by Bronwyn Mills
by Bronwyn Mills
Oh, there's one more river
And that's the river of Jordan,
One more river
There's one more river to cross
I think the first book by Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, February 18, 1931) that I read was Song of Solomon: I was fascinated by the idea of a character named Milkman, by the folklore ingredient in Morrison's storytelling, of her use of African American informal oral storytelling, and by the ease and skill with which she brought me, the reader, into her world. It was a breath of fresh air in the world of—honestly—dreary, self-involved writing by white contemporary writers who largely agonized over the petty neuroses of its middle classes. Morrison wasn't writing about a me; she was writing about an us. She immediately opened the curtains on a fictional world where characters were part of a community; and, no matter how much they struggled with its embrace or rejection, their individual problems and triumphs were also collective. In turn, the community struggled with the larger collective: those who ran school, town, city, nation; those who policed those boundaries.
Before the blossoming of 20th century black writing, of which Morrison was one of its signal members, and during the time when James Baldwin was igniting the fires of literary resistence, some of us marched. We thought we had won some significant victories—desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, black citizens gaining more than a toehold…a florescence of black writing. Even as things calmed down, we finally, finally elected a black president. However, bigotry and ignorance, mutually intertwined as usual, are again sharply on the rise, spearheaded and embodied, no less, by another president who is not worthy to shine the shoes of our humblest fellow citizens, then, now, or in the future.
I later read Sula. as part of a women's book club reading books by women, though I hasten to add, I/we did not read it to satisfy some precious and privileged university feminist agenda. Then The Bluest Eye. Then Tar Baby. More. I followed the absurd catfights that nearly deprived Morrison of her just awards. Celebrated her Nobel—and mind, she is the last US writer to receive such an honor; and there are reasons why none have succeeded her. It seemed as though, slowly, Morrison and her like gave way as the publishing world both invented the phrase, and turned away from, "literary fiction" in favor of slighter work, one of the most egregious among African American women writers being Waiting to Exhale by Terri McMillan. More me; less us.
Going back to school for another degree, I met my future mentor, the Bajan poet, Kamau Brathwaite; and he made us read Beloved. Many have balked, I understand, at the language in that book; but Brathwaite not only got it: he got us, his students, to get it. How does one articulate bondage? Dated and old-fashioned as it now seems to us, the sonorous and educated tones of W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk just don't do it; indeed, among naïve white readers, that book, in particular, is often miscast and used as an invitation to pity, to patronize a whole people. Morrison, on the other hand, gave us an unvarnished look at the damage: servitude and its wounds, red in tooth and claw.
Thinking back upon the harrowing experience of reading Beloved, under Brathwaite's tutelage, one must look at the impact that servitude has upon language. The arm's length isolation of slaves and former slaves on the part of white America led to the evolution of a remarkable English: yes, slaves sat in the gallery while the emissaries of Anglicanism intoned out of the King James version, but as Marley himself sang, this, this is not the king James ver-zion! Our most vibrant slang comes from black English, the eloquence of black preachers like Martin Luther King, Jr. has not been, cannot be, matched by paler contemporaries, James Baldwin and others have molded the master's English and used it to remind our society at large that it has a duty to conscience rather than enforcing or suffering lock-step obedience. And so on.
What Morrison did, in that contorted, oh-so-difficultly-articulated language which Sethe, the main character in Beloved, uses is to show us the impact that her servitude, her escape and her ultimate sacrifice of her child, rather than return it to bondage—that all that had upon simple utterance. It also enables us to open ourselves to understanding—not mawkish pitying—of how that institution distorted our society right down to its language, not only among those who went through slavery and survived (or did not); but also among those who looked the other way. Now, appallingly, we see another insidious distortion of public language, as today's leaders mouth horrid, bigoted clichés and ignorant racist invectives, seeking simple answers rather than difficult truths. The cheapening of our language, a linguistic canary in the mineshaft, only shows how disheveled our national culture has become; and we, as writers, need to sit up and pay attention. Not let that happen. Our elders knew better, and have left or are leaving us. Morrison is but the latest one.
Books by Toni Morrison
And in her own words...
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