Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

The Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, has died at the age of 88. She was educated at Howard and Cornell Universities​, going on to work as an academic, critic and activist as well as one of the most influential novelists of her own and subsequent generations. For her writing, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1988​ and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison’s body of work is concerned with how the unvoiced, the silent and the invisible of history bear witness to and give testimony about their suffering and oppression.

This leads us to consider how subsequent generations incorporate the memory of their ancestor’s suffering into their own histories and how they make sense of the present with those histories in mind.

Morrison’s best known novel is Beloved, published in 1987.

That Beloved has at least two presents prompts the reader to consider how the past acts on the present and how the traumatic events experienced in one can be both supressed and revealed by memory in the other.  

Throughout the novel, Sethe struggles with memory as a site upon which the horrors of slavery must be both ‘beaten back’ and negotiated in the present. 

The horrors of slavery are inscribed upon the bodies of slaves, and so their corporeal, bodily presence in the world stands as its own testament to their suffering. 

The beating that Sethe receives for sending her children to safety, the tree that is inscribed on her back by the whip, is a physical manifestation of the scars of slavery. Many other physical scars – including where the saw cut Beloved’s throat – manifest themselves in this narrative. 

But it is the mental and emotional scars that are Morrison’s primary concern and the capacity of the tramautised individual and community to come to terms with brutality and suffering. 

A book about slavery read by millions of people, studied on a majority of English degrees across the world, puts slavery at the centre of a cultural debate in a way that politicians and campaigners had not been able to.

It does so by humanising the suffering that had affected so many millions of people. The novel tracks the individual experience of an institution that was industrial in its scale, economic in its organisation and supported by federal legislation 

The novel itself emerged from a fragment of history that Morrison encountered while researching a book of blacks on record – in print, song, newspapers, photographs – a sort of informal history. 

She found newspaper accounts of Margaret Garner who killed her child to prevent her being returned to slavery by vigilante slave hunters. The event was immortalised in Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea.

The book is almost symmetrical, balanced around the revelation of the incident at the very centre of the narrative – the infanticide  

Morriosn doesn’t use partial revelations, hints and subtle developments as conventional aspects of literary suspense, though. Instead, she uses these evasions to signal both the unimaginable sadness of the event and the nature of Sethe’s subsequent relation to it – she can neither forget what she has done to her child, but neither can she bring herself to recall it. Memory must be a battle between supressing and memorialising. 

There is another motivation to this structure of repetitions and developments. One of the ways in which the slaves communicate with each other is through song. Owners and overseers see these songs as the rhythms of work and a sign of a happy slave population, but they are radical challenges to the authority of the oppressor, carrying messages of potential escape as well of support for those who can bear their condition no longer.

Slave spirituals, as the songs became known, have a pattern of repetitions and developments, of call and response. It has become a signature for expression and representation in African American culture. You find the cadences of call and response everywhere in black American culture; from gospel and blues, to preaching, to the rhetoric of black political leaders.

Morrison did a great deal to raise the voice of African Americans through difficult times, but her presence at Obama’s inauguration demonstrated how influential her own has been in giving voice to the unvoiced. Her novels remain as a lasting testament to her influence and genius.