Toni Morrison Writes About Race and Religion in ‘The Source of Self-Regard’

Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction. Gathering speeches and es­says from 1976 to 2011, the volume gives us several decades of her thought—and its evolution—to contemplate.

African Americans, Morrison ob­serves, have the peculiar circumstance of being considered foreign in their own country. From a very early moment in American history, identity and race became intertwined. Blackness became associated with a criminalized underclass while whiteness was counterposed as representing citizenship and freedom. These loose but deeply rooted structures are perpetuated in contemporary media in a way that creates linguistic problems for writers and social concerns for all of us.

For example, Morrison wants to give voice to racial identity that doesn’t perpetuate racial stereotypes or hierarchies. But this is much easier said than done, given that blackness and whiteness are labels invented for the very purpose of organizing stereotypes and hierarchies. “We hunger for a way to articulate who we are and what we mean,” she writes. But the language we’ve all inherited is not neutral. It has history embedded within it.

Morrison is fascinated by the way that American literature written by white people has so often been preoccupied with the presence of black people and yet refuses to address it directly. Blackness has been a blank space onto which white people have projected their fears, dreams, and fantasies. For example, when white Americans talked about freedom in the 19th century, slavery was the obvious context through which they understood their own freedom—and yet often they simply didn’t mention it.

When they did mention it, even stranger things happened. At the end of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Tom subject Jim to humiliation that is “baroque, endless, foolish, mind-softening,” Morrison notes, “and it comes after we have experienced Jim as an adult, a caring father, and a sensitive man.” At the end of the day, Huckleberry Finn “simulates and describes the parasitical nature of white freedom.” Huck and Tom can’t set Jim free because if they did, then he couldn’t serve as a foil for their own freedom. Twain’s book is an elaborate and twisted display of white power.

The book is also rich in insights into Morrison’s own fiction. She reflects on the moment when she decided to take on the question of how to create a race-specific language that isn’t charged with racial stereotypes. She sees that “eliminating the potency of racial constructs in language” is work that she, as a fiction writer, can do. She talks about creating this language as if she were rebuilding a house:

If I have to live in a racial house, it was important at least to rebuild it so that it was not a windowless prison into which I was forced, a thick-walled impenetrable container from which no sound could be heard, but rather an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors.

The book also hints at Morrison’s interest in speaking a language of faith that isn’t hackneyed or presumptuous. In her 1993 Nobel address, she notes that language pushes toward what can’t be said. Language’s “force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.”

In her fiction, Morrison tries to enter the lives of people whose inner life she cannot know. Beloved imagines the inner life of a slave woman who chose to kill her own child rather than return the child to slavery. Slave women’s inner lives were rarely recorded—they didn’t leave diaries or written records—so Morrison finds herself fundamentally blocked. The only way through the block is to experiment with a language haunted by unspoken things.

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Source: Christian Century