“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” This is one of the greatest quotes from the legendary writer and first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison who died on August 5 at age 88. I first heard about the writings of Toni Morrison as an undergraduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife when I volunteered as a student librarian at the departmental library. I thought it would give me unlimited access to a wide range of books and journals. Besieged by class rehearsals, assignments and personal research, I only turned out to be an ambitious reader, wishing to read more than I could. One evening, a senior colleague, stopped by, and whilst glancing through the shelf, exclaimed in excitement, “Toni Morrison! I have been looking forward to reading more of her books. Have you read Beloved?” I shook my head and his facial reaction was as though I had committed the greatest literary sin. Anyway, he quickly educated me about her writings and her fascination with the theme of racism. Prior to that encounter, I had been fascinated by writings based on gender, sexuality and race. So, I started poring over a few of Morrison’s books, never finishing any, despite its gripping tales, due to the demands of the theatre classes and Grade Point fever but then I discovered so much about black identity through her character portrayals. Quietly, I wondered why our literature class was so serious about the old English epic poem “Beowulf” by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, when we had so much to learn about our identity as black people.
I chose to read Toni Morrison’s at night because they were easy reads. Morrison was a product of the black consciousness spirit that prevailed in post-civil rights America. She was schooled through oral tradition about black inventors in history which shaped her sense of identity. Morrison foresaw the crisis of freedom for the blacks long after the abolition of slave trade and that became a major preoccupation in most of her writings.
There is a Yoruba proverb which says “Alagbede to nlu irin loju kan, olohun to fe fayo nibe’’ that loosely translates thus: If a blacksmith hammers on a particular point, he must have his reason. Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, Morrison proves to be that blacksmith that was unapologetic in her repeated reference to racism in her works, much to the chagrin of her critics.
After her marriage to the Jamaican architectural student, Harold Morrison ended in divorce, she returned to her parents’ home with her two sons. After one and a half years, she secured an editing job with a text book subsidiary of Random House, Syracuse and was the first black female editor in fiction. Every night after putting the children to sleep, she would write her short stories which developed into her first novel The Bluest Eye published in 1970 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
In Bluest Eye, Morrison beamed the spotlight on the various levels of victimisation at work in a brutally racist and sexist American society. The little black girl character, Pecola wants to be loved. Instead, she is ridiculed and hated because she is black. She then retreats to insanity after much violations; believing she is the most beautiful with the Bluest eyes of all.
In her second novel, Sula, she explores the black community through the eyes of two friends, Sula and Nel. Nel conforms to societal standards, gets married and raises children. Sula, who lives with her grandmother Eva and her mother Hannah, violates social codes. Their house also serves as a home for three informally adopted boys and a steady stream of boarders. Morrison’s existentialist theme propels her characters to make very difficult decisions.
Some critics argued that Morrison offered one-sided narrative of the American story by lingering on the black themes. Still, Morrison offered no apologies. In her third novel, Song of Solomon, the reader is taken on an odyssey of self-discovery through the characters of some African-born slaves who left plantation and fly back home to Africa. The work won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and ten years later, she won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved.
Her fourth novel, Tar Baby, is also rooted in the black folklore as Morrison’s characters keep yearning for freedom. Her works are more than ever relevant to socio-political discourse in the 21st century treatment of the subject matter of race.
Her most iconic work – her fifth novel – Beloved was published in 1987 as a first of a trilogy. Based on a true-life story of Margaret Garner, it raises the question of personal freedom and the extent to which one can go to secure it. The protagonist is haunted by her murdered baby daughter. Till date, Beloved is regarded as a literary masterpiece, albeit controversial. After winning her Nobel Prize in 1993, tragedy struck. Her house was burnt down. Instead of rebuilding the house, she rebuilt her life by relocating to Princeton University in New Jersey where she taught.
Morrison, in spite of her female-dominated characterisations would not accept to be labelled as a feminist because in her view, that would be restrictive. Morrison seemed to have such penchant for one-word book titles – Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), Home (2012). Her last published book is titled “The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations” (2019).
She was honoured with the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former US President Barack Obama as well as the National Humanities Medal. But the most unspoken honour comes from how she makes her listeners think after reading through her words. “We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.’’