How Faith Tied Into Freedom in Toni Morrison’s Writings

FILE – In this Nov. 25, 2005 file photo, author Toni Morrison listens to Mexicos Carlos Monsivais during the Julio Cortazar professorship conference at the Guadalajara’s University in Guadalajara City, Mexico. (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File)

In Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, Frank Money and his sister, Cee, are physically and spiritually broken when they return to the rural Georgia town where they were raised. They have come home to try to save their lives. Key to their eventual salvation are the women of the town, who receive Frank and Cee in a way that recognizes the couple as in one sense nothing special and in another sense more precious than anything in the world.

The women offer what Morrison calls a “demanding love,” a love that can heal what has been broken while helping the two tell the truth about their lives. They harshly criticize the choices Cee has made in her life. “Men know a slop jar when they see one,” they tell her. “You a privy or are you a woman?” But they also show her a delicate mercy and work to rebuild Cee in body and spirit. “You good enough for Jesus. That’s all you need to know.”

Though different in “looks, dress, manner of speech, food and medical preference,” the women speak in a collective voice. They share a way of life that is holistic, connected to the earth, ethical, and deeply religious.

There was no excess in their gardens because they shared everything. There was no trash or garbage in their homes because they had a use for everything. They took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them. The absence of common sense irritated but did not surprise them. Laziness was more than intolerable to them; it was inhuman. Whether you were in the field, the house, your own backyard, you had to be busy. . . . Mourning was helpful but God was better and they did not want to meet their Maker and have to explain a wasteful life. They knew He would ask each of them one question, “What have you done?”

Almost every Morrison novel contains women like these: straight-talking, hardworking, and nurturing to a degree that is holy, perhaps divine. These kind of women are at the heart of Morrison’s religious vision. To locate Morrison’s understanding of the sacred, you have to sit for a while with these women.

The Nobel Prize–winning novelist, who died in August at age 88, is not often thought of as a religious writer. She is celebrated instead as a writer on race and culture, whose novels offer a haunting portrait of the legacy of racism and slavery in African American life and consciousness. Though Morrison was a convert to Roman Catholicism (and reportedly a regular attender at mass), it is hard to recognize in her fiction any distinctly Catholic elements. Her holy figures are not conventional Christian believers of any kind. Often they are people who have made their faith out of strands of Christianity, myth, hard-won wisdom, private reflection, and communal identity. Nevertheless, Morrison’s novels are deeply religious, and they became increasingly so during the 1990s, by which time she had already written the novels that made her famous: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved.

In a 1996 essay titled “God’s Language,” first given as a lecture at the University of Chicago (and collected in The Source of Self-Regard, recently published), Morrison describes how she was inspired to embark on the novel Paradise (1997) by two images. One was a photograph of a group of women on the steps of an African Methodist Episcopal church in the early 20th century. The other was an image in her own mind of novices in religious habits running from the police who have come to arrest them.

Paradise is about a group of women (the novel intentionally does not identify them racially) who live in an abandoned Catholic convent on the edge of an all-black town in Oklahoma in the mid-20th century. Morrison said the setting caused her to go deeper into “the characters’ reserves of faith, their concept of freedom, their perception of the divine, and their imaginative as well as organizational/administrative prowess.” She recognized that a deeply held and shared belief system was essential for the survival of the community, and she was critical of accounts of African American history that marginalized its religious aspects. Such accounts, she writes, are “more than incomplete.” They “may be fraudulent.”

The question Morrison posed for herself was this: How can religious identity be rendered in contemporary fiction? Is it possible “to render expressive religious language credibly and effectively in postmodern fiction without having to submit to a vague egalitarianism, or to a kind of late-twentieth-century environmental spiritualism, or to the modernist/feminist school of the goddess-body adored, or to a loose, undiscriminating conviction of the innate divinity of all living things, or to the biblical/political scholasticism of the more entrenched and dictatorial wings of contemporary religious institutions.”

That’s a long list of tendencies and vocabularies for a writer to be wary of. Though she names dictatorial rigidity as one hazard of religion, she appears even more keen on avoiding prominent liberal renderings of it—egalitarianism, environmentalism, feminism, God-in-everything. It’s not that Morrison is antiegalitarian or opposed to environmentalism. It’s that she objects to any religious vocabulary that is inauthentic to her subjects or that fits easily into a consumer culture. Morrison seeks to communicate through her characters a religious life that is at once mystical, practical, and communal—and that leads above all to spiritual freedom.

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Source: Christian Century

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