RIP Toni Morrison

Her prose was politically charged, yet deeply beautiful.

Bernie Whelan

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Topics Brexit Culture

Nobel laureate, novelist, editor, critic and fearless political commentator Toni Morrison has died aged 88.

She is best known for Beloved, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988, although not before a letter in the New York Times Book Review, signed by 48 leading black writers and scholars, decried the lack of recognition for the novel. Morrison also wrote and edited essays on controversial national events, such as the OJ Simpson case and the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Her novels and critical writing focus on the African-American experience of trauma and racial oppression. Her published lectures, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), argue that ‘whiteness’ is intrinsic to the ‘universal’ American subject. Many of her novels, such as Paradise (1997), celebrate the toleration and acceptance of ethical communities of women in the face of extreme hostility and violence.

A key concept developed in Morrison’s lectures is the violent polarity of ‘American Africanism’ – her version of Hegelian subjectivity in which white-American identity is achieved through an attack on the ‘other’, the objectified black subject. To her credit, Morrison always insisted that racism in America was damaging for white people as well as black people, while her writing refused to take account of white sensibilities and rejected victim status for African-Americans.

Beloved is based on a real historical event she discovered when compiling a historical collection, The Black Book (1974). Margaret Garner, a recaptured slave in the 19th century, killed all but one of her children to prevent them being repossessed by the slave-owner she had escaped from. Morrison insisted that Garner was not a victim, and based her heroine in Beloved, Sethe, on her. Sethe is part of a community of ex-slaves whose powerful solidarity finally frees them from any ‘wounded attachment’ to the past.

Playing in the Dark accuses the literary establishment of repressing race consciousness and failing to credit powerless and oppressed African-Americans with their substantial contribution to the sum of American culture. Here Morrison calls into question the fundamental assumptions about the global and historical role of the American Revolution, with its declaration ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. She argued that ‘American means white’ and that Mark Twain’s great novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ‘may indeed be “great” because in its structure, in the hell it puts its readers through at the end, the frontal debate it forces, it stimulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom’.

She always had her critics. Charles Johnson, the first black man to win the National Book Award for Fiction since Ralph Ellison, in 2008 raised Morrison’s focus on slavery. ‘I don’t want to say she’s beating a dead horse, but she probably feels more comfortable writing about that period as opposed to something more contemporary’, he said. ‘I do think clearly that slavery-era stories and segregation-era stories are stories about the past.’ Johnson favoured an approach to issues of race in America that was more universal. He maintained that Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man, ‘is about – quietly about – patriotism’ and that the aim was the creation of ‘a black American personality as complex, as multi-sided and synthetic as the American society that produced it’.

But though Morrison’s approach may have been different, she still produced works and characters just as complex and multi-sided, while never shrinking from asserting her race consciousness. In one of her most memorable TV interviews, Morrison pushed back when a white interviewer asked when she planned to incorporate more substantial white characters into her works. ‘You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?’, Morrison asked. ‘You could never ask a white author, “When are you going to write about black people?” Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the centre.’

Morrison rejected the notion that writing could be anything but political, but she made it beautiful in the cadence of her prose. One particular passage from Beloved comes to mind:

‘Sethe’s greatest fear was… Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own.’

RIP.

Bernie Whelan is a writer based in London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Brexit Culture

Comments

Poose Taine

11th August 2019 at 12:21 pm

Another postmodernist drivel merchant and purveyor of hate screeds hath croaked. Cue hagiographical histrionics from morons, manginas malcontents and marxist media muppets.

Amelia Cantor

8th August 2019 at 10:12 am

A surprising ray of light and positivity amid the general cisgender-white-male-ness of the Spiked output. Toni was a beacon of hope and progress during her life, and will remain one now that she has passed away.

To her credit, Morrison always insisted that racism in America was damaging for white people as well as black people…

I think Toni allowed her good nature to affect her reasoning there. White people benefit 24 / 7 / 365¼ from racism. Their “culture” is based on it and it won’t be until they and their “culture” are swept away that racism will end.

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 2:12 pm

No wonder the nazi’s rounded your lot up.

Poose Taine

11th August 2019 at 12:23 pm

You are colossally entertaining

Simon Giora

8th August 2019 at 9:38 am

“Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others — especially to black people — they are willing to risk contempt and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause.”

Hmm, sweeping generalisations based on skin colour. I’m sure there is a word for that.

Raoul Smith

8th August 2019 at 8:52 am

Toni Morrison was a vile racist who wrote that White people weren’t human. Her work was littered with pathetic fanfic about murdering Whites. Good riddance.

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 5:44 am

That was all a JOKE BTW

So do not get HET UP about it

/ end

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 6:05 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:08 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:16 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:22 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:28 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:29 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 4:27 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:07 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 3:44 am

No surrender to the British state

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCnGD6xv5ik

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 4:47 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:05 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 3:21 am

So tell me, how do I feel now?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7woEXovruc

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 4:44 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 5:00 am

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 5:42 am

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 5:45 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 6:02 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 3:00 am

There are a band of men. brave and bold
From Ireland they came

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWvdf_51Iq0

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 3:28 am

So tell me …. how do I feel now?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXLnSkGmTdQ

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:58 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:52 am

We is the New Order

So, how do I feel?

Tell me how now do I feel

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYH8DsU2WCk

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 4:49 am

It’s a bit like when l said you had too many dinner-parties on your itinerary…cos that was a joke, too.

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:53 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:37 am

British State is a Judaeo State

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYH8DsU2WCk

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 3:46 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:47 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:27 am

YES / yes / yEs

Sean South of Garryomen

All hail the IR

NO SURRENDER TO THE BRITISH STATE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdGMkYFTTrg

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:15 am

The Model

F/ck you

She is a model and she fears the British state

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQIYEPe6DWY

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:45 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:11 am

the model

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 2:04 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:43 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 1:39 am

INI KAMOZE

REGGAE MUSIC

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBVAGXPstHk

OUT IN THE STREETS THEWY CALL IT MURDER

KEEP ME ROCKING IN ME PAJAMA

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 1:34 am

We is gonna HUNT YOU DOWN

Come and FIGHT with me

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b21zIF3lAZo

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 1:24 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 1:04 am

RIDERS ON THE STORM

INTO THIS WORLD WE ARE BORN

KILLER ON THE RISE

ONLY I AND I

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS-af9Q-zvQ

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:55 am

Hana Jinks

9th August 2019 at 5:38 am

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:52 am

sHE IS AMODEL IT IS UNDERSTOOD

I AND I IS A ROBOT AND IT IS UNDERSTOOD TJAY I is a model

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFq2pU21cNU

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:45 am

Only I has harmony.

I will hunt Brendan down for i’m judgement

Just remember that Only I I JAH

I and I WILL hunt you down

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRSwjhYmAY4

Hana Jinks

8th August 2019 at 3:43 am

Jerry Oven-Kraut.

Stip being a nazi.

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:32 am

British State, I will PUT you DOWN when the time comes

I and I is the ONLY truth

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnX8uR9Q0Ak

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:25 am

What are you DOING man?

I and I is Rastafari

I and I w-ILL HUNT YOU DDDDDO WWWN

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV6qTvOpQsQ

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:10 am

In the dARKNESS I stood alone

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Dg-g7t2l4

Winston Stanley

8th August 2019 at 12:07 am

British state, I will put you down when the time comes

– jus like you like to put us down

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwleloRuaEw

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