Toni Morrison, America’s most decorated living novelist, has held a remarkably consistent polemical perspective throughout her four decades in public life: “Our past is bleak,” she writes in her 1976 lecture “Moral Inhabitants”, “Our future dim.” This sentiment echoes across the Nobel Prize winner’s non-fiction anthology, Mouth Full of Blood, and a career providing thoughtful counterblasts to United States triumphalism.
Unlike many in liberal America similarly troubled by the consequences of war, borders, poverty and globalisation, Morrison finds antecedents for our present ills that pre-date Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House, the 2008 financial crash and even 9/11. Like Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, Morrison cannot help but look to the past, observing one continuous catastrophe; longing to awaken the dead, she sees state boundaries drawn through mass graves, architecture supported “on the spines of women and children”, meadows fertilised with “the nutrients of… citizens’ skeletons”.
She baulks at the ideological origins of the American Revolution, identifying a new democracy born not in an “Age of Enlightenment” but an “Age of Scientific Racism” whose intellectual forefathers (Hume, Kant, Jefferson) judged black people like herself as “incapable of intelligence” and laid the groundwork for their persecution. Morrison’s willingness to interrogate the republic’s foundational crimes – the genocide of indigenous peoples, the commercial trade in African slaves, and the violence meted out to their descendants – makes it all the more remarkable that, at 88 years old, she has succeeded in becoming an American national treasure: recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; four-time beneficiary of Oprah’s Book Club; a pillar of school and university curricula.
The “essays, speeches, meditations” in Mouth Full of Blood demonstrate the writer’s enduring eagerness to examine the contradictions of being both “native” and “alien” to her own country. How does one act in the knowledge that their “métier” is black yet “‘American’ means ‘white”’? She takes pride in challenging a traditional literary canon unshaped by the 400-year presence of “Africanistic” people in the United States. In “The Foreigner’s Home” Morrison chides white writers who go out of their way to portray the black experience, only to infantilise it – whether those such as Joseph Conrad or Doris Lessing who believe Africa to be “a dark continent in desperate need of light”, or those, in the case of fellow US Nobel Laureates Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow, who characterise it as an “inexhaustible playground for tourists”.
In a tribute to the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, Morrison describes how in 1965 while working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, she began to devour portraits of Africa written by Africans. Employed as an editor at Random House, she would play a key role in releasing anthologies of African authors at a time when they lacked visibility in bookshops and on “world literature” courses. Morrison’s debut (finally published in 1970) set in the author’s birthplace of Lorain, Ohio, was conceived in part because she felt that “vulnerable young black girls” were absent from literary texts (“no one it seemed took them seriously except me”).
In a number of lectures, notably “The Slavebody and the Blackbody” delivered at the Black Holocaust Museum during the first year of the new millennium, Morrison sets out to articulate that “unspeakable part of American history” – the transatlantic slave trade – drawing parallels with slippery forms of contemporary racism such as a private prisons system where black people “become once again free labour; once again corralled for profit”. Unafraid to weave a grand historical tapestry – illustrated by her masterly sweep through pre-modern slave societies, incorporating eastern European serfdom, Visigothic Spain, medieval Ghana, English feudalism and countless others, Morrison’s paramount interest lies with the “interior lives” of those denied liberty.
Inspired by autobiographical slave narratives – more than a hundred of which were published during the 18th and 19th centuries to assert the humanity of their black authors while arguing the case for abolition – Morrison admits wanting to “extend, fill in, and complement” the private stories of individuals once held in bondage, rather than writing about the institution of slavery. Recalling a newspaper cutting concerning one Margaret Garner, Morrison transcribes her tale into what would become her most revered novel: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved.
This collection exhibits the sincerity with which Toni Morrison believes in the perpetual power of radical writing. “I sometimes think how glorious it must have been to have written drama in 16th-century England, or poetry in Greece before Christ, or religious narrative in 1000 AD,” she says, “when literature was need.”
As an exemplary literary theorist, Morrison is as lucid critiquing Gertrude Stein or William Faulkner as drawing allusions from Beowulf or Cinderella – referencing Fredric Jameson and FR Leavis in one lecture; Henri Bergson and HG Wells a few pages later. As a black woman writer wanting to encourage a wider vocabulary than the one in which she was educated (described in the penultimate lecture “Goodbye to All That”) she eschews picking sides in any “politics versus art” debate, favouring instead a “union of aesthetics and ethics”.
The collection takes occasional steps into uncomfortable territory – for example, the 1989 lecture “Women, Race, and Memory” condemns women’s liberation organisations for abandoning black civil rights and describes internecine feminist skirmishes as akin to “a hair-pulling contest”. Yet at every stage, the reader is grateful for an author allowing, encouraging even, such intimate access to their work, thought and reflections on eternal concepts: knowledge, “separateness”, the future of time.
Regarding the latter, for all her justified pessimism, Morrison faintly entertains the possibility of a future as far-reaching as the past, shaped by those who have been “pressed to the margins”. Should we see an end to our “current disequilibria”, she suggests, we may discover that “history is not dead, but that it is about to take its first unfettered breath”.
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics