In Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, the word “nigger” appears exactly once, in a sentence that describes a queer artist feverishly at work. Miss La Trobe is in charge of putting on a pageant representing the procession of English history for an assembly of villagers on a beautiful summer’s day. With a phonograph at her disposal as well as a grab bag of costumes and a troupe of amateur actors, she runs around behind the stage trying to get everything in order, a depressingly familiar image of a woman laboring to restore the dignity and history of her community—and being rewarded, for the most part, with little to no recognition. Indeed, this is why the word is used: “Miss La Trobe had vanished,” Woolf writes. Where did she go? “Down among the bushes she worked like a nigger.”
Woolf’s usage reflects a disturbing if common colloquialism of its time. With the brutal shadow of slavery still darkening the horizon, the equation of blackness with unremunerated labor was as much an ordinary piece of mental furniture in the cultivated coterie of Bloomsbury as it was in the rest of the Western world. But Woolf’s description indicates something else as well: Miss La Trobe may not be a black woman, but by using the word, Woolf nonetheless forces her readers to confront the figure of the racialized outcast, a figure still prevalent in a society benefiting from the resources and exploited labor of millions of colonized people around the world.
Woolf always used the novel as a means for acute social criticism—to dilate those moments of moral complicity and complacency found in the daily lives of middle-class Westerners. Her celebrated style brought ordinary syntax into ever-closer contact with the layers of consciousness that operate just below our cultivated personalities, turbulent areas of inner life where the stability of human character and morality breaks down and creates, as Zadie Smith put it recently, “grave doubts about the nature of the self.” Woolf’s faith in this moral power of fiction allowed her to wager that the lived quality of a black person’s experience, however dimly apprehended, was not ultimately divorceable from the deepest self-understandings of white people.
Woolf, in other words, dared to insist that there are “other” people in our midst; all around us (and within us) are hidden facets of humanity. Virtually everything in our society encourages us to deny, repress, disavow, distort, or irreparably damage that truth, which is, of course, one of the main goals of racism. Part of this invisibility is the result of a social system beyond any individual’s making. But Woolf’s point is that the perpetuation of this invisibility is our collective responsibility. To make us safe from the abjection of living in a society built on the foundations of violence and stratification, we assure ourselves that such a status belongs only to a well-defined stranger. The power of great fiction to challenge that common sense lies only partially in reflecting our lives to us like a mirror; a great deal more resides in its capacity to dispossess us of our preferred assumptions, plunging us into knowledge like photographic paper into its chemical bath, revealing, even against our will, all the gray areas we find inconvenient, unpleasant, even impossible to acknowledge
Today we almost take for granted the idea that a powerful eruption of racial blackness in a novel should be obviously worthy of comment. But of course, that hasn’t always been the case. Our reading practices and habits are shaped by, among other things, our education, and the systematic examination of race in literary texts was still a relatively new concept well into the 1990s. At one time I, too, might have casually glossed over the page on which it appears. But by the time I started reading Woolf, Toni Morrison had made her powerful argument in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination for us to pause and consider precisely how racial eruptions like this occur throughout modern literature.
Since its publication in 1992, Playing in the Dark has become a seminal reference work for literary studies in the academy and a regular presence on syllabi. The book has helped transform the way many general readers consume the West’s so-called canon, offering searing dissections of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and teaching a generation of literary scholars how to read for the “Africanist presence” in texts that otherwise pretend not to be concerned with race.
With Playing in the Dark, Morrison changed the rules of the game, effectively recasting what we see when we look back to figures like Woolf and to writers of the present and future like Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, and Angela Flournoy. “All of us are bereft,” Morrison writes, “when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes.” Although we focus, for good reason, on Morrison’s novels, which will endure far into the future as great works of art, her essays opened up new worlds as well: As is seen from the range and depth of moral insight collected in her last book, The Source of Self-Regard, her essays bequeathed to us a mandate to see and speak clearly, in particular about the ways in which otherness persists in almost every facet of life—a responsibility we need to acknowledge more than ever in the present.
Taking the full measure of Morrison’s recent passing—comprehending all that she has done to change what we read, how we read, and who we read—will be the work of subsequent generations. Arguably, no single writer has done more to shape the direction of American fiction in the past 50 years, and no writer has set the bar for achievement in the form of the novel higher than where she left it in 1987 with her masterpiece Beloved. As with Pilate, the fierce outsider and moral conscience who guides the plot of Song of Solomon, it never occurred to Morrison to ask for the proverbial seat at the table. Instead, she pulled the entire table over to her side of the room.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison began her revolution in American literature from within the gates of the lettered city. A graduate of Howard University, class of 1953, she went on to Cornell, where she studied modernism and wrote a thesis on Faulkner (already a major figure in American letters) and Woolf. It was a pioneering choice for a thesis in the 1950s, when Woolf had not yet been canonized and many of her books were out of print.
With her degree in hand, Morrison embarked on a teaching career, first at Texas Southern University in Houston and then at Howard, where she remained for seven years and met her husband, Harold Morrison. That marriage ended in 1964, and she was forced to leave academe to support her two children with a job editing textbooks for Random House. Her confidence and formidable talents as an editor got her noticed, and after an opening appeared in the company’s trade division in New York City in 1967, she became the first black woman to occupy a senior editorial position in the publishing industry.
Toni Morrison’s time at Random House was productive. She used her position to irrigate the literary and cultural landscape with new voices from the Black Arts Movement and with the icons and political champions of black power and black feminism, publishing Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, the still underrecognized Henry Dumas, and the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
Morrison’s most daring and experimental project at Random House was The Black Book, which gathered stories of 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.
In these years, Morrison began to write, publishing The Bluest Eye in 1970, Sula in 1973, and Song of Solomon in 1977—works of uncompromising vision, assured in their purpose and crackling with passionate urgency. Each was groundbreaking in its own way, combining the power of black oral tradition with the authority of folklore, communal memory, and a feminist consciousness.
Morrison did all of this fearlessly, no matter the costs that came with forcing American culture to come to her and her people. She composed her novels, edited her books, and published her literary criticism knowing that she could write circles around her critics—and often did. No one has gone to bat for William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner since. The genuflecting esteem and towering fame accorded to writers like John Updike and Norman Mailer have never recovered. Others played a role in this too, but Morrison’s critiques were hard to look past, and the due respect accorded to female novelists white, black, and of every other shade owes something to her epochal impact on the “literary field,” as Pierre Bourdieu would put it. That Morrison will always be read first and foremost as a novelist is, of course, as it should be. But the tremendous impact of her fiction and her very public career as a novelist have tended to eclipse her contributions as a moral and political essayist, which the pieces gathered in The Source of Self-Regard help correct. Taken together with What Moves at the Margin, her first volume of nonfiction, as well as Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others, her 2017 collection of lectures, this final book brings Morrison the moral and social critic into view.
In her essays, lectures, and reviews, we discover a writer working in a register that many readers may not readily associate with her. Rather than the deft orchestrator of ritual and fable, chronicler of the material and spiritual experience of black girlhood, and master artificer of the vernacular constitution of black communal life, here we encounter Morrison as a dispassionate social theorist and moral anthropologist, someone who offers acute and even scathing readings of America’s contemporary malaise and civic and moral decline in an age defined by the mindless boosterism of laissez-faire capitalism.
In essays like “The Foreigner’s Home,” one almost hears echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulated life under late capitalism and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as she examines the disorienting loss of distinction between private and public space and its effect on our interior lives. The politicization of the “migrant” and the “illegal alien,” Morrison argues, is not merely a circling of the wagons in the face of “the transglobal tread of peoples.” It is also an act of bad faith, a warped projection of our fears of homelessness and “our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging” reflecting the anxieties produced by the privatization of public goods and commons and the erosion of face-to-face association. Our lives, Morrison tells us, have now become refracted through a “looking-glass” that has compressed our public and private lives “into a ubiquitous blur” and created a pressure that “can make us deny the foreigner in ourselves.”
In other essays, one finds Morrison venturing bravely into the tense intersections of race, gender, class, and radical politics. The essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” written in 1989, offers a retrospective attempt to make sense of the fractures within the 1960s and ’70s left, to understand why a set of interlocking liberation struggles ended up splitting along racial, gender, and class lines. One can’t help feeling a wincing recognition when Morrison writes of “the internecine conflicts, cul-de-sacs, and mini-causes that have shredded the [women’s] movement.” On top of racial divides, she asserts, class fissures broke apart a movement just as it was coming together, exacerbating “the differences between black and white women, poor and rich women, old and young women, single welfare mothers and single employed mothers.” Class and race, Morrison laments, ended up pitting “women against one another in male-invented differences of opinion—differences that determine who shall work, who shall be well educated, who controls the womb and/or the vagina; who goes to jail, who lives where.” Achieving solidarity may be daunting, but the alternative is “a slow and subtle form of sororicide. There is no one to save us from that,” Morrison cautions—“no one except ourselves.”
Even as her essays ranged widely, from dissections of feminist politics to the rise of African literature, from extolling the achievements of black women (“you are what fashion tries to be—original and endlessly refreshing”) to the parallels between modern and medieval conceptions of violence and conflict in Beowulf, they came together around a set of core concerns about the degradation and coarsening of our politics as we cast one another as others and how this process often manifests itself through language.
This is particularly true of the essays included in The Source of Self-Regard, which give their readers little doubt about the power of her insights when she trains her eye on the dismal state of contemporary politics and asks how the rhetoric and experiences of otherness came to be transformed by the rise of new media and global free-market fundamentalism into a potent source of reactionary friction. Despite the fact that some of these essays are now several decades old, Morrison’s insights are still relevant. For example, her gimlet-eyed description of the cant of our political class in the essay “Wartalk,” that “empurpled comic-book language in which they express themselves.” Or her warning against “being bullied” by those in power “into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.” Or her chiding of the “commercial media” in the run-up to the Iraq War for echoing the uninterrogated lines of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Journalists, she insisted, must take up the cause of fighting “against cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasizing lies.” They are not supposed to contribute to it.
The sheer quantity of her speeches and essays testifies to Morrison’s power as a moral and social critic. But this does not mean she left literature entirely behind in her essays. In fact, the greater part of The Source of Self-Regard is dedicated to her applying her moral and political insights in the arena of art as well. Fiction writers are not always the best readers of their own work or others’. (It’s only natural that they have their blind spots.) Yet Morrison proves to be a literary critic of the highest order, besotted with the intricacies and pleasures of textual interpretation and with their political and moral import and enviably providing such close readings of her own work that we are sometimes left wondering whether there is anything else for us to really say.
In her 1988 lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” she provides a carefully argued account of black literature in relation to the Western canon (while, in passing, wonderfully provincializing Milan Kundera’s Europhilia in The Art of the Novel) before peeling back the layers of her creative process and guiding us through her decisions, omissions, and qualified judgments as a novelist, from the opening sentences of her novels to their concluding lines. “There is something about numerals,” she explains in a passage on the famous opening of Beloved (“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom”),
that makes them spoken, heard, in this context, because one expects words to read in a book, not numbers to say, or hear. And the sound of the novel, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes harmonious, must be an inner-ear sound or a sound just beyond hearing, infusing the text with a musical emphasis that words can do sometimes even better than music can. Thus the second sentence is not one: it is a phrase that properly, grammatically, belongs as a dependent clause with the first…. The reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign…snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense.
Reading her pieces on literature, one immediately recognizes that, for Morrison, literary criticism was also an art, the essay another vehicle for conveying her moral and political insights. Her skills as a writer of nonfiction are one and the same as her powers as a writer of fiction. For her, both the essay and the novel can undo the work of individuation foisted upon us by modern society; they can bring “others” into contact and remind us of our common humanity.
Sometimes this larger project of humanization can show itself in the choice of a single word, like the solemn weight and subtle inflections of the adjective “educated” as it describes Paul D’s hands in Beloved as he and Sethe fumble toward the beginnings of a new life eked out within the living memory of enslavement. Other times it expresses itself in a lyrical outburst that captures a fleeting moment of self-fashioned freedom, a world of possibility momentarily gleaned from an otherwise desperate circumstance, as in this passage from Jazz:
Oh, the room—the music—the people leaning in doorways. This is the place where things pop. This is the market where gesture is all: a tongue’s lightning lick; a thumbnail grazing the split cheeks of a purple plum.
Finding those places where things pop is the central task of her humanism, which she calls, in the titular essay of the new collection, the act of “self-regard.” Self-regard, Morrison insists, is the process in which we recover our selves—in which we once again become human. It means experiencing black culture “from a viewpoint that precedes its appropriation”; it means seeing humanity after the veil of otherness has fallen. By stirring people into prideful expression, self-regard can help us see through the literalism and literal-mindedness that centuries of racist thought and practice that has prevented us from being better readers of our lives and, in turn, others’.
Humanism is not much in vogue these days. The urgency of our moment has impressed upon us other, more specific political programs. Yet the quiddity of Morrison’s writing ultimately is just that. Her humanism is not restricted, as it is still often taken to be, to a tradition solely refracted through a small circle of men whose taste for classical learning, preference for moderation and reform, and disposition to kindliness and optimism helped them weather late medieval Europe’s brutal religious and tribal warfare. For Morrison, humanism is a tradition of self-regard, confident and open to all that is worth knowing, but one that draws its special strength from the historical experience, community, and values possessed and refashioned by those Africans driven into the holds and shipped across the Atlantic while Erasmus and Thomas More exchanged their letters on the duties of conscience and friendship.
Morrison’s humanism, therefore, is something made of far loamier and more challenging conditions of dispossession and natal alienation that only make the project of humanization all the more pressing. “It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita,” as the mother in her novel A Mercy, known to the reader only in her Portuguese form of address, “a minha mãe,” puts it, and it is in these conditions that humanity is also recovered, where “language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song” take on new meaning.
Morrison has always written out of this black humanist tradition. The battle over the meaning of black humanity has consistently been central to both her fiction and her essays—and not just for the sake of black people but also to further what we hope all of humanity can become. This is a humanism informed by Anna Julia Cooper, who insisted on the education of black women and the affirmation of their “undisputed dignity” as vital to any meaningful realization of social justice. It is the determination of Mary McLeod Bethune, who told a doctor who advised her in 1941 to slow down her relentless administrative and philanthropic activism, “I am my mother’s daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.” And of 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 shall speak upon the ashes.”
Although her writings remain far less well-known, one of the contemporary thinkers who most resemble Morrison in this respect is the philosopher Sylvia Wynter, who has, as it happens, called for a “re-enchantment of humanism” that would complete the work of Erasmus and his circle by breaking out of the paradigm that understood his intellectual and ethical virtues to be the special property of bourgeois European men over all the other inhabitants of the globe. While humanist, it seeks to effect a revolution in ethics and perspective that is sensitive to the natural world around us. Such a humanism knows that those who endured slavery are some of the best people to consult on questions of social and political freedom.
This humanistic bent is especially evident in one of Morrison’s most important essays included in the collection, “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations.” Its ostensible subject is the apocalyptic way we regard the future of human life—a future that is unquestionably at risk of being foreshortened—but its real targets lie elsewhere. What Morrison takes issue with is the pronoun at the center of the appeal for action:
Political discourse enunciates the future it references as something we can leave to or assure “our” children or—in a giant leap of faith—“our” grandchildren. It is the pronoun, I suggest, that ought to trouble us. We are not being asked to rally for the children, but for ours. “Our children” stretches our concern for two or five generations. “The children” gestures toward time to come of greater, broader, brighter possibilities—precisely what politics veils from view.
Morrison wants us to think in more general terms: for humanity itself. Our inability to do so—to envision, plan, or imagine a deep future for the human race—is evidence, she worries, of a larger bankruptcy in our present culture, which cannot summon a sense of what we would do even if we could safely guarantee that kind of longevity. To have such an attitude toward the future we would need a common mission, some cultural pattern of vitality with which to fill the empty stretches of time to come—in short, we would need a humanism. “It will require,” she concludes, “thinking about the quality of human life, not just its length. The quality of intelligent life, not just its strategizing abilities. The obligations of moral life, not just its ad hoc capacity for pity.”
There is a speech not included in The Source of Self-Regard that should have been: Morrison’s 1995 convocation address to the students of Howard University on the 128th anniversary of its founding. In it, she apologizes for not dwelling on “the sweetness and the beauty and the conviviality” of the old days and instead traces Howard’s long history of perseverance in the face of a nation openly hostile or skeptical (often both) to the notion of educating black people in the liberal arts.
Turning to the present, Morrison warns her listeners that this struggle is far from over. There is, she insists, a creeping fascism in the midst of American culture that relies on the construction of “an interior enemy” for “both focus and diversion.” Do not, she commends her audience, trust any one political party to combat this drift toward creating others out of neighbors. It will make no difference who is in power if, in the end, we are interested only in building a bunkered future, a siloed desert without social intercourse and mutual conversation, a world with quantified convenience but no qualitative conviction that can help us transcend the otherness imposed on all of us.
Making a homeland worth keeping, for Morrison, is centrally about this: It requires a deep mutuality—a solidarity that can’t be achieved by cutting any group or individual out but that looks past difference to find a shared sameness. As Morrison told another gathering of students, this time in 2013, “We owe others our language, our history, our art, our survival, our neighborhood, our relationships with family and colleagues, our ability to defy social conventions as well as support these conventions. All of this we learned from others. None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others—some of us depend on others for life itself.”
To read Morrison today is to remember all over again how badly we need the rogue sanity found in her essays and speeches as well as her novels. Sometimes this rogue sanity consists of bright new ideas, but many other times it is just very simple things, very old ideas that we already know and should already understand but that magnify under Morrison’s glass. As Morrison puts 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.”
Our country is not now and never has been as noble as Morrison’s work insisted we could be. In this sense, she wrote for the future—for the young readers who are only now taking their first steps into the classroom and the public library, gazing at the shelves searching for answers to as yet unknown questions. This generation will pull down those books and feel with enviable freshness that inordinate beauty and vitality we hold dear. They may find themselves, as we so often have, echoing Morrison, 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.”
Editor’s note: This piece’s original subtitle, “The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,” has been changed to prevent the possibility of any confusion with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s 2015 New York Times Magazine profile, which appeared under that headline.