coalesce; Morrison’s death and the terrible events in El Paso and Dayton brought them together. I think even more than most writers Morrison recognized that language mattered; there’s a great quote from her in a tribute just published online in the Atlantic (“oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge”); if you’re interested you can read the piece at https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/08/toni-morrisons-kaleidoscopic-vision-literature/595600/ It’s a very good overview of Morrison’s work and its tremendous impact.
    I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only read a couple of Morrison’s novels and that over a very great span of time. I think of both, especially Beloved, as threshold works in a way; that is, they came into my reading life when my notions about race and injustice were passing from one set of conclusions to another, if that makes any sense. Beloved is definitely worth your time, although parts of it are almost unspeakably brutal. Picking up on your own post about your list of classics, it’s one of those contemporary works that I think will be read for a very, very long time.

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  3. Thanks for the link. I am headed there after this comment. And I am surely adding this author and reading Beloved, no matter how hard some parts are.

    I am glad her legacy and testimony is still alive and will be for a very, very long time, as you mention.

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  4. Ruthiella: I appreciate your comment very much. It was a strange post for me to write — I was actually trying to review one of my Challenge reads and I just started writing this. Although I’ve only read a couple of Morrison’s books, she’s one of those rare visionaries whose work has made the world and its doings just a bit more understandable for the rest of us, regardless of skin color. I feel that now, more than ever before, her insight is so desperately needed (I’m almost at the point where I can’t bear the news any more. I need to take a leaf from Silvia’s book, so to speak, and turn to the classics to remind myself of what’s important, of what will endure).

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    1. Hahaha. I feel the same. I guess is getting very heavy for us here in the States. Definitely, the classics are my existential refuge. Mysteries a healing escapism. Reading becomes my political, ethical, and existential activity when the news and immediate world are too impossible to engage with.
      The blogs and those who write them, provide me with a constructive and much appreciated conversation. This space gives me hope. I can talk with people who hold different views, with different experiences and beliefs, and truly listen and grow in my understanding, while knowing that I am valued, and while being educated in my ignorance and biases.

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    2. Hi Jankay, I hear you on the news. I avoid it but then feel guilty for not being informed. I feel helpless most of the time. I know a few supporters of this current administration and I guess all I can do is try to show them a different way of thinking in a gentle, non-accusatory way.

      I read all of Morrison from Tar Baby to Beloved in a quick rush in the 1990s. For what ever reason, I started Jazz, never finished it and haven’t read any further in her catalog. But Beloved is one of the most powerful books I have ever read and it does bring home to the reader the terrible cost of enslavement in a visceral way that only art can do.

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  5. Ruthiella: I totally understand about the news avoidance, as I practice something along the same lines: when I do a blackout but I always end up reading/listening again. My compromise is to skim — I seldom read anything in depth, I just check out the headlines or the leader in a story. Since you read my post, you know my background (or the part that formed me); I do not talk politics with my near and dear (exception is Mr. Janakay, as we are as one on these matters). It probably helps that I live in an area that would make a blueberry look pale in comparison.
    Morrison is one of those writers whom I have always intended to make the subject of a reading “project,” i.e., at a minimum read all the novels and as much of her other writing as I could manage. I’m afraid, however, that after Beloved I had to give her a rest (as you said, the book was just SO powerful and emotionally wrenching that I couldn’t handle any more of her writing for awhile and then …. and then … other books called my name). Again, as you say, the ability to deliver this type of visceral impact is precisely what art is for, which is why many regimes make a point of controllling their artists.
    Have you read Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad? I finally got around to it a couple of years ago, after the rest of the world, and thought it was great. Not Morrison, exactly (there can only be one experience of reading a novel like Beloved) but emotionally powerful and very moving. Like Morrison’s work, it does convey in a very visceral manner the brutality of slavery (note to Silvia, if she reads this — Whitehead uses magical realism in a very effective way). I can’t quite bring myself to read his latest (The Nickel Boys) as I just feel too fragile for it right now.

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    1. I loved The Underground Railroad. I felt, as an American, that Whitehead’s use of magic realism, mixing history with the fictional story, and messing with the time frame all added up to an amazing book that encompassed many of the ways America has tried to “fix” the problem of slavery and its aftermath. Similar to Beloved, In The Underground Railroad, escaping slavery does not equal freedom. Every subsequent variation Cora encounters on her way North is a new set of rules and regulations intending to control African Americans in some way.

      You know, I just finished One Hundred Years of Solitude and in my Goodreads review comparing it to Midnight’s Children and The Tin Drum in terms of where magic realism has been successful for me as a reader. And now thinking about The Underground Railroad, I really do believe the more I know about the real history, the better I can appreciate magic realism in fiction. The Tin Drum and The Underground Railroad really resonated with and in both cases I am to a large degree familiar with the culture and history depicted in those two novels. Whereas I needed a reading guide to get through Midnight’s Children and I think I missed a lot of One Hundred Years because my knowledge of Central American history and Columbia specifically is pretty vague at best. This is just me, however. I am very much a reader who gets hung up on a word or concept if I don’t understand it; I have to stop reading and look it up. Other readers just read on and probably understand as much if not better than I do from context. But I don’t trust myself. I have to get outside confirmation.

      I will probably read The Nickel Boys next year. I suspect it will make the 2020 Tournament of Books long/short list and I try to read as many of those books as I can. I agree, it will be difficult subject matter but I trust Whitehead to bring me through it.

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  6. Ruthiella: what a fabulous discussion of the use of magic realism, particularly by Whitehead! It really clarified the novel for me; I recognized some of the “solutions” (when Cora reached the “safety” of South Carolina I thought “watch out girl, they’re doing eugenics”) but hadn’t looked at the novel’s structure so logically. The novel just swept me away emotinally, beginning with the opening when Cora’s mother was struggling for her little patch of garden. What a book! And, as you point out, its structure hightens the emotional impact and really drives home some uncomfortable historical insights.
    I haven’t read your Goodreads review of Solitude (I dip into Goodreads a little but haven’t yet signed on) but it sounds really interesting. Perhaps you’ve already done this; if not, you should really expand these ideas! I’ve been slow to read the classics of non-English literature; no Tin Drum, Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years for me (yet!). Isn’t it amazing how we find these holes in our reading?
    Another novel employing magic realism, and one ironically in competition with Underground Railroad for the Booker Prize (I just did a little quick goggle here!) was Moshin Hamid’s Exit West. A very powerful work, although it didn’t resonate for me as much as Underground Railroad.
    One very interesting writer from a post colonial perspective is Marlon James; no magic realism but a very interesting take on “slave narration” in Night Women, set in colonial Jamaica. I haven’t yet read it, but judging from James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (which I have read) it should be something extraordinary. Another take (IMO at least) on the lingering effects of slavery/dispossession is Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. Smith’s novel deals with lots of issues — female friendship, pop culture, western attitudes towards Africa — but, perhaps because I read it about the same time as Whitehead, it seemed to me that it all took place against the backdrop of colonial dispossession/racial injustice (I didn’t notice any reviews that picked up on this, however, so I could be over reading).
    So many books . . . . s

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