Sunday, February 11, 2018

#PHNBlackHistoryMonth: Toni Morrison



Toni Morrison

“You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” That penultimate line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved — her fifth novel and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction succinctly explains the significance of what Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, has contributed not only to literature but to the understanding of the history of black people in the United States.

Many writers used fiction to tell the story of our people, to reveal the physical and mental burden of half a millennium of systemic dehumanization. But it was Morrison who told you straight up – from behind a lectern at Princeton University or in her writings: Her “word-work” was not meant to “battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost,” she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She wrote for a reader who whispered to her, “Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”

It was not her prose’s job to teach you the horrors of slavery. If you didn’t know, she’d already told you in The Black Book, the seminal 1974 collection of primary evidence documenting the joy and pain of the Africans brought to America and the generations they begat. Morrison did not plumb the depths of our history to prove to anybody, not even ourselves, that we were human. The power of her novels lives in the voices of characters who are given their own stories — to hell with you if you’re too scared to look.


There are no lectures in her novels. Not even in her magnum opus, Beloved, about Sethe, a woman haunted by the child she killed instead of returning her to slavery. Sethe’s story of survival in the face of breathtaking brutality is her own. Her thirst for freedom for her children and for a future was not written to make you feel grateful for yours. Her rage and sorrow may mirror our own, but it is not ours. To read Morrison is to be reminded that each of us has our own journey. We need only crack open one of her books at any page to find the strength of fellow travelers. To be one with the last utterance in Beloved. “Me? Me?” – Raina Kelley

Source: The Undefeated
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