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Toni Morrison’s enduring genius

23 August 2019

Her novels confronted White supremacy in society and in the Church, says Anthony Reddie


Toni Morrison at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1998

Toni Morrison at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1998

THE recent death of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison brings down the curtain on the life of one of the most important novelists of the 20th century.

In an earlier draft, I described Morrison as being the most important “African American” or “Black” writer of the 20th century. I changed my text, however, realising that, in naming Morrison in the latter fashion, I was limiting her significance within a bounded imagination constructed by race, which would not be used as an identifier for a White, particular male, writer. Morrison’s contemporaries in the pantheon of greatness, such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, were rarely, if ever, described as “White” or “male” writers on the occasions of their death.

My refusal to name Morrison as an “African American woman” writer speaks to the enduring complexities and glorious subtleties of her work in wrestling with the conundrum of “race”. Novels such as Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby explore the existential challenges faces by African Americans in the United States.

Morrison’s work explores the central dilemma posed by the African American religious educator Harold Dean Trulear, who wrote on the interpretive nature of Black art and culture in the African American experience as that which wrestles with the existential question of “What does it mean to be Black and Christian living in a nation where many White people claim adherence to the latter whilst hating the former?” This sums up the enduring genius of Morrison.

Her novels wrestled with the constant struggle of “Double Consciousness”, first detailed by the great W. E. B. Dubois in his now classic text The Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903. In using this term, Dubois was speaking of the struggle evinced within African American people to reconcile two opposing realities at war within the Black psyche. This dialectical struggle was between competing notions of truth, whether determined by an internalised form of self-affirmation of worth, or an all-embracing externalised form of stereotyping, discrimination, and being racialised as a lesser being.

Dubois’s most memorable comment in this book was that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” Morrison’s brilliance was to use her eloquence with words and inspired storytelling to address the problem of the “color line” in the body politic of the American republic.

Whether in the Bluest Eye, which addresses the desire of a young girl to be possessed of blue eyes, which are the symbol of Whiteness, or in Beloved, which explores the haunting return of a Black child killed by her mother, to spare her the brutal indignities of slavery, Morrison was wrestling with the very deepest of human concerns. I say “human concerns” and not “Black concerns” because underpinning her work was an exploration of the very nature of what it means to be human.

IT IS in the context of her wrestling with the very nature of human anthropology that Morrison’s work speaks to the challenges that have confronted Christianity and the Church for approaching a millennium. The notion of the Church as a body that is united under the lordship of Jesus Christ is one of the enduring truths of the Christian faith. This sense of unity that is so boldly proclaimed as central to the self-understanding of the Church itself has often proved more illusory than real.

While the Body of Christ has been fractured by arguments over doctrine and denomination, and issues of class, gender, and sexuality, perhaps the most ongoing challenge — and, indeed, the most persistent scourge — has been that of racism. The challenges of John 13.21-35 are real and have bedevilled White Christianity for centuries. This new commandment from Jesus sits at the heart of the Christian message, and has implications for those inside and outside the community of faith.

Morrison’s work illustrates the often-idolatrous nature of White American Evangelicalism, which has always preferred worshipping White supremacy to the Jesus who tells us to love our neighbours, irrespective of ethnicity or culture or “race”, including those who are Black.

The recent upsurge in White nationalism in the United States, in the wake of the Presidency Trump’s excoriating rhetoric aimed at those who are deemed the other, is a sad reminder of the continued importance of Morrison’s work. The fact that 81 per cent of White Evangelicals voted for a presidential candidate more than happy to attack minorities, including African Americans, is a reminder of the continued split within American Christianity to which Morrison’s work bore witness. Her earthly life may have ended, but her legacy will live on.

Professor Anthony G. Reddie is an Extraordinary Professor and a Research Fellow with the University of South Africa. He is also a Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge, and is Europe Mission Secretary for the Council for World Mission.

Read our book review of We need to talk about race, by Ben Lindsay

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