Opinion guest column

African-American fiction

The everlasting criticality of Toni Morrison’s work

In the United States, de jure (and subsequent de facto) prohibition of teaching both reading and writing to its enslaved population (called ‘Black’) was both ubiquitous and fatally enforced. This inhumane (and racist) practice resulted in many unwritten stories and silenced voices of the enslaved African population. African-American fiction — fiction written by African-American writers — provides an intellectual landscape to understand their interior life in the context of their external world and in defiance of the efforts by the white population to erase Black voices and Black stories. It is the work of writers like Toni Morrison that has given us another chance to reimagine and retain their world — the world of ancestors who lived, laughed, loved, died, suffered, and survived so that we could be here.

It is no secret I am a fan of Toni Morrison. More than a fan, I am a student of hers. I read her fiction, her essays, her edited works; watch her interviews, her lectures, her speeches; read her opera, her short stories, and her poetry. However, what may not be clear is why I spend my limited time on this Earth doing so. I am not writing to justify this practice of mine, but I do want to speak to the art of Black fiction (in America), and to do so in a responsible way, I must place Toni Morrison’s work center stage. I do not mean to alienate the wealth of writings from other Black women writers whose work has also greatly influenced the world and this work. Yet Morrison’s particular row of tilled literary soil is what I want to attempt to detail and outline.

I did not grow up reading Toni Morrison. I saw the bright orange binding of her Song of Solomon somewhere on my parents’ bookshelf as a middle school child and thought its cover image of a black man in a white robe with a spiked, yellow sun behind him was interesting, but I did not know who Toni Morrison was, nor did I know what she did for the African-American, the world’s literary imagination, or the canon of American literature. It was in the winter of my last year in high school when I first read her work, namely Beloved, and felt for the first time I was reading a story part of me already knew, but had yet to see materialize in written form with such efficacy. Since then, I have read five more of her eleven novels —The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Jazz, and Paradise — and I’m currently reading Tar Baby and rereading Sula

I do not presume to be a scholar of Morrisonian fiction, but I have spent much time thinking about the personal and extra-personal effects of reading her work. Simply put, the world I experience and understand has been corrected, like wearing a prescriptive lens by reading her work. Morrisonian fiction centers around the stories of African-American people, mostly African-American women who seldom play a central role in American literature; it is true to the African-American both culturally and historically; and it does not focus on writing to justify to a white audience, by employing what James Baldwin calls writing without the “white gaze” — something that Ralph Ellison does in Invisible Man. It is her particular fiction that creates limitless potential for truth to be recentered against the drifting force of white (American) literary (and thus societal and political) domination. Morrison writes about the white literary imagination in Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (published in 1992), where she charts a careful path to analyze how an imagined Africanist persona created by early American writers in their fiction has worked to establish whiteness.

I did not mistakenly interpolate “truth” in my writing about Morrisonian fiction. Growing up in elementary school, I was taught that what distinguished nonfiction from fiction were facts, which, without careful explanation, implied that truth also distinguishes these two literary genres. This could not have been more wrong, especially in the context of the African-American. In an essay titled “The Site of Memory,” Morrison writes: “Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot. So if I'm looking to find and expose a truth about the interior life of people who didn't write it (which doesn't mean that they didn't have it); if I'm trying to fill in the blanks that the slave narratives left to part the veil that was so frequently drawn, to implement the stories that I heard — then the approach that's most productive and most trustworthy for me is the recollection that moves from the image to the text. Not from the text to the image.” Moving from image to text is the work of fiction.

I have only given a drop from the river of knowledge and wisdom that is Morrison’s work, yet in the wake of civil unrest, in the presence of a trial for Derek Chauvin, and in the time of an American citizenry that seems to be more concerned with justice, with diversity, equity, and inclusion, I implore all to take initiative and read Toni Morrison. When I say read, I do not mean skim. Skimming is not simply reading quickly or skipping written portions to obtain near-perfect meaning — skimming is reading without receiving, and it is also reading without contemplating, or reading without giving ponderance to the feelings which arise within oneself. Skimming is what we usually do if we are not intentional about reading. When read and not skimmed, Morrisonian fiction promises to give new understanding, fresh thinking, and a cleaner heart. It is in the worlds she has imagined and written where we can confront our own fears, our own worries, our own prejudices, racist beliefs and trauma, and then work to move into new territory, new thinking, and a more honest understanding of our world, ourselves, and this country.

Kelvin Green II ’22 is a member of Chocolate City and the Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and is the Assistant Officer on Diversity for the Undergraduate Association.