I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless.
One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love.
Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension.
Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead.
The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us.
Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace.
Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power:
Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.
Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.”…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book.
The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…”
Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it.
Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence.
The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much.
However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.)
It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us.
The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror.
There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison:
I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.
I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness.
Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails.
Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf,” could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it:
I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them.
At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015:
What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze…In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe.
And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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