Toni Morrison: A radical ancestor

In death, the woman who through her novels and nonfiction assumed the centrality of the black experience compels us to seek out the richness of meaning through careful, precise writing.

Toni Morrison, who died on Monday, was one of the great novelists of our time.

She wrote the complex internal lives of people who had been robbed of the recognition of their humanity by the cascading brutalities of racism. She knew that to write is to assume power, and that, in her words, “writing is really a way of thinking”. When she wrote, she saw us. Her prose was crystalline, her characters compelling and her narratives transporting.

As Angela Davis, another great figure of the 20th century, says: “She altered the architecture of what is considered human, how language can function and what the work of writing is. I think we would be living in a very different world had we not experienced the impact of Toni Morrison’s writing. There is no doubt about the extent to which she has influenced the literary world, not only in this country but all over … I don’t think that our notion of freedom would be what it is without the impact of Toni Morrison … those of us who do political work, radical political work, always insist on the importance of transcending the single individual and to think about collective processes, and Toni Morrison has done this in her writing.”

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In death, Morrison becomes what feminist academic Pumla Gqola said of Ahmed Essop: a “radical ancestor”. As photographer Gulshan Khan pointed out online, “radical ancestor” applies to Morrison too, and so she joins a luminous pantheon of writers, artists and militants.

Our grief is intimate, particularly for black women who saw parts of ourselves in the words of the writer born as Chloe Wofford in the working class steel town of Lorain, Ohio – who took on her public name in taking up her pen. As Boris Kachka asks in a profile: “Who was the author of Toni Morrison? The writer was a creation of a woman named Chloe Wofford, who knew that Toni wasn’t hers; she was ours.”

As an editor, Morrison said she aimed to “publish African American and African writers who would otherwise not be published or not be published well, or edited well.” As a writer, she held the label “black writer” close, stating, “I prefer it.” Morrison was singularly committed to writing the African-American experience for black audiences. “I am writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me,” she stated. Rather than writing “the whole of literature”, she viewed the African-American experience as being “richer” and having “more complex sources”. “It pulls from something that’s closer to the edge. It’s much more modern. It has a human future.” The ultimate function of Morrison’s words were to write black people back into humanity. 

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While her work is fundamentally American it, like so many profound investigations of the particular, quickly acquired a universal reach and resonance.

For many African writers and thinkers, the weight of this loss is felt deeply. “Many writers today feel like we have lost our literary mother,” wrote Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma. Editor and critic Ellah Wakatama Allfrey recalls her sister finishing The Bluest Eye as a young girl at a friend’s farm outside Harare saying, “I was furious that this white man Toni knew our secrets.” Our secrets. Ours.

For Chinua Achebe, Morrison’s Beloved probes “the African conundrum: the question of what happened to us in the continent and in the diaspora”. These are the links that still tether us, even as her work retains its particular focus. At the celebration marking Achebe’s 70th birthday, he and Morrison sat onstage considering which book they would take to a deserted island. Achebe said Beloved, adding that the answer was not to be “precious”, but related to the novel’s cross-continental echoes in the history of slavery and the questions this connection poses to black people all over the world. 

Writing about the event in the New York Times, reporter Somini Sengupta notes, Morrison said that instead of taking a book to a deserted island, she would want reams of paper and some pencils. “I’d like to write the book I’d like to read,” she offered. ”I would write between the lines,” Mr. Achebe softly responded.”

The public intellectual who did language

Morrison was not only a genuinely great American novelist. She was also one of its most remarkable public intellectuals. Watching her in recorded interviews is to perceive a steady gaze, melodically measured words and a razor-sharp intellect. Her words are clear cut, free of jargon and philosophical. 

Language was Morrison’s most extraordinary talent, weapon and interest, as she sought to think through its dimensions and its power, not only wanting to wield it, but also to understand and expand its possibilities. 

As the endless tributes moved through our social media timelines, one quote often appears, drawn from her Nobel Prize for Literature address: “We die, that may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” 

Morrison asks us to do language actively, to remake the tools with which we engage the world. 

This imperative has been central to the work of many black thinkers, including people such as Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, who all sought to bend and reinvent language, in the way that great jazz musicians combine and bend notes to create something new.

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James Baldwin famously wanted to “write a sentence as clean as a bone”. In Morrison, that instruction finds profound expression. Her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is exacting and rigorous, each word feeling deliberate and particular. Morrison knew that to choose a word was to create a unique meaning. “Morrison bent language to her will,” literary critic Dwight Garner writes. “Her prose could be lush, or raw and demotic, or carefree and eccentric, often on a single page.”

Her sentences are in the service of more than beauty. Morrison did politics in language. Questions of race, class, history, privilege and power are delicately and deliberately woven into her novels. In her nonfiction – a space in which her prodigious intellectual strength is powerfully present – she spoke to the theory that informed how she wrote.

In a world in which an unprecedented number of words are published online daily, her archive asks us not to choose easy phrases or sentences that will be instantly familiar and receive quick, ephemeral applause. She asks us to seek out words that open up reality, interrogate and search what it means to live where we do, in our particular bodies and situations, and to reach for “a human future”. She asks us to use the words that come closest to the truth: timeless, worthy words. 

Her archive asks us not only to write about power or back to it, but to write beyond it – to find the lusher experience on the other side and the underside of history. In Morrison’s radical ancestry, she opens a path to us – inviting us to question not just the world around us, but ourselves too.

In this moment of mourning, we are asked what it would mean to write between Morrison’s lines, above and around them, outside their boundaries, to rest our language against her, to propel our letters in different directions, but, ultimately, to write in service of her memory. Morrison’s archive offers us a palimpsest: her work is a manuscript to be written onto, again and again, with the memory of the work that has come before it always remaining in place. 

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