From blackest beloved to someone with the bluest eyes, Toni Morrison has left us ghosts we will cleave to
She may be more widely studied in the US now than Shakespeare. Yet Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has had her fair share of critics, even if they are not speaking loud today. Some of them thought her subject matter was too narrow. She wrote about slavery, what it did to black people, its time-travelling spillovers onto post-abolition black work and black bourgeois life.
Then, although the prose is exquisite, if difficult, it is populated with so much self-loathing, body-shaming, betrayals, ghostly visitations, rape, incest, murder, even infanticide, albeit all tied up with brutal racial prejudice. Stanley Crouch called one of her most celebrated works, Beloved, a blackface holocaust novel, saying that it was only meant to make sure that the vision of black women as the most scorned victims does not weaken. Others likened her writing to Gothic fantasia, not in a flattering way.
Again and again through her half century long career as an author, she explained her choice of subject matter. As she said in a conversation with Mario Kaiser and Sarah Ladipo Manyika, it was all about how her country was born, in the labour of Africans who would “work for free and reproduce themselves as more workers”. And this original sin continues to live on in very tangible ways.
Since her very first novel, The Bluest Eye, which she only wrote at age 39 and which still remains among her most searing, she has been trying to say, “Look, racism really and truly hurts. If you really want to be white and you’re not, and you’re young and vulnerable, it can kill you.”
In this Depression era novel, the simultaneous proximity and distance from a white bourgeois social model has devastating consequences for black domestic workers. Pauline Breedlove’s aesthetic worship of her white employer leads her to abuse her own child and nurture that of her masters.
So 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove develops a longing for blue eyes so desperate that it finally drives her tragically mad: “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights – if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” After all, her idol Shirley Temple has blue eyes and blond hair and is always happy.
If my colour/ class/ caste/ country/ height/ weight/ ethnicity… was different I would be beautiful, my life would be beautiful. This is not an uncommon thought at all. And it is just one way in which very specific Morrison subjects speak to very diverse readers. The opening lines of her last novel God Help the Child are: “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me.” That’s a mother who has just birthed a daughter so dark it has scared her. “Midnight black. Sudanese black.” Or ‘kaali kalooti’, as many an Indian mother might say.
Morrison said she wrote for black readers like Tolstoy wrote for Russians. He did not write for a little coloured girl in Lorain, Ohio called Toni Morrison. But she read him. Just like she is read by book lovers all over the world, who are not African-Americans. Because he was that good and because she is that good. It’s not about trying to write the universal experience. As one tribute goes, by being nakedly true to the black American experience she raised it to an international level.
In Make America Great Again, the author saw a hidden project of Make America White Again – because there are “people of colour” everywhere, threatening to erase a long-understood definition of the country emphasising its whiteness. “And what then? Another black president? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.” But her canon itself provides comfort. In novel after novel despite the grimmest situations, there is humanity and joy and celebration. The direst historical abasement of her people could not keep Morrison from soaring high. She embodied the spirit of, we shall overcome.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.