Toni Morrison is our greatest living writer
And this is the thing about both Morrison and her work, they ground us and call us to freedom.
by Daniel Johnson
Toni Morrison, arguably the most influential living Black writer and some would say the most influential writer regardless of race, has crafted a body of work that is simultaneously grounded in a Black feminist/womanist politic, unquestionably Black, and commercially successful. In America, those things usually do not come all in the same package, but we are blessed to have them in Toni Morrison.
In her now landmark Massey lectures at Harvard University in 1990, Morrison deftly examined the ways in which white American writers relied on what she termed “American Africanness,” or their own twisted ideas of Blackness, when they constructed whiteness as American. She included the writers of the Constitution in this framework, calling attention to the ways in which they defined whiteness as freedom while setting out Blackness as slavery.
In the years that followed, she published a book based on those lectures, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which spawned a greater awareness of the emerging field of critical race or critical whiteness studies. The Los Angeles Review of Books took a look back at the work when it turned 25 in 2017. In their review, they write: “Twenty-five years later, revisiting Playing in the Dark sheds light on how the basic tenets of whiteness studies have been turned against the field. One of Morrison’s most enduring arguments is that we are all in some sense ‘raced,’ that, ‘living in the wholly racialized society that is the United States,’ no one writes, thinks, or lives apart from racial knowledge.”
In a sense, it is this basic understanding that undergirds the majority of Morrison’s work, as she has famously said in the past that her work always centers a Black narrative, often a Black female narrative. As examined by Sunada Pal in From Periphery to Centre: Toni Morrison’s Self Affirming Fiction “[Morrison] belongs to a group of writers in America for whom writing is a liberating tool, a subversive strategy and an artistic mode for self expression. Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor and Paule Marshall are exploring how the intersection of race, class and gender in the American society influences the shaping of Black female life. In the manner of Edward Said who exposed orientalism ‘as a western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient,’ these writers are exposing the distortion of Black reality by the dominant group for its vested interest.”
Because of Morrison’s ability to use literature to both critique and imagine social movements, her work has taken on a larger significance within the context of Black liberation. In Channette Romero’s Creating the Beloved Community: Religion, Race, and Nation in Toni Morrison’s Paradise, she writes, “[Paradise] presents the possibility that Ruby can be profoundly changed now that its members have learned to identify with the excluded ‘Others’ and have collectively participated in confronting power. The implication is that America, the macrocosm of Ruby, can also change its view of itself and its relation to the world as long as its members participate in the ‘endless work’ required to create and sustain more enabling communities.”
It is here that Morrison’s work can be categorized as both an extension and critique of the earlier Black Power movements. Even though Paradise is a tricky litmus test, in that it is a complex and complicated work of fiction, it does seek to center the narrative that healing takes continual work, especially healing from trauma which can and often is inflicted by a community of people who are supposed to be attempting to create liberation.
In addition to these kinds of discussions in Paradise, Morrison’s status as an elder stateswoman of the Civil Rights/Black Power movement cements her as a voice who has great credence when it comes to speaking to the injustices of the current systems of oppression. She is quite right when she says that the central function of racism is a distraction from your work and she is also supported on this front by her long friendship with the now iconic Angela Davis, whose politics and affiliations with the Black Panther Party in the 1960’s landed her in trouble with the United States government.
In a conversation with Davis, hosted by the Prison Mindfulness Institute, the two luminaries converse at the New York Public Library about Literacy Libraries and Liberation. During the conversation, Morrison and Davis both speak to the fact that, during the 1960’s, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House Publishing and went on to publish Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton and Gayl Jones, all now recognized as Black feminist or womanist icons in the literary field. At the time, this work probably wasn’t viewed as revolutionary, but it was indeed.
It is this particular body of work, this particular life story and this particular kind of brilliance which sets Toni Morrison apart from many of her contemporaries, and as Hilton Als discussed in a piece for the New Yorker, set her up to inspire entire generations of Black artists and writers. Morrison herself told Als, “I’m already discredited, I’m already politicized, before I get out of the gate, I can accept the labels, [the adjectives like] ‘black’ and ‘female’…because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
It is this kind of incisive wit and laser focus which has worked to endear Morrison to Millenials like myself and others because we too are used to being discounted or politicized (see the many articles proclaiming that millennials are killing various industries) and we see plainly our own reflections in not just her words here, but the words in her novel.
Then is it any wonder that the magic in the words of Morrison has proven to last well beyond others in her generation into writers like Kiese Laymon, who meditated on a line from Morrison’s now classic Song of Solomon as he worked to create his award-winning memoir Heavy: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
And this is the thing about both Morrison and her work, they ground us and call us to freedom. It allows us to imagine places and people and creations that are more than where we are. Perhaps that is the greatest genius of Toni Morrison, it is that she very warmly and very Blackly reminds us of who we have the capacity to be and simultaneously gives us the freedom to believe that we can get there.
Daniel Johnson studies English and creative writing at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to trap music. His work can be found at The Root, Black Youth Project, Racebaitr, Those People, and Afropunk.