How Toni Morrison’s legacy plays out in South Africa’s universities

Toni Morrison’s legacy echoes across the world.
EPA-EFE/Arturo Peña-Romano

Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University

I first encountered Toni Morrison during my undergraduate years at Rhodes University in South Africa where her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved (1987), was taught as part of an American Literature course.

It moved me in ways that no other academic account of transatlantic, African American slavery had. Beloved is set in the 19th century. It tells the story of a runaway slave who commits infanticide rather than seeing her child returned to slavery. As with Morrison’s entire fictional oeuvre, the novel profoundly embodies and humanises black life.

Part of what motivated Morrison – who has died at the age of 88 – was impatience at how black literature was typically taught as sociology but was considered intellectually and artistically bereft.

In her Tanner lecture series delivered at the University of Michigan in 1988, she defiantly stated, in defence of a generically marginalised African American presence:

We have always been imagining ourselves … subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience … We are not, in fact, ‘other’. We are choices.

The inspiration provided by her fictional writing and critical scholarship around the ideological, artistic and scholarly place of black literature helped carve out an imaginative and actual space for the likes of me – a black African female – within a predominantly white and male, largely Eurocentric literary and intellectual establishment.

Today, I teach at the same university where I first read Beloved and discovered this remarkably talented, intellectually formidable African-American woman novelist. And her work continues to echo. Not just for me, but for the new generation of literature students who cross my path each year.

A complicated place in the canon

In some ways, perhaps Morrison is even more relevant in South African universities today than she’s ever been. Race is a topic that’s simultaneously sanitised and amplified in the country’s everyday discourse. Morrison’s determined refusal to shy away from race reverberates across the Atlantic, resonating with students who still live the enduring political and economic legacies of racial colonialism and apartheid.

On the face of it, the country’s demands for social redress would seem to align with Morrison’s thinking. But a closer reading shows how her fiction strains against the confines of parochial societal interpretations and exercises. It makes the demand for more than superficial change implemented along purely racial lines. It insists on an interrogation and re-imagining of the entire architecture and workings of race.

This reveals how Morrison’s place in both the African-American and global literary canon is quite complicated. It also makes clear why it is that she appeals to so many of my students, across the (proverbial) divide. Each year I watch students from varied racial, social, cultural, economic and gender (or gendered) backgrounds engage with her novels in my classroom. Their readings are intuitive and discerning. This yields often interesting and vigorous discussions, and even heated debates, that reflect the complexity and applicability of her experiences and intellect – and theirs.

Take her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). It provides a delineation of racial self-hatred, incest and familial violence that critiques the deleterious effects of white hegemony. But it also controversially explores and confronts the internalised delimiting contours of black counter-narratives.

The book’s feminist focus on the sexual abuse of women speaks to the damaging effects of patriarchal ideologies and practices within black communities. It resonates with all people in South Africa – a country with incredibly high rates of gender violence.

Jazz (1992) is another Morrison novel whose complex existential narratives require equally complex interpretations. Structurally, it mimics the musical genre’s polyvocal, sometimes cacophonous, intonations to trace the lives of African Americans across time and space. It’s a tough read for two reasons.

First, it requires that students have an appreciation of the technical workings of the artistic cultural form that is jazz. Second, the novel demands from them a critical inquiry into and participatory reading of the experiences of “a people”; of histories that are both outside of and intersect with their own.

This is particularly important at a time when calls are rampant in South African higher education circles for the “Africanisation” of curricula. These calls appeal to contemporary nationalist demands and are in direct contrast to Morrison’s stated intolerance of “lazy, easy, brand-name applications”. Instead, she and her work insisted on the painstakingly “hard work” of non-prescriptive and interrogative, “border-crossing” analysis.

The measure of a life

In her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, Morrison stated:

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

And that is the measure of Toni Morrison’s life. Her dense, demanding prose reflects our continued need – in post-apartheid South Africa’s university classrooms, and elsewhere – to meditate critically and consciously upon our own fragile and imperfect existences. Her narratives put forward morally responsive and socially transformative ways of being in the world. Morrison’s legacy, then, is not just to literature: it is to the imperatives of social justice and to the ideals of humanity not yet realised.The Conversation

Aretha Phiri, Senior lecturer, Department of Literary Studies in English, Rhodes University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Toni Morrison: American literary giant made it her life’s work to ensure that black lives (and voices) matter

Tessa Roynon, University of Oxford

The peerless novelist and cultural commentator Toni Morrison, who has died aged 88, never accepted the received wisdom about anything. In a writing career that spanned half a century – from the appearance of the first of her 11 novels, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, to that of her last essay collection, Mouth Full of Blood, in February 2019 – she unfailingly cast in new light both aspects of human experience and moments in American history that, in our complacency, we thought we already knew.

Morrison was born (as Chloe Wofford) in the depressed Rustbelt town of Lorain, Ohio, to a family of modest financial means and rich cultural and emotional resources. Her father worked as a welder at the nearby US Steel plant and her mother was a key member of the African Methodist Episcopal church choir. Her grandparents – who had migrated north from Alabama and Georgia – were also a significant presence and influence. The music, storytelling and reading from the King James Bible that characterised Morrison’s childhood were to indelibly shape the values and aesthetics of her own writing.

As the first member of her family to go to college, Morrison attended Howard University in Washington DC between 1949-53 (where she majored in English and minored in classics) – and was shocked by the segregation and “colourism” she encountered. She went on to complete her MA in English at Cornell in 1955 and, after various teaching and publishing jobs, became a trade editor for Random House in 1968.

Here, in the New York office, she reshaped the American literary scene by actively seeking out and promoting the fiction of black authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Leon Forrest and Gayl Jones. She also edited the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.

Morrison was able to focus full time on her writing after the resounding success of her third novel, Song of Solomon, in 1977. Reputed to be one of Barack Obama’s favourite books, this text – which focused on the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s – is typically Morrisonian in its mock-heroic blending of the Bildungsroman (conventions about an individual’s progression to knowledge through experience), with classical epic paradigms, West African myth and African American folkloric wisdom.

It is notably untypical, at the same time, in its focus on a male protagonist (the strangely named Milkman Dead – names and naming were always all-important to Morrison), and on friendships and family ties between men.

The novel for which Morrison is best known, Beloved, was to follow in 1987 and next came her arguably underrated (because it was insufficiently understood?) masterpiece, Jazz (1992). Each of these continues the intense focus on individuals that both society and history have spurned or overlooked. These are those Morrison has called the “disremembered and unaccounted for”, that she initiated with her examination of the interior life of the abused “ugly” black girl, Pecola Breedlove, in The Bluest Eye.

Both the exploration of an infanticidal, formerly enslaved mother’s quest for atonement in Beloved and the depiction in Jazz of the struggles and triumphs of a middle-aged couple, migrants from rural Virginia, in 1920s Harlem, epitomise Morrison at her uncanny best. Her work is unflinching in her attention to the brutal realities of innumerable black lives and attends equally to their creative resilience – combining broad historical sweep with an intimate knowledge of the individual human psyche.

Nobel laureate

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and numerous other awards and accolades have followed. She is read, studied and revered in numerous languages all over the world. But our sense of loss at her passing should not blind us to the fact that for far too long she was at once a celebrity and insufficiently acknowledged – particularly in the more conservative wings of academia and the media – as a figure of universal (as opposed to “minority”) significance.

Even now, there persists some resistance to including her work on “high literary” syllabi. She once observed wryly, at a book reading, that she was taught in the African American studies departments, in sociology and even in Law faculties, but rarely in the English departments of elite universities. There continues a failure to recognise the extent of her contribution to intellectual history that both her fiction and her extraordinary essays constitute.

Her reclaiming of modernism as primarily a black experience, as well as her insistence that any distinction between the aesthetic and the political is a false dichotomy, and her illuminations of the way colonialism and imperialism consciously fabricated African culture and history as irrelevant, are among her greatest legacies.

Public intellectual

Morrison herself was acutely aware of the complex and sometimes insidious nature of her reception, repeatedly addressing this in interviews and comment pieces. She frequently mentioned the initial New York Times review of Sula, for example, which implied that such a powerful writer ought really to focus her attention on something more important than the lives of black women in the Midwest. In a 1983 interview with literary critic Nellie McKay, she famously insisted that she was “not like James Joyce, not like Thomas Hardy, not like Faulkner”. Such comparisons at that time, she believed, obscured her specific commitment to black politics and aesthetics.

Never resting on her laurels, throughout her professorship at Princeton, her guest curatorship at the Louvre in 2006-07, in her retirement and until the very end, she remained profoundly alert to the way her books and essays were read, (mis)understood and (mis)represented. In her role as public intellectual and fearless social commentator, she was prescient about the racist violence that precipitated the Black Lives Matter movement and prophetic about the regressions that the Trump era has entailed.

Although her unwavering commitment to social justice and radical change perhaps occasionally led her to overexplain – in the forewords she wrote for the Vintage reissues of the novels in the early 2000s, for example, or in her final novel, God Help the Child, which lacks the pitch perfection of its predecessors – we shall ignore her wisdom about power (and how to subvert it) at our peril.

A recent documentary film, The Foreigner’s Home, depicts Morrison drawing parallels between the trauma undergone by captured Africans transported on the slaving ships’ Middle Passage to the Americas, the experience of black residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the current worldwide migrant crisis. The very making of such connections, and the way she deploys her customary stunning oratory to expose uncomfortable truths about the nature of “home” and “homelessness”, epitomises all that will endure about the phenomenon that was Toni Morrison.

Above all, the insights of this film insist, as does her fiction implicitly, and her Nobel Prize lecture explicitly, that the future is “in our hands”. The power and the responsibility for making the world a better place lies not with the great artists whose passing we mourn, Morrison always maintained, but with ourselves – the readers and thinkers who have so much work still to do.The Conversation

Tessa Roynon, Teaching and Research Fellow, Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The most influential American author of her generation, Toni Morrison’s writing was radically ambiguous

Toni Morrison photographed in 2010: in both her fiction and non-fiction, she sought to expose the ‘national amnesia’ underlying often unconscious forms of racism.
Ian Langsdon/EPA

Paul Giles, University of Sydney

Toni Morrison, who has died aged 88, was the most influential and studied American author of her generation. Born as Chloe Wofford in Ohio in 1931, she graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English from Howard University, a historically black college located in Washington DC. She then completed an M.A. at Cornell on the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, before beginning an academic teaching career.

She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958, but after their divorce in 1964 Morrison started working as an editor for Random House in New York. It was here that she began writing fiction, publishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. It was her third novel published in 1977, Song of Solomon, that was her breakthrough work, winning the National Critics’ Book Circle Award.

Her most famous novel, Beloved followed in 1987. It was a fictionalised account of the 19th-century slave Margaret Garner, who killed her own daughter to save her from slavery.

Morrison became a well-known figure within the worlds of American academia, publishing and cultural life. In 1990, she gave the Massey lectures at Harvard dealing with the invisibility of the African American presence in American literature. These influential essays were later published as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

The following year Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also held a Chair in the Humanities at Princeton from 1989 until her retirement in 2006 and continued to publish important novels during the latter part of her career.

In her Massey lectures, Morrison spoke of her ambition

to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open up as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World.

Both her creative and her critical work are designed to remap the contours of American literature and culture. She aims to highlight what was omitted in the conventional forms of liberalism that governed institutional life in America during the second half of the 20th century.

Her 1993 novel Jazz, for example, involves a self-conscious revision of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mythological “Jazz Age.” For Fitzgerald himself, this Jazz Age was centred almost exclusively around white culture. By setting her work in Harlem during the same era, Morrison executes in fictional form the remapping project that she outlined in her Harvard lectures.

‘The national amnesia’

Arguing that “the time for undiscriminating racial unity has passed,” Morrison sought, in both her fiction and non-fiction, to expose the “national amnesia” underlying often unconscious forms of racism.

Given such a remarkable career trajectory, it would seem Morrison’s literary reputation at the time of her death could hardly have been higher. Nevertheless, there is a significant gap between Morrison’s status as an Establishment figure and the radical ambiguities of her fiction. The latter, more elusive quality might well sustain her literary reputation more compellingly over time.

In Beloved, Morrison develops a conception of “rememory” (the character Sethe explains in the book this is the act of remembering a memory). Many of her fictions feature ways in which old ghosts haunt contemporary scenes.

The rhetorical reversals that are a common feature of Beloved reflect a condition where past and present, slavery and freedom, are all mixed up together. Indeed, the best of Morrison’s fiction is powerful precisely because it flirts with a pathological quality that avoids one-dimensional, political formulations.

In Tar Baby (1981), the reader is told how the black heroine’s “legs burned with the memory of tar,” despite her degree in art history from the Sorbonne. In Jazz, the heroine finds herself compelled to go back to a department store and “slap the face of a white salesgirl” who had snubbed her, despite recognising this to be self-destructive gesture.

Fatalistic cycles

Morrison, who studied classical literature at university, was influenced intellectually by the fatalistic cycles that permeate ancient Greek theatre. Something of this darker mood enters into her own fiction.

This is why Morrison’s novels are more unsettling than was her public persona. Unlike many of her intellectual contemporaries, she retained a traditional faith in aesthetic quality and the literary canon, defending fiction as offering “a more intimate version of history”.

She endorsed Barack Obama as presidential candidate in 2008 by commending his “creative imagination, which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.”

Yet such polite terms as “creative imagination” find themselves contradicted by the cycles inherent in Morrison’s own imaginative universe. In Sula, for instance, the institution of a “National Suicide Day” epitomizes the kind of in-turned violence typical of her sombre fiction.

Morrison’s art resists classification. This quality of aesthetic elusiveness and ambiguity will make her more disconcerting representations of the psychology of power resonate with future generations of readers.The Conversation

Paul Giles, Professor, Challis Chair of English, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Further Reflections on Toni Morrison

The links below are to some further reflections on the life and legacy of Toni Morrison.

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Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

The links below are to articles reflecting on the death of acclaimed author Toni Morrison, who has died aged 88.

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Not My Review: Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison (1977)

The link below is to a book review of ‘Song of Solomon,’ by Toni Morrison.

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