Toni Morrison’s Radical Vision of Otherness by Nell Irvin Painter

 

A generation ago, as the culture wars raged, Toni Morrison often stood at the front lines, demanding the desegregation of the American literary canon. In her Tanner Lectures in 1988, and later in her book Playing in the Dark, she argued against a monochromatic literary canon that had seemed forever to be naturally and inevitably all-white but was, in fact, “studiously” so. She accused scholars of “lobotomizing” literary history and criticism in order to free them of black presence. Broadening our conception of American literature beyond the cast of lily-white men would not simply benefit nonwhite readers. Opening up would serve the interests of American mental as well as intellectual health, since the white racial ideology that purged literature of blackness was, Morrison said, “savage.” She called the very concept of whiteness “an inhuman idea.”

In her new book, The Origin of Others, Morrison extends and sharpens these themes as she traces through American literature patterns of thought and behavior that subtly code who belongs and who doesn’t, who is accepted in and who is cast out as “Other.” She has previously written of how modernist novelists like William Faulkner (who saw race) and Ernest Hemingway (who did not) respected the codes of Jim Crow by dehumanizing black figures or ignoring the connotations of blackness in their nonblack figures. But the process of exiling some people from humanity, she observes here, also ranges beyond American habits of race: One need only look at the treatment of millions now in flight from war and economic desperation. Othering as a means of control is not just the practice of white people in the United States, for every group perfects its self-regard through exclusion.

Morrison anchors her discussion of these complexities in her personal experience, recounting a memory from her childhood in the 1930s: a visit from her great-grandmother, Millicent MacTeer, a figure of enormous power whose skin was very black. On her arrival, MacTeer looked at Toni and her sister, two girls with light skin, and pronounced them “tampered with.” Colorism ordinarily refers to black people’s denigration of dark skin and preference for people who are light, but in this case it meant, more broadly, a judgment based on skin color. “It became clear,” Morrison writes, “that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser, if not completely Other.” Deemed “sullied, not pure” as a child, Morrison finds that Othering, as well as the racial self-loathing of colorism, begin in the family and connect to race, class, gender, and power.

Morrison’s history of Othering represents an intervention in history on several fronts. Although the theme of desegregating the literary canon reappears in The Origin of Others, times have changed since Playing in the Dark. Surely thanks to the more multicultural, multiracial canon that Morrison helped foster, no respectable version of American literature today omits writers of color. Morrison herself has received nearly all the honors a novelist can win: the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the French Legion of Honor, among many more. The Origin of Others is the result of her lectures in the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton series at Harvard University, where she is only the fourth woman and the second black lecturer in the 92-year history of the series.

 

Within the Norton Lectures’ tradition of wisdom, and among its tellers, Morrison represents a novelty by virtue of her gender, her race, and her American subject matter. Historically the series has shown a preference for European topics and for British scholars as avatars of learning. Not until 2014, when Herbie Hancock addressed “The Ethics of Jazz,” did the Norton recognize wisdom in the humanities as both pertaining to American culture and emanating from a black body. Morrison’s lectures and book are a historic achievement, as they confirm the impact of her intellectual tradition in American thought—a tradition that links her to James Baldwin, and in a younger generation Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the critique of whiteness.

Morrison’s earliest witnesses of Othering are two women who had been enslaved, Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs, both of whom later recorded their physical and mental torture at the hands of their owners. In her 1831 memoir, Prince described her owner’s reinforcement of hierarchy through beating; her master “would stand by and give orders for a slave to be cruelly whipped…walking about and taking snuff with the greatest composure.” Thirty years later, Jacobs wrote of how slavery made “the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious.” Within slavery, the process of Othering is physical, and is meant to work in only one direction, from the slaver to the slave.

Morrison asks instead, “Who are these people?”—focusing not on the victimized enslaved, but on the victimizing owners. “The definition of the inhuman describes overwhelmingly the punisher…the pleasure of the one with the lash.” Rendering the slave “a foreign species,” Morrison concludes, “appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal.” Humanity links the enslaved and the enslaver, no matter how viciously owners seek to deny the connection. Torture, the crucial ingredient of slave ownership, dehumanizes not the slave but the owner. “It’s as though they are shouting, ‘I am not a beast! I’m not a beast!’ ” Neither side escapes unscathed.

Even when physical force is used, the people doing the Othering can also bolster their self-definition through words. Thomas Thistlewood, an English planter and rapist who moved to Jamaica in 1750, documented his assaults on the women he owned, categorizing those that took place on the ground, in the fields, and in large and small rooms, whenever, wherever he wished. He noted the rapes in his journal in Latin. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes a very different tone, defining the Other by making a romance of slave life. Stowe presents a slave’s cabin through dulcet description that Morrison calls “outrageously inviting,” “cultivated,” “seductive,” and “excessive.” Here, a white child can enter black space without fear of the dark, the very sweetness of the language reinforcing the Otherness of places where black people live.

Othering is expressed through codes of belonging as well as difference. Most commonly, pronouns convey the boundaries between “we” and “them” through the use of first- and third-person plurals. “We” belong; “they” are Other and cannot belong. Those who are “them” can be described in the negative language of disgust: black as ugly, black as polluting. Definitions of color, Morrison says, define what it means to be an American, for belonging adheres to whiteness. The possession of whiteness makes belonging possible, and to lack that possession is not to belong, to be defined as something lesser, even something not fully human. Neither possession nor lack is natural or biological. Something has to happen; a process needs to get underway.

Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Artificial Nigger,” set in 1950s Georgia, well after the end of the slavery that kept people in place, exemplifies how Othering and belonging work in tandem. A white man, Mr. Head, and his grandson Nelson visit Atlanta for the day. Mr. Head, a poor and sad old man, undertakes to tutor Nelson in racial hierarchy. On the train to the city, a prosperous black man passes by. At first, Nelson sees “a man.” Then, under Mr. Head’s questioning, “a fat man…an old man.” These are wrong answers. Nelson must be educated. Mr. Head corrects him: “That was a nigger.” Nelson must undergo the process of unseeing a well-dressed man and reseeing a “nigger,” to understand the man as Other and himself and his uncle as people who belong to society.

Blackness remains the great challenge to writers of fiction on all sides of the color line, for the central role of race in American Othering affects us all, white and nonwhite, black and nonblack, not just writers who are white. Morrison describes her own struggles with color codes in her work, notably in her novels Paradise (1997) and Home (2012), and her story and play Recitatif (1983). “Writing non-colorist literature about black people,” she writes, “is a task I have found both liberating and hard.” Non-colorist literature does not make racial identity do the work of character creation. Characters may have racial identities—in the USA, race is too salient a part of experience to overlook. But race should not decide how a character acts or thinks or speaks or looks.

Morrison articulates her determination “to de-fang cheap racism, annihilate and discredit the routine, easy, available color fetish, which is reminiscent of slavery itself.” But it is far from easy. The actors in Recitatif, like editors and many readers, want to identify characters by race—a crucial ingredient of American identity, but one defined by generalizations rooted in the history of slavery and too facilely evoked through recognizable stereotypes. Racial identification, invented to serve needs of subjugation, can diminish a character’s individual specificity, that hallmark of Morrison’s brilliance.

Where Morrison identifies race, she struggles against the expectations of race. Paradise begins with color—“They shoot the white girl first.” But she never says which of the women in the group under attack is white, and offers almost no clues. (“Some readers have told me of their guess,” Morrison reveals in The Origin of Others, “but only one of them was ever correct.”) Paradise turns to themes of black colorism’s purity requirements and misogyny, the deadly means of Othering that Morrison’s characters employ. Colorism appears early on in the novel with wealth; in 1890, members of an established black community turn away a group of freedmen deemed too poor and too dark. The freedmen go on to found the town of Haven and its successor, Ruby, and from that moment up to the novel’s present in the 1970s, they pride themselves on their unadulterated blackness. Nearby, a group of women, seeking refuge from unhappy pasts, move into an old convent. One source of the Ruby men’s murderous hatred of the women is their racial heterogeneity—their utter lack of racial purity. But that is not the only source: In Paradise, misogyny fuels the hatred that kills.

Looking back on Home, Morrison admits to misgivings. It was a mistake, she concludes, to accede to her editor’s request for color-coding the main character, Frank Money. A minor mistake, for Money’s race only appears obliquely, after a two-page description of the hospital he is leaving. A reader would have to know that in the tiny AME Zion church that succors Money, AME means African Methodist Episcopal. A few pages later, the reader would need to grasp the meaning of he “won’t be able to sit down at any bus stop counter.” If Morrison lost the struggle between individual characterization and racial identification, which not only flattens out characters but also furthers racist habits of thought, it was just barely. Throughout her career, Morrison has confronted those habits and broken them down, not just in her own writing but also in her work as an editor.

In her 19 years at Random House, Morrison made known the stories of a variety of specific lives and their individual identities. She published biographies of the writer Toni Cade Bambara, the activist-scholar Angela Davis, and the athlete Muhammad Ali. In 1974, she published a nonfiction anthology: The Black Book, a scrapbook of black history drawn from the collection of Middleton A. Harris, who also served as its editor. There readers discovered photographs of black soldiers in impeccable uniforms, black families in their Sunday best, patents for typewriters and laundry machines, and early black movie stars, along with postcards of smiling white people at a lynching. The abundance and variety of material relating to the history of people of African descent in The Black Book opened millions of eyes to diversity within blackness, a crucial step in loosening the grip of American apartheid.

One of Morrison’s major novels was inspired by an 1856 article she found in The Black Book. Titled “A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child,” the article presented an interview with the fugitive slave Margaret Garner, who had murdered her youngest child after she and her family were captured in Ohio. Garner’s mother-in-law did not condemn the infanticide. Rather she condoned an act that saved a child from enslavement. The figure of the supportive mother-in-law fascinated Morrison and formed the basis for the character Baby Suggs, the un-churched folk preacher of black self-love, in her 1987 novel Beloved. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award; Oprah Winfrey made the novel into a movie. Embedding the emotional costs of enslavement in Morrison’s powerful language, Beloved spoke American history at the level of heart and gut, transforming the institution of slavery into tragedy with resonance for every reader and moviegoer. The novel and the movie communicated to everyone who loved their family the anguish of enslavement, of knowing your children were not yours at all.

What places The Origin of Others in this very moment of twenty-first-century American history—a moment that, sadly, bears much in common with earlier awful times—are two texts Morrison quotes at length. One is a testimony of lynchings committed in America in the early twentieth century. The other comes from Baby Suggs’s sermon to her people in Beloved.

The testimony of lynchings continues for the better part of two pages. This is only a small portion of it:

Ed Johnson, 1906 (lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a mob that broke into jail after a stay of execution had been issued).

Laura and L.D. Nelson, 1911 (mother and son, accused of murder, kidnapped from their cell, hanged from a railroad bridge near Okemah, Oklahoma).

Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, 1920 (three circus workers accused of rape without any evidence, lynched in Duluth, Minnesota; no punishment for their murders).

Raymond Gunn, 1931 (accused of rape and murder, doused with gasoline and burned to death by a mob in Maryville, Missouri).

Here is Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law figure in Beloved, as quoted in The Origin of Others:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them.”

To these, I would add a list currently circulating on Facebook of police shootings for which no one has been convicted of murder. As of late summer, the list looked like this, but, as we know, it is tragically subject to additions at any time:

#PhilandoCastile = No Conviction

#TerenceCrutcher = No Conviction

#SandraBland = No Conviction

#EricGarner = No Conviction

#MikeBrown = No Conviction

#RekiaBoyd = No Conviction

#SeanBell = No Conviction

#TamirRice = No Conviction

#FreddieGray = No Conviction

#DanroyHenry = No Conviction

#OscarGrantIII = No Conviction

#KendrecMcDade = No Conviction

#AiyanaJones = No Conviction

#RamarleyGraham = No Conviction

#AmadouDiallo = No Conviction

#TrayvonMartin = No Conviction

#JohnCrawfordIII = No Conviction

#JonathanFerrell = No Conviction

#TimothyStansburyJr = No Conviction

These lists, and Baby Suggs’s sermon, capture the physical peril of existing in the United States in a body that is black, of the deep and long tradition of black hating and black murder. And in doing so, they address a persistent theme in the writing of two other authors who play a part in The Origin of Others, one by name, one as a presence.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, the phenomenally best-selling personal statement in the guise of a letter to his teenage son, provides the foreword to The Origin of Others. Toni Morrison provided a blurb for Coates’s book: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Coates says Morrison’s endorsement was the only one he craved. Morrison recognized in Coates, the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has written, a quality that she prized in Baldwin, and that we can see in her own work: “a forensic, analytical, cold-eyed stare down of white moral innocence.” Coates cites Baldwin’s 1963 essay The Fire Next Time as a crucial inspiration, in form and in tone, to Between the World and Me.

Born in 1924, Baldwin serves as the intellectual ancestor to both Morrison and Coates, as tribune of the themes of violence against black people and of the process by which European immigrants came to see themselves as white people in America. Baldwin began The Fire Next Time with a letter to his 15-year-old nephew, James, accusing his fellow Americans of the unforgivable crime of having destroyed and continuing to destroy thousands of black lives without knowing and without wanting to know. Coates in 2015 writes to his then 15-year-old son that “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Morrison in 2017 adds, as I quoted above: “The necessity of rendering the slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal.” Both echo Baldwin’s 1984 short essay, “On Being White…and Other Lies,” first published in Essence, a magazine for black women. Refocusing black discourse from black subjects to whites, Baldwin made an early contribution to what would become whiteness studies at the end of the twentieth century.

It’s perhaps inevitable that such prominent authors would come to be seen as representatives of the entire community of black Americans. Coates says he speaks only for himself. Still, his vast audience demands spokesmanship from him. Morrison embraces the responsibility, and welcomed the message that her Nobel Prize belonged not only to her, but to black women writers generally. Certainly Baldwin embraced the role of black spokesman in the 1960s with a passion that sometimes moved his audiences profoundly—as in a Cambridge University debate with the conservative William F. Buckley in 1965. When Baldwin appeared, impassioned, on the The Dick Cavett Show in 1968, the host and other guests remained stolid and inert, even looking away in discomfort. The video is painful to watch, but instructive in the history of white American willful unknowing.

American culture has changed: Whether writing as oneself alone—Coates—or speaking for a people—Morrison—these two black writers have reaped the named and remunerated honors that are their due. Baldwin, who died in 1987, did not share their good fortune, despite informal recognition of his work’s fundamental importance and utter necessity. Between Baldwin and Coates, Morrison forms the keystone in an arch from neglect to celebration. This is not by accident or automatic recognition of genius. Historical agency, the action of protest, disrupted the withholding that was Baldwin’s fate. Activism hoisted Morrison’s reputation into its rightful place.

In the aftermath of Baldwin’s death in 1987, 48 prominent black poets, novelists, and scholars took note of his fate and demanded redress. In a letter published in The New York Times, they protested Baldwin’s neglect and insisted it not be repeated. They focused attention on the literary establishment’s ongoing habit of ignoring black writers, and pointed to the need to support another distinguished black author who had been denied commensurate honors: Toni Morrison, whose Beloved had recently lost the National Book Award. After the letter appeared in the Times, things did start to change. Beloved received the Pulitzer Prize, and Morrison’s work was never again disregarded. Morrison, in that moment, became a historical event. With the recognition of her writing and her whole tradition, America was opening up and offering black Americans and black authors belonging.

In the history that connects Baldwin to Morrison and Morrison to Coates, much has been gained in terms of literary reception. At the same time, however, something that distinguishes Morrison’s fiction has been diminished: women and gender. Not entirely lost, for in The Origin of Others, Morrison discusses her novels of women—notably Paradise and A Mercy. (She might well have added another of her major women-centered works, Sula.) She also cites the woman-to-woman relationship of motherhood that binds Sethe and Baby Suggs in Beloved. But to the extent that they complicate the racial Othering that the two male writers also treat, these themes lose sharpness.

In Paradise, Morrison touches on the scapegoating of the women who live in the Convent. But the murder described in the opening pages is a murder of women by men, a brutal act of woman-hating that cannot be explained purely by race or by the line—“They shoot the white girl first”—that opens the book so sensationally. A Mercy begins and ends with a mother’s relinquishment of her daughter to the American domestic slave trade that tore more than a million people, many of them children, from their families. The mother’s act can be partially explained by the history of the Atlantic slave trade, for the mother, an African captive, had been raped on her arrival in Barbados. Historical explanation, however, neglects the child’s emotional meaning and the centrality of women in Morrison’s work. In the novel, the child becomes the protagonist. Only at the end does she seem to understand the circumstances of her abandonment and drop the bitter thread running through the narrative.

Morrison’s depiction of women, of motherhood, of misogyny, of hatred and self-hatred within and around race constitutes the foundation of her genius as a writer and thinker. Nearly all Morrison’s protagonists are women whose identities and narrative trajectories fill entire fictional universes. A universe of women emerges most clearly in Paradise, in the community of lost and broken women who come together in the Convent and heal themselves, free of men’s oversight. The women in the Convent are Othered through race, but as women, they create their own belonging, which proves their undoing. Free women enrage the men of Ruby, whose “pure oil of hatred” clarifies the “venom” they feel towards them. Bent on murder, the men attack with “rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.”

The Origin of Others combines Toni Morrison’s accustomed eloquence with meaning for our times as citizens of the world. But the breadth of her humanist imagination emerges most gloriously from her magnificent fiction, in which women play leading roles, in which social and racial identities influence but never determine individual character; her novels guide our understanding of how both race and gender inflect experience without diminishing psychological uniqueness. Although her lectures and the race-centered tradition of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates are crucial to understanding her thought, they cannot contain her extraordinary vision of human Othering and belonging.

Nell Irvin Painter is the Edwards professor of American history, emerita, at Princeton University, where she directed the Program in African American Studies. She is the author of numerous books, including The History of White People, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era, and Creating  Black Americans

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