Every death diminishes us but some more than most.
Toni Morrison aka Chloe Ardelia Wofford departed this mortal coil into the realm of the ancestors on August 5, 2019.
Nobel laureate and critically acclaimed author of over 10 novels, Ms. Morrison was a national treasure, an icon of the African American community and peerless chronicler of the African American experience.
Working as an editor at Random House after a short academic career, she came to the realization that most of what she read could be written differently and taking her own counsel – “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” – Toni Morrison quit her job as editor and began a career as novelist.
At Random House she had edited works by Alice Walker, Gayle Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and many more. Reading them she realized that there was scant representation of ordinary black people navigating quotidian issues like her folks back in Lorain, Ohio. So she decided to write about them, these black people in all their simplicity and complexity against a broader canvas of their lives as former, freed or descendants of slaves.
Her writing was honoured with a Pulitzer as well as the Nobel Prize in 1993 making her the first African American woman to win it. The prize motivation read that she was being honoured for writing novels which “…characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
That essential aspect of American life was her focus on capturing and immortalizing through literature life in rural America while highlighting and celebrating the centrality of women, especially black women, in the community.
Her career move from editing to writing was made almost at middle age but it was one that had to be made because without that move the libraries of the world would not have been enriched by books like The Bluest Eye or Sula or Beloved or Jazz or Song of Solomon amongst others.
Toni Morrison’s books are cultural artefacts. She wrote black with neither equivocation nor apologies. Her raison d’etre for writing was to chronicle and privilege the black experience. Slavery and its repercussions was a constant theme but so was the black body; it’s representation and traducers. She was also firmly focused on womanhood and matriarchy. Her novels were celebrations of women in all their flawed glory. Her aesthetic and pragmatic agenda was unashamedly and unequivocally feminist. On the colourful canvases of her novels we always found female characters dominating as if Morison had internalized Helen Cixous views expressed in her essay “The Laugh of the Medussa” where she affirmed that “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven as violently as from their bodies.”
Her work was different, black, beautifully poetic and female. In her novels one did not find the romanticism and religiosity of early black writers like John Hammond or Phyllis Wheatley; the militancy and fiery stridency of writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin or the kumbaya-ness and focus on the interior and the self of later writers.
Toni Morrison spoke hard truths, dissected difficult subjects and gave us books that reclaimed not just blackness but what it means to be black and often female in America.
She was a woman who wrote about women, strong black women. Accused of writing men who are always one dimensional and dysfunctional, she was unapologetic about privileging the black narrative through the points of view of women – Pecola in the Bluest Eye, Sula and Eva and Nel in Sula, Beloved and Sethe and Halle in Beloved.
Her women were always strong, often times man-crazy, conflicted and complex, hard loving and sacrificial, homicidal and murderous.
In Beloved, one of her characters explaining the depth of motherlove says “Love is or love ain’t, thin love ain’t love at all.”
Love was always a key theme in Morrison’s works whether of a man for a woman and vice versa or woman for woman as many analysts have alluded to in the relation between Sula and Nel or mother to children, one that is often sacrificial.
In Sula, Eva tired of seeing her children scrape by, took off then came back; one leg gone but with money to live a good life and give her children a better one. But it does not stop her from reaching for matches and gasoline when occasion demanded it.
Considering slavery a fate worse than death, Sethe grabs her children and in a rare display of murderous love, decides to send them to a place where the chains of slavery cannot hold them down.
But Toni Morrison’s men are a different kettle of fish entirely, a rotten kettle of fish from Boy Boy to Paul D. Her men evince an inability to form strong bonds nor lasting relationships. While the men are often presented as lacking anchor and so emotionally unmoored, there is actually more at play, an acknowledgement of generational trauma and psychic dislocation fostered by the experience of slavery.
While the men are effete and emotional wrecks, her women are never docile nor subservient. They are also almost always head of their homes. A consideration of her novels from The Bluest Eye through Sula and down to Beloved as well as Paradise, will show that Morrison often presented what one would describe as a utopian vision of the matriarchal household, one in which the women subsist on their own, needing men not to survive but as partners in satisfying a need.
In most of her novels, there is what often seems like a tripod, a three generational structure – Grandmother, mother, daughter – Eva, Hannah, Sula in Sula; Pilate, Hagar and Reba in Songs of Solomon; “Baby Suggs”, Sethe and Denver in Beloved, the old Nun, Consolata and her servant in Paradise.
Toni Morrison’s writing was often poetic and evocative. Her genius lay in saying a lot with the least words. She was adept at evoking mood, concretizing emotion and conjuring up communities. She was a mythmaker, an untiring chronicler of the black experience and a woman whose writing from the point of view of blackness and womanhood redefined and enriched the literature of the world.
She has left a gaping hole in the house of letters.