Remembering Toni Morrison: There was once an old, wise woman 

Toni Morrison is now a foremother to all who struggle against oppression and silencing, a chronicler of how systemic and personal cruelties can blight societies and communities

Remembering Toni Morrison: There was once an old, wise woman 

Cynthia Stephen

In the death of Toni Morrison, the world lost a wise voice which articulated, with a rare skill, the lives and experiences of the oppressed and marginalised. In a moving tribute to her memory and her impact on their lives, the Washington Post carried eight short pieces by black women thinkers and writers. Esi Edugyan, author of two books, writes of her: “For a generation of black female writers in particular, she was crucial, the one without whom nothing would have been possible. Her work spoke of our lives and directly to us, and it was also universal. She gave us the permission of visibility; she said, as much with the fact of her body as with her stirring prose, that lives that had rarely been acknowledged in serious literature without ridicule or censure not only mattered but also were a central part of the Western story….

She wrote of black life in all its complexity, quarreling with the notion that the “black experience” was a single monolithic thing. She spoke as honestly about the marginalization of black people within the larger fabric of American society as about the ways black communities can fracture and sometimes turn against themselves.

For an India where women’s lives are still hedged in by gender, patriarchy, tradition and religion, any voice which articulates experiences from the margins are a boon. Toni Morrison, whose books, essays, interviews and lectures, as well as her work as an editor who discovered and promoted some of the most celebrated black writers of her time, is now a foremother to all who struggle against oppression and silencing, a chronicler of how systemic and personal cruelties can blight societies and communities. She is one who has taught us to celebrate our lives, cultures, and articulate our own voices. She is a role model to every woman who ever raised her voice against cruelty, violence or injustice.

Toni Morrison, 88, died in New York on August 5, 2019, of complications from pneumonia. Thus ended an illustrious life of achievement and enriched with recognition in all the fields where she left her mark.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah and George Wofford, she later took the name Anthony, shortened to Toni.

She graduated with a BA in English in 1953 from the historically black Howard university in Washington DC and earned her Masters in 1955 from Cornell. She taught English for two years at Texas Southern University, Houston, and at her alma mater, Howard, for seven years. During this time, she met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958. They divorced in 1964. The marriage produced two sons.

In 1965, she began a 20-year stint as Editor with Random House, first for two years in a textbook division in Syracuse, New York, and later as senior editor in the fiction department in their New York City offices, the first black woman to do so. While here, she played a crucial role in identifying and publishing a number of black writers.

A collection of the works of black writers entitled Contemporary African Literature (1972) including important black voices like the Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and the South African Athol Fugard. She also brought into the mainstream a new set of young African- American writers like the celebrated Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Huey Newton, and Gayl Jones. She published the works of a little-known novelist and poet, Henry Dumas, who was killed in a shooting by a transit officer in the NY City Subway in 1968. She also published the autobiography of Muhammad Ali, the champion boxer.

Another project The Black Book, (1999), an anthology of documentation of black life in the US from the time of slavery to the 1920s, was a huge success, with one review stating, “Editors, like novelists, have brain children – books they think up and bring to life without putting their own names on the title page. Mrs. Morrison has one of these in the stores now…[i]t will go like hot cakes.”

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1970, and though not an initial success, began to sell after it made the reading lists of several colleges including the City University of New York. It was based on a short story she shared in an informal meeting of writers and poets in Howard University. It was an exploration of the longing of a young black girl to get blue eyes, which to her epitomised beauty and social acceptance and belonging, and the terrible impact of this longing on her life.

Her second novel, Sula, on the friendship between two black women was nominated for the National book Award. Her third novel, written in 1977, explores four generations of through the life of a young man. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was also selected by the Book of the Month Club, the first by a black woman and the second black writer to be selected for the honour. Tar Baby (1981) is an attempt to address the stereotypical myths created by white men that shape the lives of blacks and to substitute them with their own values.

Her best known novel, Beloved, (1987) is searingly told, based on a true story of an enslaved African American woman of the 1880s, who escapes slavery only to be pursued by slave hunters. She kills her two year old girl but is caught before she can kill herself. The novel imagines the dead baby coming back in the form of a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her family. This novel won critical success and showcased the writer’s wide-ranging skills and command over emotional, technical and storytelling skills and was widely acclaimed by critics and stayed on the best seller lists for 25 weeks.

She wrote two other novels to complete a trilogy known as the Beloved Trilogy. The trilogy’s second novel, Jazz, came out in 1992, and is notably written in language that has the cadence and rhythms of the genre of music which was and continues to be one of the richest contributions of African Americans to the world’s cultural heritage. It deals with a love triangle set in NY during the Harlem resistance in the 1920s.

The following year, 1993, she was nominated the Nobel laureate for Literature. The third novel of the trilogy, entitled Paradise, came out in 1997. It is the story of the setting up of a (fictional) all-black town by families and a few others in the late 19th Century and follows the fortunes of the town and its families and other residents over the next few decades.

Morrison’s extensive fiction oeuvre cover themes which include universal human predicaments, set in the context of the lives of African Americans, the systemic oppressions they face resulting in both personal and social dystopias. The search for love, beauty, meaning and acceptance, the experiences of loss and its impact on the psyche of her characters, their families, and their dwelling places are depicted with authenticity and insight and succeed in placing the life experiences of generations of African Americans on the cultural and social mainstream of the United States.

Her essays, the lectures she has given at important venues and events are very powerful commentaries, elaborating with wisdom and unique timeless relevance, important social and political processes and developments. Her Nobel acceptance speech is a case in point.

She begins by saying: “Once upon a time there was an old woman. Wise. Blind.” She could have been speaking of herself, for she goes on: “In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.”

In her retelling of her version of an ancient folk tale, the old woman is subject to unfair questioning by a group of young urban youth. They hold a bird in the hand and ask her to say whether the bird is alive or dead. After a long silence, the old woman says “It’s in your hands. It’s in your hands.”

Morrison expands on this allegory by pointing out: “So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency - as an act with consequences.

So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse.

For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.”

That the wise woman is a prophet is evident from another quote from the same speech. She says with a prescience which could have been referring to the present-day situation in her part of the world, and in ours : “In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wiferly properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.

Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

The growth of the people’s resistance in the US in the 20th century gained momentum in the 60s with the Civil Rights movements across the country, and spawned a fresh intellectual challenge led by black men and women to white supremacy and oppression. Of her part in this, she says, “I may not have been marching on the streets with a megaphone, but I made it my business as an editor at Random house to collect African Americans who were.”

Always conscious of her role as a minority writer, she said they must go through four stages: “A period of anger, a period of self-discovery, a period of celebratory use of the culture, and finally, an arrival at a conceptual knowledge of the ethnic experience.”

But her value to the Indian reader probably lies most in the arena of feminist writing and critique, specifically the newly developing area of women’s writing and criticism from the perspective of the marginalized sections, especially women.

She wrote an important essay, “What Black women think about Women’s Lib” in which she says, “What do black women feel about Women’s Lib? Distrust. It is white, therefore suspect. In spite of the fact that liberating movements in the black world have been catalysts for white feminism, too many movements and organizations have made deliberate overtures to enroll blacks and have ended up by rolling them.”

The Indian women’s movement has for long reflected differences similar to those referred to by black women, but with the additional layer of caste in addition to colour and class. In recent years, Indian women from the marginalized sections have begun to articulate their own experience and critiques of societal forces including Feminism, and have been writing about Dalit women’s experience using the term Dalit feminism.

A more incisive appraisal has critiqued the use of the term Feminism to the experiences of Dalit women, and instead, the term Marginalised Indian Womanism has been preferred, over the more obvious choice of Dalit Womanism, basically so as to be a more inclusive rather than an exclusive term for the marginalised sections of women in India.

Toni Morrison’s life and work, which have also brought to the fore the tortures, the agonies and the sufferings of the black enslaved women and men, as well as celebrated their lives and arrived at her own conceptual expression of her own ethnicity and identity, are an inspiration and guide to the newly developing articulations of the marginalized women of India. As one who received the pinnacle of artistic recognition for her body of work which has uncompromisingly spoken truth to power and articulated the experiences and visions of the hitherto silenced and oppressed black women, she is a shining example that another world is indeed possible, where Black, Dalit, indigenous women’s voices will be heard, valued, respected, and celebrated, where the voices, the stories and the wisdom of the silenced and oppressed women will inform and shape the discourse and the course of the affairs of the world, both now and into the future.

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