When I was a precocious, somewhat mercurial child, my mother was a devout follower of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her curiosity and wanderlust were piqued by a black woman focused on white lives in middle America. When she became a devout follower of Jesus Christ, however, their paths diverged. The pesky Remembering Your Spirit segment was something to worry about. Its new-age spiritual gurus and ideas were considered the latest ploy by the devil to entrap feeble, unguarded souls. For me, however, it was too late. Winfrey had already introduced me to a global book club and the audacity of power.
In six years, Winfrey chose Toni Morrison’s books four times, crediting her for the club’s very existence. Her books were boosted more by Oprah during this period than by the Nobel prize she won in 1993.
The meeting of these behemoths and their genius for words spoken and written reached little old me on the East Rand of Johannesburg.
I was a romantic teen in search of new mothers — in books I found a few. I met Morrison’s work after spending a year on a delightful odyssey of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series and poems. I hadn’t known before then that there was a way to be proud — not ashamed —of a lived life, which is to say a life of gradually receding ignorance where enlightenment occurs through the experience of contradictions, false starts and impositions.
In my new life of faith, I had found that the pursuit of righteousness produced unlivable levels of sanitation and stagnancy, resulting in alienation. Angelou, who had ingenious insight of the human spirit, called me back home and I found a secret place to store her — like a weapon, but mostly as a soft place to land.
I was 15 when I read my first book by Morrison. I still remember the hardcover: white, with a depiction of a majestic bird mid-flight beneath the title, Paradise. The blurb read, “Not since her fellow Nobel Laureate William Faulkner has a writer populated a few acres with so much richness and desolation.”
The text shimmered with a mature self-regard, a startling intellect, courage, literary mastery, radical honesty, integrity, ambiguity and a type of indulgent moodiness that seemed capable of loving anybody and anything for love’s sake. In her books, even the truly pathetic receives light and discomfort is a teacher.
I remember pacing around my parents’ bedroom with the book, sometimes resting my head against a pillow in the sun, sometimes staring aimlessly into their full-length mirror, as if to absorb her formula more acutely, to understand, perhaps, what effect the alchemy would have on my developing psychology and to witness the metamorphosis should it have noticeable outer effects. In other words, it was a visceral experience.
My world cracked open. Something like: no fear! A phrase Nina Simone used to describe her version of freedom, a rare something for the stage, something children have. What Morrison chose to freely love with a searing, interrogating gaze was black lives. There was no need to fear the truth or the violence or fragility of the ego. The ego could be defeated by clarity and will.
Paradise was the third instalment of what is sometimes referred to as the Beloved trilogy, with Beloved and Jazz coming before it. In the novel, the men in an all-black town are so afraid of women claiming space and freedom that they kill. Hilton Als eloquently described the novel as concerned with “the mystery of female love and fraternity and support”.
I go back to that word often, fraternity; to me it suggests something more muscular than solidarity.
In reading her, I understood that something had shifted. I can distil it now with the benefit of hindsight and vocabulary: she introduced standards that superseded my time and space. Post-apartheid Model-C schooling and suburbia were a simulation replete with repetition, mediocrity and boredom; a trifecta born of centuries of insulated bigotry. As black South Africans, we assimilated ourselves to a public consciousness unshaken by fresh waves of global social standards and ideas. The dominant culture did not evolve. The air was stale. The effects persist to this day as even basic standards are discarded more and more to accommodate avarice in the public and private sectors.
Like Angelou, I stored Morrison in a place that didn’t fear the fact that knowledge, imagination and, ultimately, freedom would ruin a black girl. It thrilled me that her standards mattered to the world because they mattered so much to her.
She applied her labour to create physical objects out of her standards — her books. The ripple effect is that the experience of her genius creates an imperative in the observer.
When Beloved, despite its groundbreaking acclaim, failed to win the most coveted major American national literary prizes — the National Book award and National Book Critics Circle award — Angelou and 47 other black writers and critics protested this in an open letter published by The New York Times in January 1988. They described Beloved as Morrison’s “most recent gift to our community, our country, our conscience”. They felt it imperative to draw attention to her setting of exhilarating new standards benefitting more than herself: “For all of America, for all of American letters, you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people,” they wrote.
In April of that year Beloved won the Pulitzer.
Frequently, I have to remind myself that she was human. Her work as an editor at Random House is legendary. She worked in publishing throughout the writing and publication of her first four novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Tar Baby (1981), leaving only in 1983 to pursue writing full time. As a writer she had to succumb to the wisdom of her own editor. She wanted desperately for Paradise to be named War and never liked the titles Song of Solomon and God Help the Child. Sometimes, she loved what she wrote, other times she wished she could edit more.
Like all children who love words and narrative, she sought them out where they could be found. She was on her high school debating team, the yearbook staff and in the drama club. She read voraciously and among her favourite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She read The New York Times, pencil in hand, copy editing it and noting shifts in narrative trends. She acknowledged that reading worthwhile work was sometimes demanding and difficult.
She enjoyed being a working mother. She understood the difference between Chloe Morrison (née Wofford) and her persona. Toni is short for Anthony, her baptismal name in the Catholic tradition.
She found the label “feminist” too confining, even as her work did the work. She grew up in racially diverse, Lorain, Ohio, and encountered segregated buses and restaurants for the first time at Howard University, in Washington, DC, as a young adult.
Her parents instilled in her the pride of her African-American heritage through stories, folktales and songs. Her father wouldn’t let white people into the house, her mother preferred a case-by-case approach and she wrote agenda-setting critical race and literature theory.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2008, she said she wanted to be remembered as an honest, trusworthy person by her family.
What is the making of a genius? It might be a mix of robust natural talents, a solid sense of self, audacity, an affinity for fraternity; in other words a lack of apathy; eclectic influences and opportunities realised; as well as enabling environments and institutions. My speculations are many. What I do know is that it must be proven. At the very least that should be a standard.
Toni Morrison did that.
Novelist, critic, editor, playwright, librettist, museum curator, children’s book author, public intellectual. Goodnight.