‘She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” Taken from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, this quote can, after the American author’s death this past week, be taken as a representation of her historical legacy or, at the very least, an honest reflection of how she was regarded by many of her readers.
Morrison exists beyond the confines of literature, offering her works as part of a canon that should exist as a blueprint for a free existence.
Her belief in language and its ability “to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers”, as she said in her Nobel prize for literature acceptance speech in 1993, was proof of Morrison’s connectedness not only to a long chain of readers across generations but also to a vanguard of freedom fighters linked across the black Atlantic.
Just as Harriet Tubman constructed a map to a freedom beyond the physical in the form of the Underground Railroad, the innovation and collectivism that Morrison called for suggest she never lost sight of the power of language to shield one from the distractions of words “designed for the estrangement of minorities”, such as the rhetoric openly purveyed by United States President Donald Trump.
But more than just a shield, language and writing — the act of conjuring language — represented a freedom and the potential for new thought. In an interview with The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Morrison spoke of the need to get down to “the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people”. This stemmed from an awareness of the futility of writing that is tempered by an external gaze that seeks to mediate its urgency.
So when cultural critic Stanley Crouch referred to Beloved as existing in “a purple haze of overstatement, false voices, strained homilies” where “nothing very subtle is ever tried”, he had perhaps missed the point that Morrison had chosen this approach intentionally.
In her essay The Site of Memory, Morrison speaks about how the foundational literature in African-American history was that of slave narratives, whose imperative was largely two-pronged. First, they were personal narratives that, though stemming from an individual’s experience, were also representative of a larger race struggle. Second, they were to persuade the readers — more than likely not black — that the writers were “human beings worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery”.
She writes that the writings of church martyrs and confessors “were read for the eloquence of their message, as well as the experience of redemption”, but it was difficult for the autobiographical narratives of the slaves to receive the fair appraisal of literacy critics who frequently labelled them as “biased”, “inflammatory” and “improbable”. Her objective then, became a preoccupation with how to “rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate” in the slave narratives.
Although trusting her recollections and the recollection of others was paramount in this endeavour, Morrison surmised: “Only the act of imagination can help me in the mission to gain full access to the interior lives of others.”
For those involved in creative endeavours, may we always remember to fully engage with others but, most importantly, to imagine the future we seek to deliver with our hands. That, more than anything, is our bird in hand.