It’s Women’s History Month, and every Wednesday we’ll be highlighting strong women from history on whom we have a collective social justice crush. Toni Morrison kicks things off.
Arguably no author has done more for African-American literature in the 20th and 21st century than Toni Morrison, one of the United States’ two living Nobel Prize in Literature laureates and the first black woman to ever receive the award. From her start as a New York City editor of seminal works of African-American literature (such as The Black Book and The Case for Black Reparations) to her own writings as a novelist, Toni Morrison has opened the doors of the literary industry wide-open for aspiring black writers, by adding African-American stories to the mostly white canon of mainstream literature.
“I never asked [Leo] Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio,” Toni Morrison said, when an interviewer remarked to her that not all readers will catch in her stories elements that are unique to African-American culture.
“I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain ...Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing.”
It has been Toni Morrison’s mission to write for a black audience, to write for her people in the same way that white writers often write for their own. In doing so, she has shown black writers and readers that the stories of their lives and their parents’ lives and their grandparents’ lives matter just as much as those of their white counterparts. I believe we can partly thank her for the several mainstream stories black people now have, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and others.
At the very least, I can thank her for her impact on my life. I remember reading The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison’s first novel about a young black girl affected so much by the world’s obsession of whiteness that she desires blue eyes — and being so moved by the existence of her characters, whose lives I recognized and whose skin tones matched mine. At the time, I was an aspiring fiction writer who only wrote stories with white main characters. It had never occurred to me that someone of color could be at the center of my narratives.
Morrison understands deeply how whiteness ravages black lives, physically and mentally, and notifies black people about the significant danger whiteness poses to them through interviews and nonfiction writings. In her essay “Mourning for Whiteness,” published by The New Yorker in November 2016, she wrote about how Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“William Faulkner understood [whiteness] better than almost any other American writer,” Morrison said in the essay.
“In [Faulkner’s novel] Absalom, Absalom, incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its ‘whiteness’ ... the family chooses murder.”
Morrison’s wisdom and her immense love for blackness — a heritage, but also a color often used to describe evil and evoke disgust — have been blessings to the world for almost half a century. She has written and published eleven novels, numerous children’s books and nonfiction books, two plays, a libretto for an opera, and despite being 87-years-old, she shows no signs of stopping.
“Oh, it’s so good!” Toni Morrison told Granta magazine when she was asked about her upcoming novel. “It’s called Justice.”
The novel’s title doesn’t surprise me. Justice has forever been a focus of Morrison’s work: justice for black people whose lives have been altered or destroyed by whiteness and whose beauty has been made obscure even to themselves.
“And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us,” Morrison wrote in The Bluest Eye about her main character, who couldn’t recognize the beauty of her black skin and therefore gave up her beauty each time she desired to look white.
Even though Morrison writes for a black audience, she highlights how precious the entirety of humanity is. For we are all, like the titular character of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, beloved. All of our beauty matters. And Morrison doesn’t want us to forget that.