By Tommy Housworth, Contributor
I’m completely out of my element here, let’s get that out on the table straight away. Writing about Toni Morrison, a bold, fearless African-American woman who wrote unflinchingly for her African-American readers, without any regard for me, a white male, nor my possible interest in her work.
Morrison referred to this as the “white gaze,” a writer’s assumption that the reader is white and the weighted self-consciousness that accompanies that belief. Morrison would have none of that. She welcomed white readers with opened arms, but gave no quarter to them in the creation of her art. The literary world – the world at large – is better for it.
Morrison passed away on August 6th at the age of 88. What she left behind, alongside a canon of acclaimed work — eleven novels, nine works of non-fiction, five children’s books and a pair of plays — is a vital legacy that fearlessly speaks not only from the black perspective but also To an exclusively black audience. This is a deep well of historical literature that others are invited to drink from, but would never be sweetened or altered to accommodate their tastes.
Sandra Guzman, one of the producers and lead interviewer of the exceptional 2019 documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, told NBC news that “you don’t read Morrison for fun; you read the Nobel laureate for liberation.” This is a liberation that can only be offered by someone who offers no compromise, no contrition for her blackness, for her womanhood, for the pain and pride of the people she presents.
Over the years, journalists came back to a frustrating theme in their questions for Morrison, asking, “Do you get tired of being called a black writer?” or “Have you considered expanding your approach to write stories that include white people?” The Pulitzer winning author was weary of the query, but cultivated a response that provided clarity of purpose. As she told The Guardian in 2015, “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it”.
If her themes and subject matter were uncompromising, so was her writing style, often demanding more of the reader than they may have bargained for. Her novels were often driven by nonlinear plots, shifting perspectives, the supernatural, and layered symbolism, as well as brutal depictions of life as a Person of Color, be it as far back as the slave trade of the late 1600’s or as recent as the current decade.
Yet, if the structure of her books proved challenging, it was because that’s how Morrison saw life, devoid of straight lines and dictated by shifting points-of-view. In Beloved, her most popular work, the myriad jagged puzzle pieces only come together at the end of the story to create a sense of the whole. If the journey to that small but redemptive sense of healing feels like an extraordinary amount of work on the page, Morrison seems to say, it’s because those are the circumstances for so many in the real world.
Her goal was, as she said in a 2005 interview, “to make history sit across the table from you.” It wasn’t a history she was necessarily comfortable confronting, one frequently contaminated by injustice and cruelty, but she was willing to go down deep in that hole, take the reader with her, and bring them up, gasping for air and awakened to how inhumane, how human, and how holy we are capable of being. She trusted her readers to take the often demanding journey with her and not look for the easy path to resolution, or to storytelling for that matter.
As for the craft of writing and guidance for future storytellers, she told the audience at her Nobel Lecture, “Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours … tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.” True to her advice, she never told her readers what to believe, but she was intimately familiar with the fabric of that wide skirt and caul, and knew just how much to reveal or tug to illuminate truths that brought readers to mournful tears and hard-won nods of hope.
Morrison’s quiver was filled with lethally pointed gifts that were shaped by discipline and determination. The word that keeps coming back as I read passages of her work, watch interviews, and reflect on moments from The Pieces I Am is fearlessness. Fearless in her writing, in how she showed up, and in how she shared her distinct point of view.
The mistaken belief that Toni Morrison’s work didn’t invite everyone to the table needs to be reconciled as her life and writing are rightly celebrated in the days ahead. We were all invited to the table. We just didn’t get to negotiate the menu. Those who could appreciate that never left her kitchen unsatisfied. She’d fill you up. She will still fill you up.