The loss of Toni Morrison is a horrible blow to the world of American letters. Leaving us at the age of 88, Morrison composed a body of work that holds its own with that of every other legend in American literature and thought in the 20th and early 21st centuries. While much of the focus in the immediate aftermath of her passing will be on her remarkable novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, A Mercy—we would do well to remember her nonfiction and, in particular, how she used the essay to shape the way that American culture came to understand the African American experience.
Morrison’s 1992 collection of lectures, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, continues to be a trenchant analysis of how the changing idea of black identity in American society has been a central part of American literature and culture since the white colonialists landed in North America. In it, she insisted the idea that “traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States” is patently false: “Even, and especially, when American texts are not about Africanist presences…the shadow hovers in implication, in sight, in line of demarcation.”
She felt it was incumbent on a new generation of African American writers to bring this experience to the fore, and this ambition drove much of her writing: Both her fiction and nonfiction aspired to place the African American experience at the center of American storytelling. In Beloved, she used the supernatural and the macabre to bring to light the horrors of slavery while offering an examination of the magnificent number of changes taking place in turn-of-the-century Ohio. In The Bluest Eye, she tackled the ever-present stain of internalized racism in the African American community. And in her essays and public speeches, she made clear, over and over again, that literature that was unapologetically for and about African Americans was also a central part of the American canon. In her 1987 eulogy for James Baldwin, she extolled him for having “un-gated” the language to allow black writers to “enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion.”
Morrison’s constant struggle to place African American experience squarely at the center of modern American life helped inspire a generation of black intellectuals and writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis. As an editor at Random House in the 1970s, Morrison championed their work and helped introduce the Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to an American audience. By the late 1980s and early ’90s, her efforts had made her a key figure in the culture wars of that era. A veteran of a much older version of this conflict in the publishing industry, Morrison was ready to take on such a role, and she used her growing prominence as a novelist to refocus Americans’ attention toward the experience of African American women—depicting their struggles and triumphs as unique and robust examples of human experience.
Her Nobel Prize speech in 1993 was a case in point. She warned of the systematic ways in which the powerful can “loot” language for their own purposes, evacuating it of its humanity and speaking only “to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.” But she also insisted that writers can use language in another way: to help those without power find their own voices. This language might never be able to “‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war”—it, too, had its limits. Yet for Morrison, this did not mean that writers should retreat from the awesome task of describing life. By recognizing the limits of the word, one could also recognize its strengths. Literature could not eradicate humanity’s evils, but it could force us to wrestle with them.
Morrison’s conversation with Cornel West in 2004, at the height of the Iraq War, offers another example of her keen sense of the limits as well as the liberating powers of storytelling. She spoke of the need to do more than merely champion an uncritical form of hope in such a bleak moment—she even chided him, “Cornel, I see you sitting here nodding and frowning, but…you always seem to be something I used to be but no longer am, optimistic”—yet both eventually come around to the same point: that stories can help us navigate the worst of times.
Her presence on the American literary scene radically changed it for the better. So, too, did her presence as an intellectual and a political and cultural critic. Asked in the late ’90s whether she could write a novel that did not center on race, Morrison changed up her interlocutor’s question to argue that everyone writes about race in some form or fashion, and so the question is not whether the experience of race is being written about but how it’s being done. This insight was at the core of her final collection of lectures, published in 2017 as The Origin of Others. In it, she again argued for the centrality of race and racism as themes in American letters. Today we still face the problem of othering people, and her powerful message remains as urgent in our moment. Ultimately, what she believed literature needs to do is to help us uphold what she called “the human project”: “to remain human—and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.”