People everywhere are so focused on the pandemic and its impact on life and society that commemorating literary landmarks might make one seem disengaged these days. Yet, it is precisely this backdrop – that of a global scourge highlighting the fissures in the fabric of our democracies – that makes Nobel laureate Black American writer Toni Morrison deeply relevant to us today as we mark the first anniversary of her death.
Morrison, who chafed at being called a ‘poetic’ writer, was self-avowedly political, in that she was conscious of her intention to write about the Black American experience from within, that is to say to write about it with autonomy and self-regard, to situate it out of what she called “the white gaze.”
Morrison, who wrote with truth, passion and, yes, poetry, about the lived experience of Black American people since the pre-Civil War days to the twentieth century counts among the all time greats of American literature.
To be sure, her skill in what Margaret Atwood described as “writing the male character” was considerable: the novels 'Song of Solomon' and 'Jazz' offer memorable illustrations.[i] Still, it is for her realistic yet fervent and lyrical narratives about the lives of Black American women that she would be best remembered. Indeed, apart from Alice Walker and Maya Angelou there is no other American novelist who may be said to equal her in vividly depicting Black female lives in their intersections with patriarchy on the one hand and racism on the other.
In her very first novel, 'The Bluest Eye', Morrison plunged into the tensions inherent in Black womanhood. This tale of a teenage Black girl who longs for a pair of blue eyes taps into both generally female and specifically Black female inner experience. By showing how intensely a woman can crave societal corroboration of her physical attractiveness, 'The Bluest Eye' fleshes out what Naomi Wolf was to call the ‘the beauty myth’ – the concept of physical beauty as a cultural construct that both defines and oppresses women worldwide.[ii] The Black girl’s longing for blue eyes brings out how coloured people internalize the idea of their own inferiority and unquestioningly accepts White standards. In this, Morrison echoes Athol Fugard in the iconic South African drama 'Blood Knot', which shows how apartheid – systemic subjugation of Blacks by Whites – is also, ultimately, a state of the mind.
As an Indian woman – a woman whose country has been through a long period of being ruled by a western power – one recognises that yearning for blue eyes, that craving for self-validation based on alien, imposed but internalised standards. Whitening creams are one of the best-selling items of personal care in India, after all, and at all strata of our society, we are still in awe of all things Occidental, starting from items of attire, through accent and manners to education.
'Sula' and 'Beloved'
Morrison’s exploration of the dynamics of race, class and gender in Black American life found moving fictional expression in her subsequent novels like 'Sula', 'Song of Solomon', 'Beloved', 'Jazz', 'Home', 'A Mercy', and 'God help the Child'. But it is 'Sula', one feels, which speaks most eloquently to women today. As a worldwide patriarchal backlash against the gains of feminism surges up in the wake of a global rise of the far-Right, we suffer from a lack of female camaraderie, the sort of class solidarity based on gender that forms the crux of 'Sula'. In India, especially, where true modernity is yet to touch the lives of most women, where sexist stereotypes and gender-based expectations still define much of female personhood, the self-defining, individualistic Sula Peace reads like a dream – a dream that we women might help each other realise.
We suffer from a lack of female camaraderie, the sort of class solidarity based on gender that forms the crux of 'Sula'.
It is 'Beloved', however, that is widely considered to be Morrison’s masterpiece. A searing depiction of the raw realities surrounding slavery and its aftermath, this book too weaves the twin systems of oppression, slavery and patriarchy together. Based on a real life incident, the novel shows a fugitive Black slave kill her infant daughter at the point of recapture in order to spare the baby a life in slavery. It won the Pulitzer Prize for its insightful projection of the trauma of slavery and for its poignant portrayal of the desperation and anguish of a mother’s love. As a socially aware Indian woman this book instils a strong sense of unease, as one remembers how in nuclear-armed India, mothers still often undergo the torture of having to abort unborn daughters or, worse, to kill infant ones.
Two cognate systems
By producing moving expressions of indignation at two cognate systems of oppression, racism and patriarchy, Morrison attained a greatness that we associate with venerated world leaders of human emancipation, like M. K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela. Post George Floyd, when racial tensions are rising in the USA and people are having to assert that ‘Black Lives Matter’, the contemporary resonance of Morrison’s works is obvious. What we might miss is her relevance to the world beyond America – the wider world wherein toxic combinations of ethnic hatred, sexism, and religious bigotry are daily destroying social harmony and eroding the freedom of the individual, especially of minorities and of women.
Today when nations around the world are succumbing to the onslaught of the ultra-Right that is weakening everywhere the democratic ethos of liberty and equality, thereby pushing increasing numbers to the margins of power, crusaders for social justice like Morrison are needed more than ever. Her fictional voice – passionate about depicting how life feels in “the dark places” – is like a clarion call for us.[i] It urges us to see clearly, to feel strongly, and to act in the service of justice, liberty, and equality, wherever we are.
[i] ‘Writing the Male Character’ is the title of the sixth chapter of Margaret Atwood’s essay collection, 'Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005' (London: Virago, 2005).
[ii] Naomi Wolf, 'The Beauty Myth'. New York: William Morrow, 1991.
[i] Read Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech