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America, if it is anything, has always been a land in need of prophets. How could it be otherwise for a place that espouses the loftiest of missions while so often existing in violation of that very same mission? The task of the prophet is to exist in that chasm between a nation’s ideals and its realities; to be a witness against hypocrisy and injustice, but to do so in a manner that doesn’t indulge in that soothing narcotic of cynicism. A prophet’s task is to remember; to goad; to bear witness and to hold account. A prophet must be both justified and hopeful.
Today one of our most important prophets fell silent, with the passing of novelist and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison at the age of 88. In works like Sula, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, Morrison did the world-weary and heart-breaking work of the Hebrew prophets; she approached that demon which is American history and, as she writes in The Bluest Eye, understood that “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.”
Morrison understood America’s legacies of institutionalized racism, exploitation, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and slavery as no other writer did. She repurposed the modernist idiom of similarly gifted precursors like William Faulkner and interrogated those dark stains on America’s history, but from the opposite side of that racial divide than he did. Faulkner is perennially quoted for his summation that the past isn’t even the past, but in The Sound and the Fury he writes that a “man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you’d think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.” Morrison understood (as did Faulkner) that such is equally true of nations, even if we try to erase those misfortunes in the bromides of founder-worshiping nostalgia and technocratic distraction. Whether we like it or not, America is a graveyard that is as haunted as surely as former slave Sethe’s Ohio homestead is haunted by the ghost of her murdered daughter in Beloved.
In many ways Morrison was a gothic writer, but then all of the greatest American authors are. How could it be otherwise in a land forcefully stolen and then populated with the descendants of the violently kidnapped? From Jonathan Edwards invoking the terrors of hell-fire in his 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”to Morrison’s own Beloved, America has heard the chains, spectral and otherwise, clanging and dragging across our own history. Such was the haunting in Morrison’s corpus, starting with The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s novel about how perceptions and standards of beauty have the potential to warp us; and in novels like Song of Solomon with its detailed description of a black community in Michigan that the evocatively named Macon “Milkman” Dead calls home; the cross-class relationship between two African Americans in Tar Baby; and A Mercy, with its accounts of how a pandemic decimated the indigenous people. And of course, there is her masterpiece(s), the loosely connected trilogy of Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise.
It’s crucial to remember that Morrison’s transcendent genius was the product of black culture, black vernacular, black religion, black philosophy, and black experience. But, as is the nature of transcendent genius, Morrison’s writing doesn’t just speak about a particular group, it speaks to all groups—albeit not necessarily in the same ways. This should not be understood as equivalent to some anemic universalism, but rather that the very nature of her querying, and indeed of her prophecy, is instrumental to all Americans in understanding the cursed inheritance that is our nation.
And indeed the ambivalence of American history can be a curse. Our educations, our civil religion, and our stories all imagine an America that is in some sense innocent. Better to understand the nation with something that Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon when she asked if there was:
“anything so loathsome as a willfully innocent man? Hardly. An innocent man is a sin before God. Inhuman therefore untrustworthy. No man should live without absorbing the sins of his kind, the foul air of his innocence, even if it did wilt rows of angel trumpets and cause them to fall from their vines.”
Something to keep in mind when we repress what’s been done in our names in favor of the saccharine sweet myths of American greatness and American goodness and American sinlessness.
Sometimes Morrison is simply categorized as an “African-American writer”—and she was that of course. But in addition to being a black writer, Morrison was an author of blackness. An author of whiteness too. Her 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, is one of the most astute literary critical readings of how “whiteness” as a concept plays out in American literature, from the massive giant that appears at the conclusion of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to the blanched hide of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Based on a 1990 lecture delivered at Harvard, Morrison interrogates how the presence of Africans in early America led to a symbolic system of representation in our literature that posed the binary of “blackness” and “whiteness” in contrast to one another. This was an “organizing of American coherence” predicated on a “certain power of blackness” made to undercut itself in the service of a “new cultural hegemony.” Morrison argues that since the “formation of the nation necessitated coded language and purposeful restriction to deal with the racial disingenuousness and moral frailty at its heart, so too did the literature, whose founding characteristics extend into the twentieth century, reproduce the necessity for codes and restriction.”
That “race” is a pseudo-scientific social construct is besides the point, Morrison would remind us. Of course race is a pseudo-scientific social construct, but that doesn’t mean that real people don’t live with and suffer under the legacies of racism. Playing in the Dark is a helpful rejoinder to every self-satisfied prig who sanctimoniously informs us that they “don’t see color.” Rather, Morrison explains how we can’t help but see color, even if it’s not really there. As one character says in Tar Baby, “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?” Playing in the Dark does many things, and far from being some blanket castigation of American literary history, it’s actually an adroit analysis and acknowledgement of the unheralded and unheard black cultural influence on our national letters.
Such is Morrison’s respect for words, for the theurgy that is language, that she always defers to its ability to construct and create worlds. It’s true that those discourses of race have been mediated through language and literature; but it’s also true that it’s a civic duty to question and deconstruct those traditions. But as Morrison reminds us in Playing in the Dark, it’s also language’s ability to construct new and better, fairer, and more beautiful worlds, so that the “ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
God takes prophets from us when we’re most in need of them—perhaps the better to recruit new voices unto the wilderness. Morrison’s witness to language’s power to both destroy and create has been on ample display in our current season of American blood-letting. In her 1993 Nobel lecture, Morrison explicated the dangers of “Tongue-suicide,” which is “common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is… human.”
Tongue-suicide is the “rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards… [it is the] language to countenance rape, torture, assassination.” With an uncanny prophetic voice, Morrison said to that assembly in Stockholm a quarter century ago that such language was “crafted to lock creative people into cages.”
Tongue-suicide was to be contrasted with language’s other side, that of “Word-work.” Such is the literature which is “sublime… because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—that way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Certainly, such word-work was the measure of Morrison’s life; the utterance of expressions against injustice, the creation of meaning opposed to nihilism. Prophecy is, after all, composed in the medium of language. More than even a prophet, Toni Morrison was fully, completely, and blessedly a writer, and for that we must express gratitude. She ushered us into a sanctum of the sacred, no matter how painful it could be.