Toni Morrison didn’t write for me, but her work changed my life. She wrote books, as she explained on more than one occasion, for black folks in America and especially for black women. And yet anyone with the inclination to take up and read can learn from her labor.
She brought sophisticated, beautiful, flawed—that is to say, human—black characters into the star-spangled constellation of American literature, building on a rich tradition of black writing and breaking new ground as well. Her novels, criticism, and interviews raise theological and spiritual questions about human nature, divine revelation, the individual and communal effects of sin, and the tendency to remake God in our own image.
Her passing on August 5 has torn a hole in the literary firmament.
Broadening Horizons of American Literature
Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her books command both critical attention and popular devotion, and many of the writers she shepherded have become as ubiquitous on Amazon wish lists as they are on syllabuses.
Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She attended Howard University as an undergraduate and went on to Cornell University for graduate study. Since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), she has been known as an author, but she was also a professor and an editor at Random House. Morrison broadened the horizon of American literature through her editorial work by discovering and publishing writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones and cultivating the literary voices of well-known African Americans, including Muhammed Ali, whose autobiography she edited.
Her writing offers a solution to what W. E. B. DuBois saw as the central struggle of African Americans. In his book The Souls of Black Folk (1903), DuBois argued that the history of African Americans is a history of strife brought about by something he called “double-consciousness.” Double-consciousness, according to DuBois, is the sensation of always being measured against the standard of another. In the case of African Americans, “one ever feels his twoness,” he explained—“an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” DuBois longed for the day when he could inhabit both worlds without strife and conflict.
Morrison was profoundly conscious of this dilemma and its history, as she explained in her classic essay Playing in the Dark (1992):
Deep within the word “American” is its association with race. To identify someone as South African is to say very little; we need the adjective “white” or “black” or “colored” to make our meaning clear. In this country it is quite the reverse. American means white, and Africanist people struggle to make the term applicable to themselves with ethnicity and hyphen after hyphen after hyphen.
Dropping the Hyphen
What made Morrison’s fiction so revolutionary was that she didn’t write about black folks for a white audience. Instead, she insisted on writing about black folks for black folks. She refused to measure herself and others by the standards of white America. She obliterated the hyphen between “African” and “American” and wrote with a power that presumed no need of validation. Her characters are beautiful and smart and fierce, not for how readily they win the confidence of the majority culture, but for how potently they realize their freedom to live and act as humans.
Morrison’s characters are beautiful and smart and fierce, not for how readily they win the confidence of the majority culture, but for how potently they realize their freedom to live and act as humans.
Characters that seek the acceptance of white America are often doomed in Morrison’s fictional worlds. Pecola Breedlove, protagonist of The Bluest Eye, is liturgized by her culture to equate the physical traits of white people with beauty. She worships at the altar of pale skin and azure eyes. Turning to God in pain and self-loathing, she asks him to turn her brown eyes blue. Morrison reveals that for black women this longing for whiteness is a fatal barrier to seeing their own beauty, value, and complexity. Consequently, the book raises broader questions about how African Americans are represented and valued in the public sphere.
The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Tar Baby (1981). These novels resist simplistic narratives about black identity by casting main characters in opposition to one another. Sula and her childhood friend Nel are inseparable until they graduate high school. Nel longs to settle down with her boyfriend, while Sula wants more than what their tiny community can offer. Sula disappears for 10 years, and her return scandalizes their once-quiet neighborhood. Milkman and Guitar represent ideological struggles within the black community of Song of Solomon. In Tar Baby, Jadine and Son are in love: She a beautiful and well-educated woman of the world; he a tough-minded, life-hardened man of the street. Morrison’s characters are so multifaceted they can’t be typecast in the one-dimensional roles historically reserved for black people by Hollywood, the publishing industry, and the news media.
Most Influential Novel
Beloved (1987) remains Morrison’s most influential novel. It tells the story of a young, pregnant slave woman named Sethe who escapes from a Kentucky plantation with her infant daughter, only to be tracked down by a slave catcher. In furious fear for the girl’s future, Sethe kills her own child before they can be recaptured. In what world is such a decision imaginable? The world of antebellum America, where black people are property.
This is America’s original trauma, a wound so deep it took a war to close it up. How long does it take to heal such trauma? Decades? Centuries? What if the wound never heals? What if it is reopened? If we want to understand the post-traumatic flashbacks of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, voter intimidation, mass incarceration, racial profiling, gerrymandering, segregated worship, and the current cultural battles over social justice, we would do well to start with the novels of Toni Morrison, and perhaps specifically with Beloved.
Beloved became the cornerstone of a trilogy with Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). Morrison then published four more novels: Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2014). These books explore the lives of Africans in America from the time before the United States existed (A Mercy) to the aftermath of the Korean War (Home).
Literature as Neighbor Love
Morrison was as unflinching in front of a microphone or camera as she was in the pages of these wonderful, terrible books. Her work situates America in a history some may not even know—or which some choose to not recall—not to bind us by the past but to ensure a future freedom possible only for those who remember.
Toni Morrison wrote books that enliven American history and unearth what should not be buried. She wrote with zeal and purpose to tell black people stories about themselves, and in doing so she created art that can show everyone the depths of the human soul in its darkest depravity as well as in its most compassionate empathy.
When Jesus is asked who qualifies as a neighbor in Luke 10, he tells a story about Jews and Samaritans that requires his Jewish audience to face their complicated history. Christ’s radical command to love one’s neighbor makes it clear our neighbors are those whom history shows are not like us; we may even have seen each other as enemies. But to love our neighbors as ourselves we must first love God and know ourselves. Morrison’s novels hold a mirror up to their black readers, encouraging them to know and love themselves. For other audiences, they tell a neighbor’s story.