The Liberatory Power of Toni Morrison’s Pen

The universe that we’ve inherited from Toni Morrison is: The pell mell swoon of Jazz and its mysterious crazy in love triangle set against the backdrop of the Great Migration of African Americans to NYC, caught up in its golden glow and cruel tease; the Blue-eyed devastation of Pecola, dreaming her truth, against incest, in the grinding poverty of segregationist Ohio; The twisted bond and ride or die Sula-passion between two dramatically different black women; one f**k-you mad, one respectable and maybe veering towards madness; The elusive thrum of Paradise in an all-black town pulsing in the terror of the Middle Passage where Black women’s fight for self-determination, bodily autonomy, and the Beloved blasted the white gaze to bits.

On my desk, I have a picture of Morrison with one of her most famous quotes: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I imagine her tossing the comment off with an imperial flick of her hand, steadying that honey lilting, razor sharp voice of hers for the hungry ears of all the midnight-beneath-the-covers, buried-in-dark-closets-terminally insecure scribblers.

The untameable, rogue imagination of the smashed down little Black girl lives in her words--begins, ends, trips, cuts loose, soars with her plea to write this trauma into the world.

In the early 1990s, I once rode stone silent in an elevator alone with Morrison; wracked with self-doubt and a cat-caught tongue in the presence of a colossus. Vacillating in ten seconds of comic strip hell as the floors ticked past, I never said a word even though we were both en route to a talk she was about to give at New York University’s library. It was shortly after she’d published her landmark work of literary criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a watershed book that I’ve taught in my own classes and woven into my writings.

I was introduced to Morrison’s work by my mother, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, an avid reader, acclaimed English teacher, poet, and champion of Black writers of all genres. Central to her teaching of fifty-plus years was the saying that, “Just because a child can’t read doesn’t mean that they can’t read you.” Reading literature, and interpreting poetic language, was a gateway to reading the world through the lens of lived experience, social history, and identity. Reading Black literature in hyper-segregated classrooms in Watts, where aging textbooks were jammed with white masters, was a bird flip to a public education regime that viewed Black children as “ dysfunctional.”

My mother taught The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved to her mostly Black and Latinx middle school students and high school students over the objections of naysayers who found the material inappropriate and obscene. In 1998, she had the honor of introducing Morrison at the Black-owned Eso Won Bookstore.

Morrison’s novels were the subject of numerous reading marathons at her South Los Angeles home. These raucous, bleary-eyed twenty-four hour gatherings allowed students (sleeping bags crammed on the floor), teachers, book lovers, and other community members to debate politics, social history, gender identity, institutional racism, African American migration, and the legacies of slavery in a New Jim Crow nation. They were oases for young people who had been socialized to believe they wouldn’t be able to understand the complexities of modernist literature, much less analyze and write critically about it.

Morrison, who hailed from Lorain, Ohio, often spoke of the power of self-license and the liberatory force writing literature provided Black women who were violently denied the space to represent themselves.

The segregated Black spaces of the Midwest, the Deep South, and the “Promised Land” of the Great migration were critical to her journey as a fount of Black diasporic imagination. Black women artists—to paraphrase Alice Walker—stood on the shoulders of great-great-great grandmothers who were forced to bear children when they longed to paint, sculpt, write their worlds into being. Walker’s and Morrison’s characters struggle with this cruel paradox. Both women’s vision of the nexus between female creativity and the revolutionary implications of Black women’s bodily autonomy are foundational for Black feminist resistance.

This is especially true as Black women continue to experience epidemic rates of sexual and intimate partner violence, and right-wing assaults on reproductive justice reach fever pitch. The “universal genius” of white male canonical writers, from Shakespeare down to Faulkner and beyond, was forged from the terror of this theft of Black women’s bodies, agency, and voice. Much of Playing in the Dark centers on how an often unacknowledged “Africanist presence” (Morrison’s term for the Black “other” in European American literature) defines and shapes the literary construction of whiteness as neutral, raceless, and universal. Whites’ appearance as spectral, marauding forces in The Bluest Eye, Beloved and Paradise, or targeted prey in Song of Solomon, perversely returned the compliment.

Setting fire to the mythical white other, Morrison invented and imagined richly complex Black worlds through a fierce multilayered poetry that set Black desire free.

Morrison’s insistence that she did not write for the white gaze (she once checked an Australian interviewer who asked when she was going to include white folks in her books for posing such a racist question) resonated deeply for new generations of Black women writers who not only bucked the white gaze, but Black patriarchy, Black respectability, and Black heteronormativity.

Early in her career, Morrison’s pursuit of writer’s time and space as a single mother of two boys—in the dead of night as they slept, restlessly composing on early morning trains to work when a few minutes could be snatched from the city’s roar—quivers with the weight of the triple burden. She once noted that, “All the women she knew did ten things at one time. I always understood that women worked, they went to church, they managed their houses, they managed somebody else's houses, they raised their children, they raised somebody else’s children, they taught.”

And, certainly, this theme of constant movement, constant care-giving, constant creation from dirt, grit, pain, whole cloth emerges again and again in the work of her unsettled, roving women protagonists (the hairdressers, maids, field hands, prostitutes, enslaved women, and oracles who mother, manage, teach, and “love hard” often at the same time they rage and destroy). That Morrison’s mothers “eat” their young to live and give life speaks to the long shadow of slavery’s holocaust legacy.

This contradiction is powerfully embodied by the protagonist Sethe in Morrison’s towering 1987 novel Beloved. Sethe murders her baby daughter in order to save her from the horrors of enslavement. She does the “unthinkable” to be free. She flees from Kentucky to Ohio, a “free state,” escaping into an emotional and psychological wilderness lashed by the ghost of her dead baby, discovering that “freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” In a pivotal scene, Sethe’s mother-in-law, the seer Baby Suggs, leads a “congregation” of women, men, and children into a clearing in the woods where she encourages them to exult in nature and in each other. Just as Sethe becomes used to the seemingly simple, taken for granted act of waking up and “deciding what to do” with the day, so the collective of revelers that Suggs speaks to must renew themselves through the sublimity of the ordinary. Though Morrison begins this passage with Suggs praying, in a moment that suggests a faith-based world view, Suggs proclaims: "In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.”

As Morrison’s omniscient narrator notes, “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure. She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” It is a Black humanist vision that Morrison, who believed language and story-building had the power to radicalize when used as a form of anti-fascist resistance, gifted to us--writing, grinding, always roving.

About the Author

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and the novel White Nights, Black Paradise (2015), on Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Her speculative fiction web-series Narcolepsy, Inc., based on her 2018 Hollywood Fringe Festival play, debuted this March.