Indian newspapers announced Toni Morrison’s death in New York at the age of 88 on August 6, 2019. On August 6, in 1945, an atom bomb dropped in Hiroshima and destroyed most of the city, killing 80,000 people and released radiation that would damage and ravage residents for decades thereafter. Although August 6 has now been co-opted as ‘World Peace Day’, and is observed worldwide annually, horrendous avenues for violence — nuclear, racist, fascist, sexist, political and religious extremism — continue to exist in our civilisation alongside the instinct to destroy, marginalise and disempower.
So how should we view Morrison’s powerful writing in this fraught, coterminous world?
Photographs that surfaced after news of her death were splashed all over the world. These allowed us glimpses of her intense energy, while, she, prophetess-like, smiled down upon us with a majestic headdress of luxuriant silver braids woven atop her head. Hers is an extraordinary voice chronicling black suffering. Repeatedly, she draws attention to the pain and brutality experienced by characters in her novels through cadences of poetic utterance that allow it to percolate deep within us, startling us with new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking.
Morrison recognised early on the need to articulate visceral experiences in order to speak for the “70 million and more” who perished in the ‘Atlantic Slave Trade’ through powerful narratives that mainstream writing in America was totally unprepared for. She understood with great clarity that her engagement as a writer was primarily about “how to rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate”.
Born in 1931, during the Great Depression in the West, to parents who migrated during the reconstruction process to Lorraine in Ohio, Anthony Wofford was the second of four children in a working-class African-American family. During her years at Howard University, Toni discovered a racially segregated world in which her awareness of her heritage, narratives, songs, beliefs and her love for reading, enabled her to straddle both realms through years of teaching, writing and editing. Morrison’s teaching years at the university were followed by years as a senior fiction editor.
At Random House, Morrison contributed singularly towards bringing African-American literature to the mainstream in Contemporary Black Literature (1972) and The Black Book (1999), thereby fostering a whole new generation of African-American writers. A little before the edited volume on Contemporary Black Literature, she published The Bluest Eye (1970). This was her first novel and it was pitched very differently from mainstream American fiction writing. Writing the story of the experiences of black people, underdogs in America in the 20th century, who continued to be victims of race, slavery and class oppression, her powerful narratives put forward experiences that laid bare a world hitherto undiscussed.
Earlier, the mention of black persons remained taboo while black people continued to live lives under segregation well into the 1960s. Now the attention seems to have shifted instead to the black writer whose writing is being seen as dangerous and undesirable.
The Bluest Eye tells us about Pecola growing up in Ohio, a black town in white America, with deeply ingrained racial biases and hierarchies. The Dick and Jane Readers, referred to in The Bluest Eye, taught language and socialised black children, not very differently from the nursery rhyme of Jack and Jill who peopled the books that schooled a large section of Indian children to speak in English in pre-independent India. Gruelling poverty coupled with the complete absence of any supportive cultural or socio-economic network in Pecola’s case is reminiscent of countless young girls growing up in hostile environments elsewhere in the world, brutalised by rape and incest, subjected to violence from older family members who should have known better but didn’t, because, their own life stories began in want and deprivation.
Pecola’s desire for transformative blue eyes never materialises. Instead, she is raped by her drunk and violent father, Cholly, becomes pregnant and subsequently loses her premature baby. Pecola eventually becomes crazy and is convinced that her eyes have turned blue.
The narrative unabashedly allows us to register the fear, terror and utter hopelessness that dogs the lives of black people in America, who continue to be formed and guided by trends in popular white culture. Morrison’s narrative addresses gender keenly, forcing the reluctant reader to look at black women’s ‘double oppression’ in a white society.
Her work is also a sharp reminder that closer home in India, the cosmetics industry propelled by Bollywood starlets and stars, continue to sustain cultural obsessions of fair skin and golden hair, while dark-skinned young women continue to be bogged down with a sense of unworthiness alongside class oppression.
The other significant question that Morrison raises in The Bluest Eye is about the fragile nature of female friendships in this world. Patriarchal control that percolates from patterns set by dominant white males abusing black males makes it a far more damaging space for black wives and daughters.
Sula(1973) also explores the unlikely and yet intense friendship between two black women, Nel and Sula, which lives on as memory for Nel after Sula’s death. Nel finally accepts her complicity in actions (such as the accidental drowning of the little boy) that she earlier held Sula responsible for, only after the latter’s death. In Sula, despite normative white control, the women seem to have found new freedoms by stepping outside the framework of whatever constitutes heterosexual bourgeois norms shared by women and men.
Significantly, in Morrison’s narratives, there is a powerful engagement with desire, longing, and a deep emotional connect, which is shown as existing in relationships, between women.
Morrison’s Songs of Solomon (1971) is about Milkman’s discovery of his heritage, while Tar Baby (1981) is the story of two black Americans from disparate backgrounds in the Caribbean whose travel to America highlights the trauma and struggles involved in being together. Beloved (1987) is inspired by the real-life story of enslaved Margaret Garner, who killed her two-year-old daughter and was captured before she could kill herself. It continues to engage with the lives of African-Americans.
Morrison draws upon traditions of folklore, myth, music, history, and sociology. She writes with passionate intensity about black lives.
Morrison recognised early on the need to articulate visceral experiences in order to speak for the “70 million and more” who perished in the ‘Atlantic Slave Trade’ through powerful narratives that mainstream writing in America was totally unprepared for.
Morrison’s continued engagement with teaching, editing, and writing provided rich dividends for readers. She published a play, short fiction, children’s fiction and non-fiction, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, besides countless international awards and honorary degrees, delivered public lectures and experimented with new art forms such as a ‘libretto’ for the opera and formatting rhythms of jazz music for the novel Jazz(1992).
To rephrase Toni Morrison, literary ancestors are “not just parents who nourish all kinds of ideas, they are timeless people,” whose imagination allows us to enter worlds that we never dreamt could even exist. Her contribution in allowing us to look at black lives and how they have been overrun by white hegemony and her close exploration of black female friendships under constraints has few parallels in contemporary writing.
The film adaptation of Beloved was not a success. A review in the Economist tellingly remarked that it was perhaps not possible to endure “three hours of a cerebral film featuring… supernatural themes, murder, rape, and slavery”.
This is an excellent example to show how removed from reality and historical understanding reviews can be. It also marks the huge gap between aesthetics and ethics that dominates cultural politics in the world today.
There can be nothing cerebral about suffering, especially the brutal suffering that slaves were subjected to over a period of 300 years that was not of their making. An acknowledgment of guilt and shame and the need to make reparation has been slow.
Ironically, there is no real shortage either of cerebral films featuring supernatural themes that deal with murder and rape. Nor has there been a dearth of audiences which lap them up, now that the cyber-skies haves opened up through Netflix and Amazon Prime.
This is not even a good time to reiterate that the book will always be far more compelling than the film, because the battle is no longer between infotainment and holistic learning. Increasingly, there is the need to shut down or freeze strident voices in order to render them irrelevant.
Morrison’s books were well received at the time of their publication and she has mentored generations of black American writers. However, the response to her fiction from insular schools and PTAs in the here and now leaves much to be desired. Several school boards across America continue to remove Morrison’s feted books from prescribed reading lists objecting to pornographic language and inappropriate content.
This is odd, coming from a popular culture where misogyny and sexism are rampant and both excrement (Are you shitting me?) as an expression of incredulity and the reference to the sexual act (why don’t you fuck off?), remain part of routine conversation.
How is writing about incest, rape and pedophilia more hideous than the acts themselves?
Meanwhile deeper malaises in society are submerged by reality shows, food extravaganzas and popularly watched television shows wherein imagined monsters such as werewolves, psychopaths and sociopaths serve as chief protagonists.
Earlier, the mention of black persons remained taboo while black people continued to live lives under segregation well into the 1960s. Now the attention seems to have shifted instead to the black writer whose writing is being seen as dangerous and undesirable. This is cause for alarm because ethically repugnant issues or events cannot be elided over by aesthetic selection or suppression. They require examination, understanding and analysis.
Responsibility must be taken first, before reparation and apologies can follow, in order to exorcise grievous wrongs perpetuated upon human lives, if the world is ever to be made a more equal place. Censoring history and truth, because they create discomfort, will continue to damage our world further. Perhaps the best way to honour our dead poets, authors and writers and nurture the values they gathered and the truths that they unveiled for us in their lifetimes, is by engaging with their work and examining closely the issues that were raised, while resisting all manner of censorship of their work.