Emilie M. Townes on What Toni Morrison Taught Us About Society

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison reads during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert, on Sept. 17, 2005, in New York City. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)

Emilie M. Townes is dean and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Amid the obituaries and tributes for novelist Toni Morrison, who died this week at age 88; of all the shared emails, texts and calls with friends and present and former students, as I sat with my own grief at the news, one remark of Morrison’s continued to resonate. In a 2015 interview in Essence magazine, she told the story of once being asked on stage how she wanted to be remembered. Morrison said she replied, “I would like to be remembered as trustworthy; as generous.”

At this point an audience member challenged her. “What are you talking about?” a young black woman called out. “You are a famous writer and you want to be remembered as trustworthy?”

Morrison went on to explain to the incredulous audience members that they were thinking of her public self, while Morrison was thinking about how she wanted her family to remember her. “That other thing is all well and good. But there is Toni Morrison and there is Chloe (her birth name). Chloe is not interested in those things.”

This captures for me why Morrison was and remains a powerful influence for so many of us who traffic in religious circles, professionally and personally. Her trustworthiness came through — when you read her words, be it in an essay or a novel, she conveyed the comforting and the uncomfortable truths of making one’s way in a world that harbors ill will against darker-skinned folk, and women-identified folk, and poor folk in radically systematic and relentless ways.

She did not absolve her readers from our participation in this deadly spectacle. She held us all responsible for the world we have made and are making. But she insisted that we realize the specific ways in which we participate in it. In my own work, I have been deeply influenced by the mirrors Morrison hands me to look both within and beyond myself.

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Source: Religion News Service