The incomparable chronicler of the African-American experience was 88
SHE DID not look away. When Toni Morrison’s clear imagining gaze met uncomfortable things, she faced them down. A poisoned dog jerking round the yard like a toy. Human placenta in a field. The transparent underskin of a bobcat gutted on a kitchen table. The greyish panties, still round her ankles, of an 11-year-old girl raped by her father as she washed the dishes.
Especially she did not look away from the images of slavery she had been slowly, painfully dragged towards by the time she wrote “Beloved”, in 1987. A man hanged in a sycamore tree, known by his shirt, but with head and feet missing. A red ribbon, fished from the river, with a curl of wet woolly hair attached to it and, to that, its bit of scalp. A fugitive slave crunching the breastbone of a dove before its heart had stopped beating. The wildness that shot up in a man’s eye when his lips were yanked back to take the bit. Sethe, her heroine in “Beloved”, serenely continuing to hold on her baby’s face after she had cut its throat to save it from a slave’s life.
Because these scenes sometimes brushed against beauty—the sycamores tall and soughing, the dove eaten under flowering plum trees—and because her novels won prizes, notably the Nobel in 1993, critics tended to call them lyrical and poetic. Nothing made her madder. Lyricism meant that literary language was getting in the way. It had to be stripped down, freed up, opened up and teased to get the writerly-ness out. First drafts of her word-work, in number-two pencil on yellow legal pads, then went through as many as 13 revisions on the word-processor. Those 18 years as an editor at Random House had not been for nothing. She knew exactly what was needed to lead, sometimes throw, the reader into an alien world. It was not merely words but the silences between them, the unsaid things and the smoke they sent up, that gave her phrases their rhythm and their power.
Hers was a work to reclaim lost black voices. Slaves in wagons singing under their breath, ghosts and haints staring silently from tree stumps, ancestors whose names were hidden in children’s chants. Or simply girls like herself raised to womanhood in the Midwest, beside a steel mill, in a small house obsessively painted and sluiced with Fels-Naptha as though at any moment they might be forced to leave. Read as she might, there were no books about this world, in which someone like her took centre-stage. She determined to write one, whether or not it sold; this became “The Bluest Eye”. Along with the voices she recovered black experience, but through culture, not the easy, lazy colour-fetish: through the sweet smell of Nu Nile Hair Oil, the sharp tang of mustard greens cooking, the inevitability of entering by back doors. The protagonist of “The Bluest Eye” longed to be like Shirley Temple, but in this book and those that followed her creator rejoiced in dark eyes, thick lips, flared noses. Who had instructed blacks in self-loathing? Who told them they were not beautiful? When she cleaned house for a richer woman as a girl, and paid her for cast-off clothes, she still felt proud. When she wrote, she felt magnificent.
Anger was not useful to dwell on. It was not creative. In interviews she suppressed it with steeliness, just as she guarded her words and herself from meddlesome intrusion. But she could explode at the craziness of racism, its distorting power, its pernicious notions of “purity”, when the screaming red-mouthed baboon whites evoked lived under their own white skin. Disappointingly she found it even among blacks, with their talk of mocha, hazelnut, onyx, tar- and silt-black. There was such compulsion in human beings to classify by type and clan, to suspect and hate the Other, to refuse to vault the mere blue air that separated them. If oppression was no longer by actual ownership or actual violence, then language could be used to do the job with some efficiency. Politicians, misogynists, lawyers all knew how.
Who could rescue language, ensure it stayed supple, strong and alive? That it was un-arrogant, and would keep reaching towards the ineffable? Women could. Black women could. In her novels it was inevitably mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters who kept families and communities together with that mesh of loving bossiness: pull up your socks, comb your head, do your chores, hush your mouth. (She’d done the same, raising two sons, fitting her writing into chinks in the endless round of work and domestication.) In kitchens across the land black women stitched grey cotton, or poured soda into the crease of a palm to make biscuits. They brought order out of chaos, as her writing did. Women told the stories, superstitious, chill-inducing, full of myth and colour, that preserved links with dead generations. They made Memory sit down at the table with them. She had dismissed those tales for years before finding, especially in “Song of Solomon”, deep grist for the worlds she had to recreate. She learned to watch for shadowy figures by the water at her Hudson river place and to listen for their whispers.
In particular she felt a reverence for old women, sometimes half-crazed, who nonetheless seemed to have a lock on wisdom. Her own great-grandmother, for one, for whom all the males in the family stood up without urging. Or Baby Suggs in “Beloved”, who preached to her people in the woods that if they, the whites yonder, “do not love your neck unnoosed and straight…You got to love it… put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.” Or the old woman she evoked in her lecture when she received the Nobel, who reminded her young interrogators that the future of language, a bird fluttering between life and death, was in their hands.
She gave lectures and advice when she was asked. Her post at Princeton required it from time to time. But writing fiction was her true freedom. She did it in the hours when no one had a claim on her. She owned it, and the characters were hers to control. If she wanted the hero of “Song of Solomon” to lift his beautiful black ass up in the sky and fly, he would. Shut up, she would tell him. I’m doing this. Steadily, morning by morning, she would get up in the dark and make a mug of coffee, drinking it as the light gathered. When it came, full-bore, enabling, she did not look away.