From 'The Bluest Eye' to 'Beloved': Why America, and literature, will be poorer without Toni Morrison
Without Morrison's radicalism – because writing without reference to the “white gaze” that she often decried is just that – 21st century literature might might look very different
Back in 1993, Toni Morrison stepped up to make the first Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech by an African American woman – and one of the few by a woman, full stop. Listen to it now on the Nobel Prize website, and you can almost sense, through the faint quiver in her voice, how important this moment was, if not how influential it would become.
It’s a brilliant summation of the importance of language and narrative, and in the wake of Morrison’s death on Monday aged 88, there’s one particularly poignant line. “We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Morrison certainly did language – and by every measure became one of the most celebrated writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Morrison mattered because she was a singular, visionary and – though the word is overused – unique writer. There’s a fascinating Paris Review interview from 1993 where she admits she wanted to “write novels that were unmistakably mine, but nevertheless fit first into African American traditions and second of all, this whole thing called literature”.
These priorities and distinctions were important. Not just for the sake of Morrison having an inimitable style – sometimes angry, sometimes compassionate, sometimes simplistic – but because they reflected the realities of the society she experienced and the black oral storytelling which underpinned her work. In her 1970 debut The Bluest Eye, the young protagonist is defeated by racism, retreats from wartime society and descends into madness. It becomes poetic, folkloric, grotesque. Nobody else was writing in this way – but as Morrison stated years later “my job [became] how to rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate.”
It’s less a novel of hope than a plea for people to understand what it was like to be treated that way.
Naturally, white literary critics were largely unimpressed – confounded, even – but Morrison had hit upon something so redolent of the African American experience that perhaps their confusion was inevitable. Not that she ever wanted her writing to be merely chronicling or explaining African American society. Her books – and particularly her most famous, 1987’s Beloved – were so important because they featured richly textured, otherwise ignored black characters and communities. And unapologetically so.
“I’m writing for black people,” she told The Guardian four years ago, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio.” And detailing the intricacies of normal black people in novels rather than trying to explain the essence of their lives in broad brush strokes was an influential credo to other writers of colour.
Without Morrison's radicalism – because writing without reference to the “white gaze” that she often decried is just that – 21st century literature might might look very different. Would Paul Beatty’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sellout, with its narrator who wants to reintroduce segregation and keep a slave in Los Angeles, found its metier without Morrison? It’s an unanswerable question, of course, but Beatty has admitted that her early books “meant a ton to me”.
Colson Whitehead, like Morrison a Pulitzer Prize winner, said it all when he picked Beloved as a key book in the long writing process of his brilliant, fantastical exploration of slavery, The Underground Railroad.
“I hadn’t read this in 30 years, and read 30 pages before I had to stop and say: 'Damn, you can’t do better than Morrison!” He came close.
Still, when celebrating Morrison’s work and influence, it all comes back to Beloved. A mythical story exploring the trauma and psychological impact of slavery after the Civil War, Morrison said she wrote the book because there was no memorial honouring the memory of those forced into slavery and brought to the United States. “There’s no small bench by the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist, the book had to,” she said.
Remarkably, there are now 23 benches across the United States too, installed by the Toni Morrison Society in significant locations to remember not only slavery but other forgotten moments in African American history. It’s a small but significant part of Morrison’s legacy.
And of all the many tributes in the last few days, it’s former President Barack Obama’s words which have struck exactly the right chord. Morrison had been to his inauguration, and had backed him not because of his race, but his wisdom. As his presidency drew to a close, she called it extraordinary, “not only because of what he has done, but also because of the resistance”.
In return, Obama posted this on Facebook:
“Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful – a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy. She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. “And so even as Michelle and I mourn her loss and send our warmest sympathies to her family and friends, we know that her stories— that our stories — will always be with us, and with those who come after, and on and on, for all time.”
America, and literature, is poorer without her.
Updated: August 7, 2019 01:27 PM