“I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and, second of all, this whole thing called literature. It’s very important to me that my work be African-American. If it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better. But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too.”
The first time I heard about Toni Morrison was when my high school speech and debate coach handed me her Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech and told me that I would be performing it at an upcoming competition. “Toni Morrison?” I thought. My only exposure to Black authors had been via “urban” literature and coming-of-age stories; I had no idea who this woman was or why she was worthy of the most prestigious literary award in the world.
And then I picked up a novel of hers named The Bluest Eye and it completely altered my view of myself and of my people. It told the story of a poor little unremarkable black girl whose self-perception is warped due to Eurocentric beauty standards and an abusive father. It told a story that would probably never have otherwise been told–and yet it is a tale that many little black girls have not only read, but experienced.
After reading several of her novels, including Song of Solomon and Sula, I realized how skilled Morrison was at highlighting problems on the black community without preaching, condescending speech, or trying to fix them with a pretty pink bow by the end of a 300 page novel. A journey starts with the first step, and I believe that her gift is found in getting people to acknowledge the everyday issues that remain buried just below the surface.
According to a New York Times article, “[In her works], blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. Her works capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes [regular] black life…complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation”.
I think that it is important to discuss the difficulty that Morrison has faced in gaining recognition for her writing. The speech of hers that I performed would never have existed if it had not been for a group of 48 black writers who petitioned for her to be recognized for her outstanding work, work that was pushed aside because it was not “mainstream” enough. Their rallying helped her earn a Pulitzer Prize and the Noble Prize in Literature.
I feel as though people forget that every aspect of society is governed by racial politics in some way–even writing. Think about the novels that are acclaimed as classic literature and made required reading in elementary, junior high, high school, and even college courses. Now think about how many of those writers are people of color? How many of the protagonists are people of color? I love reading books from authors of different cultures andbackground because I feel as though I learn so much about their people from their own lens. That is why I love Toni Morrison’s work: she refuses to water it down for easy public consumption.