I have tremendous admiration for African American female author Toni Morrison. I have read many of her novels, and I am captivated by her immense intelligence and piercing empathy for African Americans and the human race. In the following pithy article, I will humbly try to analyze a part of her vast mind’s eye.
In her book of nonfiction called “What Moves at the Margin,” Morrison begins in an early piece a letter to black women called “A Knowing So Deep.” In the missive, she lauds the earned achievements of African American women whether it is via writing or other forms of expression.
The root of African American oppression stems from what she calls “slavery and silence,” and black women have responded with authentic voices that liberate.
“(Y)ou were like no other. Not because you suffered more or longer, but because of what you knew and did before, during and following that suffering,” she said. “You had this canny ability to shape an untenable reality, mold it, sing it, reduce it to its transforming essence, which is a knowledge so deep it’s like a secret.”
In following essays, Morrison deals with themes about race and the national conversation, yet what fascinates most is the description of the process and message of her writing.
Morrison says the literary foundation of her work is slave narratives. She praises them for their courageous limning of singular yet universal slave experiences and their resulting call for redemption. They were often addressed to white abolitionists. Morrison suggests that their message to caring whites was to say “‘we are human beings worthy of God’s grace,'” and that slavery must be abandoned.
Yet there are gaps in slave narratives which Morrison sees as her duty to fill. Because slave writers mostly addressed their work to whites, they resisted telling the more egregious and barbaric parts of slavery. As a result, there is a lack of interior emotions in many slave narratives, Morrison said. It is her mission as a writer to cast off this veil cloaking black suffering. She employs her own memories and imagination to reveal this pathos.
Morrison describes this process of creating good and beautiful novels:
“It should have something to say in it that enlightens; something in it that opens the door and points the way. Something in it that suggests what the conflicts are, what the problems are. But it need not solve those problems because it is not a case study, it is not a recipe,” she said.
Thus the content of her work is not didactic but evocative. She wrestles with themes like the severely damaging effects of slavery on families and the inner life of those who lived through it; sad yet buoyant conflicts among men and women, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, and daughters and sons; notions of black and white beauty and the vicissitudes of sexuality.
Her work gives balm and transcendence to her audience and helps humans know they are not alone in coming to terms with their history and its legacy. It frees and elevates with knowledge about the human condition. We should all thank her for her brave witness.
At the end of her letter to black women, Morrison pays tribute to their loamy, transformative souls.
“A disturbing disturbance that is not a hawk or a stormy weather, but a dark woman, of all things. My sister, my me–rustling, like life.”