Toni Morrison Gave Us a Blueprint for Fighting White Supremacy

Some people loom larger than life. Their towering presence exudes an air of immortality. Writer Toni Morrison, a creative goddess and intellectual titan, was such a figure. Donning her majestic silver locs, complemented by her sun-kissed skin and exuberant glow, she commanded ethereal-like attention. And even if her presentation was regal and innocuous, her writings and spoken words — what she fashioned with language and rhetoric — were profoundly creative, imaginative, political, and communal. An author of 11 novels, an accomplished book editor, and a producer of countless gems of cultural criticism, Morrison did not merely usher in an era; she was an era.

Her 1984 reflection, “Rootedness” makes these commitments and intersections transparent: “If anything I do, in the way of writing... isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything,” Morrison noted. “I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams — which is to say yes, the work must be political.” Meaning, “You ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” And that is precisely what she did over the course of her extensive, celebrated career.

She engaged issues of race, gender, class, social injustice, and the human condition through the context of Black identity.

Morrison situated these within a larger dynamic that made her work simultaneously Black and universal, particular and global.

As she shared in her 1996acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, “I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without the fear of anything more deadly than disdain — which is writing: what the woman writer fought a whole government to do.”

It is in such moments as these, in the profoundness of her writing and her moving verbosity and use of words, that she defined the role of art and the artist. She simultaneously etched into our consciousness the complexities and contradictions, the utter enchantment and grotesque viciousness, of the American project of democracy, race, and exclusion. She did this while unpacking the notion of race as it manifests in US contexts, wherein she recognized that “Deep within the word ‘American’ is the association with race.

” She demystified and contested how race operates in the United States at the expense of Black people.

Racial practices and “race talk, the explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols... have no meaning other than pressing African Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” Thus, the role of race and racism is, she noted, precisely to distract, disunify, and distort. She knew this not merely from theory but also from experience.

Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, she came of age in a post-Depression America still governed by Jim Crow. Even as she grew up in the Midwest in a diverse immigrant neighborhood — an experience that differed from what she encountered in the deeply segregated South — she existed, nonetheless, in a stratified society. The racial hierarchy relegated Black people to “colored only” spaces to produce Black inequality while fostering, and institutionalizing, white superiority. Through language, Toni Morrison used her voice and her pen, with the precision of a scalpel, to carve and flesh out the racial “dis-ease,” revealing its impact on African Americans and all of us.

Her words and work were instructive, visionary, and prescient. In her 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature, she reflected on the power and warned about the dangers of language. “The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex… properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence,” she noted, “it is violence.”

Though written a quarter of a century ago, her assertion is as timeless — and timely — as it is cautionary. It is as if she anticipated America’s current predicament where language incites xenophobia and promotes violent crimes against humanity. We live in a time when the language of “invasion” separates mothers and their children under the guise of protecting our national borders. This is a moment when individual and mass violence criminalizes and targets Black and Brown bodies, Muslims and Mexicans. Morrison warned us about this and about that which gave rise to the resurgence of violent white supremacy.

It was domestic terrorism in a Charleston, South Carolina church and in the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and, more recently, in the national catastrophe of the race-specific mass shooting in El Paso, Texas and the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

In fact, these tragedies dominated news coverage (and rightly so) to the point where Morrison’s very own death did not receive the televisual media attention it would have otherwise garnered during a “normal” time.

But things are not “normal.” They are far from it. Morrison warned us. We just had not anticipated the reality of her mortality or anticipated that she would not see us through. Her ascension into the otherworld marks not merely the passing of an individual but also an era — her and a litany of pathbreaking Black women writers and cultural activists:Maya Angelou (1928-2014),Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange (1948-2018), and Paule Marshall (1929-2019), who died a single, excruciatingly short, week after Toni Morrison (1931-2019).

The frequentness of their passing is grievous and unfathomable. Gone are those who paved the way by challenging history and the status quo, disrupting the master narrative, and exposing the rigidity and exclusivity of the American literary canon. However, Morrison, as did they, prepared us. And now it is our task, our moral duty, to execute — and put into practice what Morrison taught us — what we are destined to do. For, as she so eloquently put it, we are our best thing. She equipped and prepared us for the journey.

About the Author

Trimiko Melancon is an award-winning author, cultural critic, and scholar with wide-ranging expertise in race, gender, sexuality, media, popular culture, and African American and American literary and cultural production. She is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and co-editor of Black Female Sexualities. She has written and provided commentary in various venues, including Huffington Post, Ms., Elle, Wired, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and BBC World News.