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12 August 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 1:46pm

Toni Morrison, public intellectual

By K Biswas

In 1985, the British journal Race Today asked Toni Morrison about the responsibilities of the black woman writer. She replied, “To bear witness to a history that is unrecorded”. More than any author before her Morrison, who died on 5 August aged 88, was able to shift the African American experience away from its imposed isolation and into the cultural mainstream. She built upon a literary heritage inspired not only by earlier 20th century figures such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, but also by 18th and 19th century slave narratives – authentic autobiographical accounts of Africans and their descendants held in bondage in the United States – to which she sought to fill in the blanks, fashioning their interior lives. The Nobel Prize committee, garlanding Morrison the award for literature in 1993, remarked that she was a writer who “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”.

From her first novel The Bluest Eye – which she started work on in 1963 and eventually published in 1970 aged 39 – Morrison concerned herself with the marginalised voice. Taking place in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, her debut was written in part because “vulnerable young black girls were profoundly absent” in literature: “no one took them seriously except me,” she wrote. Following ten further novels and a half century in public life – during which she would receive the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize – Morrison succeeded in her wish for the black presence to no longer remain “relegated to the margins of the literary imagination”.

Decades spent affiliated to academic institutions ensured that Morrison took her pedagogic role very seriously. Frequently asked to explain and unpick the issue of racism, she would admit to occasional annoyance, having to “clarify an area… about which I know nothing”. Why, she thought, “would anybody ask the victim to explain his torturer?” However, being born into an era of segregation and during a lifetime that witnessed black figures’ increasing visibility in the American public sphere, Morrison could place herself firmly within the 400-year arc of African American history. She would go on to inspire as many people as those who emboldened her own life: abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth through post-war civil rights figures like Martin Luther King and her friend James Baldwin, whom she acknowledged as a trailblazer for her literary efforts, for his work decolonizing “forbidden territory”, as she put it at his memorial service in 1987 – the year she published her most celebrated novel, Beloved.

Though accepted by much of the cultural establishment following her Nobel win, she never stopped asking questions or interrogating power. As a public intellectual Morrison refused to submit to her nation’s post-Cold War triumphalism: during a 1995 speech delivered at her old university, Howard – where she had once taught, among others, the Black Power theorist Stokely Carmichael – Morrison delivered a trenchant critique of globalisation and militarism, privatisation and the profit motive. She bemoaned a developing politics of resentment which saw citizens morphing into “taxpayers”, angered by “the notion of the public good”. In an era seemingly free from ideology, Morrison warned of an American democracy vulnerable enough to “host the virus” of fascism (“any developed country can become a suitable home”). Years before we had noticed tech giants control over our daily lives, she prophesised a society “wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen, darkly”.

Public attention in Nineties America intermittently wandered towards legal trials involving black men thrust into the spotlight – OJ Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Rodney King. But it was another court case, presided over by Kenneth Starr and concerning Bill Clinton, which provoked Morrison into making her most celebrated intervention into the world of politics, labelling the persecuted Clinton, tongue firmly in her cheek, America’s “first black President” – “Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”

Morrison continued to make pointed political statements into the 21st century, condemning the George W Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina as the “privileged indifference of a government watching an almost biblical flood destroy a city because its citizens were surplus black or poor people”. She eventually endorsed Bush’s successor Barack Obama (the country’s first president who was actually black), whose gratitude was reciprocated in awarding Morrison the highest civilian accolade, the Presidential Medal of Honour, towards the end of his first term in 2012. She was under no illusions that Obama’s election would herald a new post-racial epoch for America: angered by the deficiencies in its criminal justice system and the police brutality that gave rise to Black Lives Matter protests, Morrison called for a “stop-and-frisk on Wall Street”, and, offering her assessment on race relations, stated, “I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back.”

 As early as 1971, Morrison informed readers of the New York Times Magazine that women of colour would often “look at white women and see them as the enemy”, recalling memories of segregationist figures hovering behind African American schoolchildren in late-Fifties Little Rock, Arkansas. Speaking candidly about Women’s Liberation, and pre-empting current discussions around intersectionality and identity politics, Morrison would chide those who ignored race and class prejudice as enacting “a slow and subtle form of sororicide”. Pointing to the gains made following the abolition of slavery and the Sixties civil rights struggle, Morrison was committed to the view that female emancipation “flowered best in the soil prepared by black liberation”. Fissures in the feminist movement of the Seventies and Eighties tangentially animated her fiction, notably her second novel Sula and her best known work, Beloved – centred around a female slave who flees a Kentucky plantation and later adapted into a Hollywood feature film starring (and vigorously promoted by) Oprah Winfrey, the richest African American woman in the world.

Morrison, having started her professional literary career as an editor at Random House in the Sixties, took immense pride in offering platforms to black writers. Curating collections of African authors such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe (whom Morrison once said “liberated my artistic intelligence as nothing else had ever done”), she also published works of radical African American cultural figures from Muhammed Ali to Huey P Newton and Angela Davis. “I wanted to give back something,” she informed Hilton Als in a 2003 New Yorker profile. “I wasn’t marching. I didn’t go to anything. I didn’t join anything. But I could make sure there was a published record of those who did march and did put themselves on the line.”

Toni Morrison thrived in passing her passions onto readers. In a 2011 lecture entitled “Invisible Ink” at Princeton University – the site which would eventually become home to the Professor Morrison’s papers, called Morrison Hall in her honour – she admits to making “overt demands” of audiences to “not just participate in the narrative, but specifically to help write it”. Just as the Nobel Laureate took the partial tales of American slavery and thoughtfully filled in the gaps, bringing characters and settings to life, she encouraged an “active and activated” audience to take similar responsibility with her own work. “Writing the reading involves seduction,” she believed, “luring the reader into environments outside the pages”.

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