Sun | Sep 15, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Toni Morrison too good for black people

Published:Sunday | August 11, 2019 | 12:38 AM
AP In this May 29, 2012 file photo, then President Barack Obama awards author Toni Morrison with a Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. The Nobel Prize-winning author died last week. She was 88.
AP Visitors view a portrait of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, painted by the artist Robert McCurdy, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington on Tuesday, August 6. Morrison, a pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature, died last Monday at age 88.
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When Toni Morrison’s second novel, Sula, was about to be published in 1974, Sarah Blackburn wrote an out-of-order review that appeared in The New York Times. Blackburn brazenly asserted that “Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvellous recorder of the black side of provincial American life”.

I suppose Morrison should have been writing about white people in big cities. Blackburn says as much: “If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel. And if she does this, it seems to me that she might easily transcend the early and unintentionally limiting classification ‘black woman writer’ and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.”

White entitlement is a hell of a disease. It seems to completely paralyse its victims, making it impossible for them to move outside their narrow world of privilege. Blackburn occupies a comfortably fixed position and assumes the right to determine who is “distanced” from her. Ironically, the very limitation Blackburn sees so clearly in Morrison’s fiction is fully displayed in her own self-centred reading of Sula.

It does not seem to occur to Blackburn that the classification ‘black woman writer’ is not at all limiting. Quite simply, it’s an affirmation of the specific race and gender of the writer. Furthermore, Blackburn’s complacent reference to generic “American novelists” suggests that ‘non-black’ and ‘non-female’ are the essential markers of identity for the “serious, important and talented” writer.

In addition, Blackburn does not seem to realise that the “large and serious audience” Morrison deserves could be made up of black readers – not just in the US, but globally. Blackburn’s assumption appears to be that Morrison’s ideal readership would not appreciate the writer’s recording of “the black side of provincial American life”. But readers, both black and non-black, have long celebrated Morrison’s evocation of her home culture in the rich body of work she has produced in more than four decades.

“TOLSTOY WAS NOT WRITING FOR ME”

Over the years, Toni Morrison herself has eloquently dismissed critics like Sarah Blackburn who want her to stop writing about black people and the catastrophic social conditions that continue to oppress us. In a 2015 interview posted on the Gulf News website, Morrison makes this unapologetic declaration:

“I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologise or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] — which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”

The critics who stubbornly insist that Morrison must write about white people should be careful about what they ask for. White characters in Morrison’s fiction don’t come off so good. Even though they are often on the margins, their presence, however fleeting, tends to be rather disturbing. Like ghosts, they haunt Morrison’s fictions.

TAR BABY AND BRER RABBIT

One of my favourite novels by Toni Morrison is Tar Baby. It doesn’t usually get as much critical attention as it deserves. Probably it’s because it’s a romance, a form of fiction read largely by women and so not always taken seriously. The novel addresses a range of important issues such as sexual relationships between black men and women; black masculinity; and black/white power dynamics.

In Tar Baby, Morrison updates the folk tale of Br’er Rabbit and Tar Baby. The central character, Jadine Childs, is the Tar Baby. She’s a high-fashion model working in Paris and she’s engaged to a white man. But she’s suffering from an identity crisis. She’s worried that her fiancé desires her only because she’s this exotic mixed-race beauty.

I’m not going to tell the story just in case you’re inspired to read the novel. Except to say, Jadine decides to escape Paris and go to the private island in the Caribbean where her white adoptive parents live. And there she falls in sex with Son, a ragamuffin dreadlocks with multiple aliases and ID cards to match. He’s the Br’er Rabbit who gets stuck on the Tar Baby, against his better judgement.

The white people in this novel are quite perverse. Margaret Street abuses her baby son, Michael, burning him with cigarettes. And she still wants him to love her. Each Christmas, she furiously prepares for his visit. And he doesn’t come. Her emotionally dead husband, Valerian, withdraws from the family.

Born in a small town in Ohio, Toni Morrison took her ‘provincial’ culture to the world. She created arresting black characters like Pecola Breedlove, who desperately wanted to have the bluest eye. Morrison inspired black people to see that we can’t afford to view ourselves through the distorting lens of whiteness. Our own dark brown eyes are sufficiently visionary.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.