Morrison, it seemed, needed to expand her horizons and get on with the main business of writing about white America. The assumption didn’t go away as her fame grew. It was still apparent in 1998 when Morrison was asked by a journalist when she would write “substantially” about white people.
She responded by pointing out the racism in the question: would a white writer be asked when they would write about blacks?
Morrison, real name Chloe Ardelia Wofford, was born in Ohio in 1931. She became the first member of her family to enter higher education, after which she became an editor at Random House in the 1960s, where Muhammad Ali’s autobiography was among the books she edited. She was the author of 11 novels, and won a Pulitzer for Beloved in 1988. In 1993, she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
All this while staying on the “black side”. The challenge of “navigating a white male world was not threatening”, Morrison said in the 2019 documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. “It wasn’t even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did. And I wasn’t afraid to show it.”
Morrison died in 2019, aged 88. The first major collection of essays on her work since her death was published in January this year. The Bloomsbury Handbook to Toni Morrison, edited by Kelly L. Reames and Linda Wagner-Martin, is made up of 25 essays, divided into three sections. These assess Morrison’s novels, her ongoing importance in the contemporary world, and Morrison as teacher and a taught subject.
In Sula, the character Shadrack returns home to the US shell-shocked after fighting in France during World War One and institutes National Suicide Day.
Thomas Fahy in this collection relates the novel to the history of American warfare in the twentieth century. Keith Clark sets her work within a framework of “Afro-pessimism” in which “Blackness and Slaveness can never be disaggregated” and in which the exits remain permanently out of reach.
Of course, whites can find their world and assumptions reflected in Morrison’s work even if most of the main characters are not white.
In his essay Blue Lives Matter, Andrew Scheiber shows how Morrison’s Jazz and its critique of US policing, set in 1920s Harlem, retains its significance in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Christopher S. Lewis’s contribution argues that Morrison remains perhaps the most important source on white supremacy in the modern world.
Presumably no-one today would ask an up and coming black author when they will start writing about whites. But the assumptions which lurked behind the original question seem to linger on. The disappointment of this collection is the lack of a clear African perspective on Morrison.
The contributors are overwhelmingly drawn from US academia, and Africa is mostly treated as a minor component of Afro-Americanism. Voices such as those of Ben Okri, Chigozie Obioma or Sarah Ladipo Manyika, and deeper exploration of the roots of Morrison’s work in African oral traditions, would have been welcome additions.
The pricing of the book, likewise, won’t do much to make Morrison more accessible to African audiences. The target market is clearly academic institutions, but even well-funded libraries may baulk at the cost. Currently the book is being sold at $157.50 for a hardback, and taking the ebook option only gets that down to $126.
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