Viswanathan Selvaratnam pays tribute to Toni Morrison, whose writings and speeches unravelled from the fabric of white-dominated American society the hidden traumatic tales of the black people.
The public intellectual and activist Toni Morrison died in New York on 5 August 2019 at the age of 88. A universally renowned literary voice and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, she was the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her “visionary force”.
In 2012 Morrison was also the recipient of the Presidential Medal for Freedom from then President Barack Obama. Obama, on paying tribute to Morrison on her death, said her works were “transcendent, all of them. You’ll be glad you read them.”
With Morrison’s death, we will miss her burst of new novels, essays, speeches and meditations through which, up until her death, she skilfully questioned the perils of slavery, power, poverty, racism, women, oppression, violence and black life.
Since her death was made public by her publisher Alfred A Knopf on 6 August, eulogies have poured in from around the world extolling her unique, rich and complex contributions to art, literature and history. The tributes especially touched on her impact on a huge number of black women and men writers who freed their minds from the debilitating shackles of the racial boundaries of dominant white American society.
Morrison once said, “Being a Black women writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It does not limit my imagination, it expands it.”
She underpinned that literary passion of hers in her observation in her last book Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations (2019): “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; but are a necessity.”
Thus her primary and underlying mission as a writer was to “reclaim, rename and re-own” the rich hidden tapestry of written and spoken trove of black art and literature, including poetry and history from the conquerors, and her “own literary heritage of slave narratives”.
Morrison was thus committed in her story-telling to highlight the stories – which had been ignored or inadequately told by white historians and novelists – of the black experience of racism, poverty and injustice.
At their most basic, her narratives have untangled the brutal role white racism has played literally and figuratively to strip African-Americans of their humanity and lived experience.
For Morrison, story-telling was “the best way of learning anything”. It was “one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge” and change the way contemporary African-American literature could be written.
Morrison grew up in a racially mixed neighbourhood in Lorain, Ohio. Under the constitutional spectre, black people are free and equal. But in real life, African-Americans were not only the country’s most dispossessed group but also subjected to a sweeping history of ever-mutating new forms of racism.
In today’s America, the internationally recognised Black Lives Matter movement has emerged to call for an end to the war on black people at home and abroad. But racist policies and police brutality and excesses continue to terrify not only African-Americans but Muslims and other coloured communities.
For the last 400 years, slavery, segregation and Jim Crow Laws, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, American exceptionalism, white supremacy and white nationalism have underpinned racism. Such racism – alongside wealth, class and gender differences – has served as an invidious weapon to control the ‘other’ in what is basically a migrant multiracial society.
Ibram X Kendi, a charismatic black historian, in his book Stamped From The Beginning, which won the 2017 National Book award, tells the definitive history of American racism. He recounts the system and policies that were stamped from the beginning to underpin the inequality between the whites and blacks.
Morrison once noted famously: “We aren’t born prejudiced in the womb but learn to treat strangers differently by example.”
Something as grotesque as the pervasive and potent racist ideology had, for Morrison, demonised an entire African-American community. It had permeated to “take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child: the most vulnerable member: a female.”
Rightly, she declared: “Race is the classification of a species, and we are the human race, period.”
Today, President Donald Trump, who rode to the White House on the back of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) and other supremacist votes, continues to use ideologically manufactured hostile racial faultlines to denigrate Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, coloured immigrants. Four minority congresswomen, the elected representative of millions of voters, were not spared.
Morrison’s voracious reading and supreme self-assurance propelled her to study literature at the famous Howard University in Washington DC in the 1950s, home to a major research centre of African American studies and a bastion of black intellectualism. She then moved to Cornell to complete her master’s in literature.
After a short stint of teaching in her alma mater, the Howard University, Morrison joined the world-renowned publishing company, Random House, as a trade editor in the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Over the years, from her behind-the-scenes editorial position, she nurtured several women and some black writers, many of whom were demonised by the United States’ government.
In the early 1970s, at 40, Morrison moved into her activist life as a fully moulded writer. She became an incomparable story-teller who crafted her stories “from within the heads of those who were slaves”.
From then, she devoted herself as an unparalleled story-teller of both black identity and women’s uniqueness in their trails, terrors and triumphs. In doing so, she transformed the way her readers, both in their native home and universally, understood black subjectivity.
In a white-endorsed and Western-dominated literally world, Morrison proclaimed herself as a “black writer… writing for black people.”
Over the next four decades, a rich tapestry of fiction – The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), God Help the Child (2015) and Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches and Meditations (2019) – was unleashed into the mainstream literary world. These were stories within a distinctly literary context and focused on deep-seated American racial prejudice.
In her classic fiction, Beloved, voted the best novel in American literature over the past fifty years, Morrison plays out the lives of black people who are denied their own names, their marriage ceremony and their right to love their own children as parents.
This was a narrative Morrison continued to repeat again and again in her writings with “a steadiness of rage and compassion”.
The protagonists in her novels are rooted in the known physical world and are aimed at educating her native America and the world at large of the cancer of racism. They also provided an insight into the unique richness of the private lives of the unknown and unwanted African-Americans, mainly the descendants of slaves.
Through her fiction writing, essays and speeches, Morrison unravelled from the fabric of white-dominated American society the hidden traumatic tales of the black people and their descendants lived in cope with entrenched racial disadvantage. She narrated the centuries of exploitation and injustice they have been subjected to and their continuing poverty that has led to fragmented families.
The unique power of her literary themes and characters propelled her to the forefront of the literary world, along with black writers such as James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
Morrison is credited with inspiring a huge number of young female black writers. She also nurtured a vibrant crop of important black radical activist writers into mainstream American readership.
Although she did not subscribe to the ideologies of many of the black writers, she felt it was vital that their writings should be disseminated and made available in the ‘marketplace of ideas’.
This explained her unswerving support for potential black authors and their writings she believed in: “If you don’t see yourself in a book, write it.” Her inspiring words paved the way for so many black writers to gain confidence in their writings and to turn them into books.
Some of the explosive black radical works that she published while in Random House were Black Panther party co-founder Huey P Newton’s work, To Die for the People (1972); the prison activists and Black Panther field marshal George Jackson’s book on Blood in My Eye (1971) and Angela Davis’s autography, Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974).
Hannah Azieb Pool, artistic director and CEO of Bernie Grants Arts Centre, summed it up well. Toni Morrison, she said, was a “vital example of a black woman writer who took on the mantle of being a black literary icon to create a space for generations of black, female writers who came after her. That’s why we all feel we have ownership of her, that she’s ours.”
May she now rest in peace.
Viswanathan Selvaratnam, a third-generation Malaysian, lives in Kuala Lumpur. Before his retirement, he taught at the University of Malaya and very briefly at the National University of Singapore.