Toni Morrison Can Still Teach Us

Toni Morrison died last night—August 5, 2019—and her family shared news of her passing today, August 6. In the wake of more mass killings in America, we need her presence now. Even in her absence, her written wisdom can speak to us.

Morrison and her writing have been much on my mind recently. In a blog post earlier this summer, after watching the searing When They See Us on Netflix, I referenced how Morrison’s The Origin of Others (2017) had helped me think through themes of that riveting multi-part film.

origin of others

And just this past Saturday, as news of the horrific massacre in El Paso emerged, I thought of her Origin text again. She seemed to have been speculating there about just the kind of intense hatred drawing that shooter—and others espousing white supremacy—to a need for what she termed “Othering,” defining oneself by seeking to marginalize individuals and groups who are different.

Asked Morrison: “What is the nature of Othering’s comfort, its allure, its power (social, psychological, or economical?” she asked. “Is it the thrill of belonging—which implies being part of something bigger than one’s solo self, and therefore stronger? My initial view leans toward the social/psychological need for a ‘stranger,’ an Other in order to define the estranged self (the crowd seeker is always the long one)” (15-16). Earlier in the same slim-yet-brilliant volume, offering a preface to Morrison’s text that was clearly inspired by his attentive reading of her work, Ta-Nehisi Coates observed: “Racist dehumanization is not merely symbolic—it delineates the borders of power” (xv).”

We saw an attempt to claim that power in the El Paso shooter’s choice of victims, and the previous weekend in Gilroy, CA. We have been seeing it in the consignment of not-white immigrants from Central America to cages.

Othering in rhetoric and associated thinking enables such Othering in action.

So how do we resist this dehumanization, which we might argue (along with Albert Memmi) de-humanizes perpetrators of racist violence, far more than the victims? Surely this loss of humanity, arrived at by violent Othering, is something Morrison depicted repeatedly in Beloved, when the enslavers like those assaulting Sethe are cast as violent, animalistic beasts, whereas victimized characters like Baby Suggs, Paul D, and Denver claim a measure of peace and an exalted brand of humanity in the end.

 

For Morrison, fully escaping the impact of racism may not be possible. Much of her literature, like her incisive literary criticism, depicts its relentless perseverance. (Besides Origin, see Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination [1992], where she unveiled how representations of blackness have been necessary to white authors, oppressive to Black self-image.)

bluest eye

In her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), Morrison herself explained (when revisiting that earlier narrative for The Origin of Others), racism produces an implacable “racial self-loathing” (14) in young Pecola Breedlove, who prays to become a white, blue-eyed Shirley Temple. CNN reported in its eulogistic story today on Morrison that Pecola’s story has frequently been banned from classrooms and “challenged and called offensive over the years by parents,” purportedly for “the subject matter, which involves incest and violence,” viewed as “too raw for young readers.” Sadly, withholding the book from young readers, especially white ones, denies them an important learning opportunity. It shuts off a chance for them to examine how Pecola’s rejection by her mother, or even her rape by her father, is traceable back to poverty and oppression promoting these parents’ self-hatred and even hatred of their own child. Intriguingly, critics analyzing American culture from beyond our borders have certainly emphasized this view of US racism in action in the novel, including, via their critiques, highlighting the corrosive power of white racist language in ways that would also apply to verbal assaults threaded through some Twitter accounts these days.

In that vein, in a 2017 essay for the Journal of Research in Social Sciences, Muhammad Ismail Abbasi and Shaheena Bhatti propose employing Critical Race Theory to interpret The Bluest Eye, to see how “the usage of violent words by persons in power” affects those being rhetorically assaulted, so that those “stigmatized” via verbal aggression can be traumatized, eventually, into a complete loss of self-esteem (135 ff.) (For a similar reading of the novel in these terms, see Tamara Jovović).

Morrison also examined this possibility of racism’s corruptive power in the sometimes-underappreciated novel Home (2012). The novel’s Black main character, Frank “Smart” Money, spends much of the narrative avoiding a traumatic memory of his time soldiering in Korea, when, full of fear, he murdered a young Korean girl. Moving back and forth in time, Morrison links Frank’s own racist actions with past traumas of racist oppression back in his youth in Lotus, Georgia, including when he and his sister Cee helplessly witnessed the murder of an innocent Black man. In countering the familiar narrative from white America that typically casts the 1950s as a utopian “great” time, Home depicts the intergenerational impact of racism on Blacks before, during, and after that pre-Civil-Rights era.

Where is hope, then, in Morrison’s writing? Will racism’s force never be defeated? In Home, at least, we see a possibility of positive reclamation and renewal. Though battling his own PTSD, Frank rescues his sister from the site of a racist medical experiment. And, in the novel’s closing scene, they return to rural Lotus, Georgia, together, determined that their past suffering there should not prevent their claiming it as home.

Here, perhaps, as in so much of Morrison’s writing, we can find some hope for all of us, assuming we are willing to learn from the challenging truths she tells, the painful stories from which we should not look away.

August 6, 2019; Sarah Ruffing Robbins

Resources referenced:

Abbasi, Murhmmad Ismail and Shaheena Ayub Bhatti. “White Linguistic Violence and Black Americans: A Textual Analysis of The Bluest Eye.” Journal of Research in Social Sciences 5.1 (January 2017): 135-44.

Jovovic, Tamara. “Rethinking Race: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and God Help the Child.” British and American Studies: A Journal of the Romanian Society of English and American Studies 25 (January 2019): 199-204.

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