The Truest Eye. Toni Morrison, 1931-2019
Photo: Obama White House Archive

Novelist Toni Morrison, the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, has died at the age of 88. She's being remembered the best way a writer can be remembered, with quotes from her vast body of work. As so often happens when a great writer dies, my first thought was that I hadn't read nearly enough of her books, although I did read two of her most important novels, Song of Solomon and Beloved, and while I read both decades ago, I still recall that Beloved destroyed me.

The New York Times has the traditionally encyclopedic obituary you'd expect for any major figure, complete with a rush-job screwed up headline that's sure to be fixed by the time we finish writing this.

The Times is just having a bad hed day today. But the substance of the obit is dead on, noting Morrison's 11 novels and numerous awards, including the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon and the 1988 Pulitzer for Beloved, and this lovely invocation of what Morrison could do with language:

In awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her "novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import," through which she "gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Ms. Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.

Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Ms. Morrison's novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

Her novels could be equal parts poetic and horrific, portraying an America where the past not only isn't past, but where ghosts have a power that can't quite be exorcised:

It is a world, Ms. Morrison writes in "Beloved" (the novel is set in the 19th century but stands as a metaphor for the 20th), in which "anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind."

"Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you," she goes on. "Dirty you so bad you couldn't like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn't think it up."

And such incredible characters! Beloved's Sethe, the woman haunted by the spirit of the baby she murdered rather than let her be taken back into slavery. Macon Dead III, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, known as "Milkman" because everyone in town found out his mother nursed him until he was four years old. The family practice of picking names out of the Bible, resulting in one daughter named Ruth, but others named "Pilate" and First Corinthians."

Let's also note that while Morrison quipped that Bill Clinton was America's "first black president," she also endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, leading to a seriously unwieldy headline in our own beloved Wonkette. Obama later politicized the Presidential Medal of Freedom by giving one to Morrison, and to other black people, how very dare he. For her part, Morrison found a regular spot on banned book lists, because she wrote about black people and sex, but mostly because she made nice white people uncomfortable.

And the quotes. Oh my, the quotes, which are plenty, and for a reader who's decades away from reading Morrison, may be enough for us to fake it. And Jesus the video snippets, starting with this unbelievable white lady interviewer (Australian journalist Jana Wendt) who is doubtless today buried in shame:

Wendt: You don't think you'll ever change and incorporate books with white lives in them substantially? [...]

Morrison: You can't understand how powerfully racist that question is can you? Because you can never ask a white author, 'when are you going to write about black people' [...] even the inquiry comes from a place of being in the center.

Wendt, reaching for some burn ointment and bandages: And being used to being in the center.

Morrison delved into that theme in greater detail -- with an interviewer who wasn't being a butt -- in a slightly less prickly interview with Thomas LeClair, collected in Conversations With Toni Morrison. LeClair noted that not all readers might catch the resonances of a scene in Sula, where a single word carries a huge amount of weight. Morrison explains:

Morrison: I try to work the dialogue down so the reader has to hear it. When Eva in Sula sets her son on fire, her daughter runs upstairs to tell her, and Eva says "Is?" you can hear every grand-mother say "Is?" and you know: a) she knows what she's been told; b) she is not going to do anything about it; and c) she will not have any more
conversation. That sound is important to me.

LeClair: Not all readers are going to catch that.

Morrison: If I say "Quiet is as kept," that is a piece of information which means exactly what it says, but to black people it means a big lie is about to be told. Or someone is going to tell some graveyard information, who's sleeping with whom. Black readers will chuckle. There is a level of appreciation that might be available only to people who understand the context of the language. The analogy that occurs to me is jazz: it is open on the one hand and both complicated and inaccessible on the other. I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal—because it is specifically about a particular world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say "people," that's what I mean. Lots of books written by black people about black people have had this "universality" as a burden. They were writing for some readers other than me.

God, what a thinker. Eighty-eight is a good long life, but how can we readers not want more time with a mind like that? Reality, though, reminds us we spent a lot of the time we had farting around on Twitter. Where at least today we are finding Toni Morrison quotes. Like Beto O'Rourke doing another swear, this time via quotation.

Looking around Twitter today, it's easy to get the feeling everything Toni Morrison ever said was profound and quotable, including her sandwich orders.

Some of the most moving tributes we've seen on Twitter today are simply the photos of a beloved passage in the sender's own copy of a book, underlined and annotated.

Like any timeless writer, so much Morrison said seems relevant at this very moment, right goddamn now, like in this 1993 interview with then-not-yet-disgraced Charlie Rose, in which she explains that asking Toni Morrison how she feels about racism misses the mark. "That's the wrong question. How do you feel?" she replies, meaning not (just) Rose specifically, but white people, who are after all the ones who have a race problem:

Toni Morrison Takes White Supremacy To

Don't you understand the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche. It's a huge waste, and it's a corruption, and it's a distortion. It's a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy.

More, from the same interview:

Morrison was anything but a reclusive writer, so please go read all the Toni Morrison you can grab, like this 2003 New Yorker profile, or Morrison's searing reflections on the meaning of Donald Trump's election: It's about people who are so deathly afraid of losing power that they happily cast aside their humanity.

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

If you're in more of an audio mood, you can go and listen to all six times Morrison has been interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air." In her first, on writing Beloved, she says she wasn't comfortable calling herself a "writer" until the publication of her third book -- until then, she told people she was an editor -- which she was, at a major publishing house -- who also wrote books.

Thank you to Toni Morrison, who reminded us that sometimes, "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."

[NYT / Fresh Air / The Bluest Eye / Sula / Song of Solomon / Beloved / Jazz]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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