In a very real and terrible way, our country needs—but does not yet deserve—Toni Morrison. Even in death, she exceeds us: We lack the language fit to eulogize her achievement. No writer has done more to shape the course of American fiction in the last 50 years. No writer has pushed the bar for the novel higher than where she left it with Beloved. Her place in the literary pantheon seems so self-evident now that younger viewers of the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will likely be shocked to learn that well into the 1990s her work was downplayed, denigrated, or simply ignored by the members of a literary establishment fearful (and surely jealous) that a black woman could not only outsell them but also garner higher literary praise.
They were right to fear her. Like Pilate, the fierce outsider who guides the plot of Song of Solomon, it never occurred to Morrison to ask for a seat at the table: She pulled the table to where she sat. She refused to fill her novels with white characters, refused to write under what she called “the white gaze,” and refused to apologize for doing so. She did all of this knowing she could write her critics off the table in her novels and essays—and she finally did. The due respect accorded to women novelists of any color today owes something to her struggle to remind publishers of the importance of those voices they neglected. Like a new planet, she shifted the flow of gravity in the literary cosmos.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison began this revolution in American literature from within the gates of the lettered city. During her decade as an editor at Random House in the 1970s, she used her position to irrigate the literary and cultural landscape with new voices from the Black Arts Movement, with the icons and political champions of black power and black feminism. She published Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, the still under-recognized Henry Dumas, and the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. Her most daring and experimental project, The Black Book (which is currently and unforgivably out of print), gathered black life across history and created a remarkable and mesmerizing commonplace book from it—something in between W.E.B. Du Bois’s cherished dream of an Encyclopedia Africana and Stéphane Mallarmé’s vision of “the Book” as a repository in which all that has ever been attains its preordained legibility.
One of the newspaper clippings in The Black Book recounts the trial of Margaret Garner, an enslaved mulatto who crossed the Ohio River with her children in 1856, attempting to escape enslavement in Kentucky. Cornered by slave catchers and US marshals acting under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act, Garner decided to slit the throat of her daughter rather than return her to bondage and attempted to drown herself and her other children in the river. In Beloved, Morrison fashioned Garner’s tragedy into a prism for viewing our capacities for judgment and grace. Through the gaze of the enslaved woman’s persecutors, through the eyes of her family and community, and from the vantage of the murdered child, who speaks for herself, Morrison gave us a masterful glimpse into a haunted history that still festers like an open wound.
The importance of novels like Beloved or Sula goes well beyond the appreciation of critics, the number of copies sold, and the frequency of their appearance on syllabi. Both have substantially reshaped the world beyond the borders of literary fiction, spilling over into arguments about philosophy, the writing of history, and the articulation of politics. Sula may be Morrison’s finest novel after Beloved, but it is also a key text in the development of black feminism in the United States and a book that nurtured a generation of scholars, theorists, and activists: people like Barbara Christian, Cheryl Clarke, Barbara Smith, and others who have transformed how we read, teach, and talk about women, sexuality, race, and their intersections.
In her fiction, Morrison is a stately mover of humble things, imbuing seemingly ordinary lives with mythic grandeur and intensity. Her prose throws into relief the feelings, voices, and conflicts of black folk often cut from the cloth of those she grew up with in Lorain: children of the Great Migration who brought their Southern folkways with them and turned the places in the Midwest where they settled into what folks still sometimes call “Up South.” By interweaving communal rhetoric—its ornate, tall-tale structures and digressive gossip vines—with the private, lyrical inner conscience long denied black women in fiction, Morrison shifted an entire tradition, escaping the instrumentalism of racial representation that hedged in African American fiction during the Jim Crow era. Her characters contain multitudes, contradict themselves, and act in a world beyond good and evil, freed of authorial judgment and narrative censure in ways that novels before The Bluest Eye rarely, if ever, allowed.
Morrison’s prose always hummed with vernacular rhythm so that it retained a sense of spontaneous cunning, a flinty slyness, an unnerving quality of withholding, as well as the cruelty and shaming of communal wisdom. She animated the interiority of black girls and women in ways that built on two generations of black women writers: Gwendolyn Brooks, Ann Petry, and Paule Marshall in the 1950s, and Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen before them. She possessed a coolness and playfulness that reflected her study of literary modernism—the swerve into temporal dislocation and a mythographic fragmentation of consciousness. She wrote with the gestural authority and relaxed flair that black people prize in verbal creation, and she composed her works with the confidence that we would read them as such.
Morrison was wary of the off-note, the brash intrusion—of “traps,” as she wrote in a preface to a collection of Bambara’s writing, “laid so the reader is sandbagged into focusing on the author’s superior gifts or knowledge rather than the intimate, reader-personalized world fiction can summon.” Her effects flowed with the grain of her stories. In Sula, Nel Wright hears “the river-smoothness” in the voices of her children at play, an eerie synesthesia whose import acquires somber depths in the secret that the novel’s girlhood friends share.
In every sentence, Morrison trusts the power of imagination to destroy the poisonous literalism of race—not to make it dissolve away (as a kind of liberal universalism would like) but instead to force us to do what we often cannot: to acknowledge the deeply linguistic hold that race has on our thinking. In her craft, she fought for the seat of greatest power, the human mind itself. Writing and reading, for her, were convergent: “Both exercises require being alert and ready for unaccountable beauty, for the intricateness or simple elegance of the writer’s imagination…. Both require being mindful of the places where imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision…. the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability.” An extraordinary sense of response-ability is surely one of her signal qualities, not only as a literary artist but as an all-encompassing thinker.
“Humanism” seems the apt, inevitable rubric for Morrison. The word is not much in vogue these days; it’s absent from our politics, and wherever they may exist in our culture, humanists garner no consensus or refuse to announce themselves as such. And by “humanism,” I do not mean a circle of men whose classical learning, preference for tempered or moderate reform, and disposition to optimism helped them weather late medieval Europe’s brutal religious and tribal warfare. What I mean is something else: a humanism grounded in the history, community, and values that emerged from the people who were going into the holds and crossing the Atlantic while Erasmus was dueling with Luther. It is made of the loamier and more challenging conditions of dispossession, dis-remembrance, and natal alienation that made the Americas the vast particle collider of blackness that they have continued to be for the last 500 years.
The mother in Morrison’s novel A Mercy, known to the reader only in her Portuguese form of address, minha mãe, describes the creation of this blackness after surviving the Middle Passage and landing in Barbados: “It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita. Everything. Language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song—all of it cooked together in the color of my skin. So it was as a black that I was purchased by Senhor, taken out of the cane and shipped north to his tobacco plants.”
For Morrison, humanism is a scar tissue made lovely and terrible by our intimacy with its contents. Like a Romare Bearden collage, her art captures black life’s survival, exuberance, shame, desire, and its measure of self-possession. She read black America’s Odyssey and added chapters to it of her own. She understood that task as a basic form of integrity. “A writer’s life and work,” she said, “are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”
Morrison has always written out of a black humanist tradition that has sought to rebuild and repurpose the blackness of minha mãe. This is a politics but also a worldview, a culture, an ideal, and a sense of undisputed dignity and erudition. It draws from Anna Julia Cooper, from Mary McLeod Bethune, and from Sojourner Truth, who when advised that the meeting house in Angola, Indiana, where she was to speak was going to be burned down, replied, “Then I will speak upon the ashes.”
To speak upon the ashes—to make the ashes speak, even sing—is a succinct way of describing the grounds of Morrisonian humanism, one that believes in the will of human beings forged in blackness to prevail and in our capacity to persevere in the face of disasters past and present. That even under duress, we will still focus on the light ahead. Such a humanism knows that the people who endured slavery are the best persons to consult on questions of social and political freedom; that those who have manned the barricades against inequity with everything at stake for the longest are those who ought to author our theories of justice; and that the stories that involve this survival and incorporate its manifold wisdoms are the repositories of a humanist tradition that holds the keys to the future, if we still believe in it.
To read Morrison today is to remember all over again how badly we need the rogue sanity that great artists can possess. Sometimes it consists of very simple things, very old ideas that we already know and should already understand, but that magnify under Morrison’s glass so that we actually stop to see them for what they truly are. As Morrison put it in her penultimate collection of lectures, The Origin of Others, “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience, which may involve both, one, or neither of the first two. Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us….”
Morrison’s was the language of the old black tradition, the one that Howard University, her alma mater, and its fellow institutions uphold, of bearing witness to and carrying forward the history of a people who believe they have a destiny to fulfill—and who will not rest until we are one and all assembled at the mountain top with a view unobstructed.
Our country is not now, and never has been, as noble as her work strove from the very beginning to be. In the light of tradition, Morrison wrote as though the fate of the nation depended upon it. She wrote in this sense, among others, for the future—for the young readers who are only now taking their first trips into public libraries and classrooms, gazing at the shelves looking for answers to as yet unknown questions. This generation will pull down those books and feel with enviable freshness that inordinate beauty and vitality that we hold dear. They may find themselves, as we so often have, echoing Morrison herself, who said in praise of James Baldwin at his funeral, “In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.”