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.