Toni Morrison’s Radical Vision of Otherness

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tags: racism, Toni Morrison



Nell Irvin Painter is the Edwards professor of American history, emerita, at Princeton University, where she directed the Program in African American Studies. She is the author of numerous books, including The History of White People, Standing at Armageddon: A Grassroots History of the Progressive Era, and Creating Black Americans.

A generation ago, as the culture wars raged, Toni Morrison often stood at the front lines, demanding the desegregation of the American literary canon. In her Tanner Lectures in 1988, and later in her book Playing in the Dark, she argued against a monochromatic literary canon that had seemed forever to be naturally and inevitably all-white but was, in fact, “studiously” so. She accused scholars of “lobotomizing” literary history and criticism in order to free them of black presence. Broadening our conception of American literature beyond the cast of lily-white men would not simply benefit nonwhite readers. Opening up would serve the interests of American mental as well as intellectual health, since the white racial ideology that purged literature of blackness was, Morrison said, “savage.” She called the very concept of whiteness “an inhuman idea.”

In her new book, The Origin of Others, Morrison extends and sharpens these themes as she traces through American literature patterns of thought and behavior that subtly code who belongs and who doesn’t, who is accepted in and who is cast out as “Other.” She has previously written of how modernist novelists like William Faulkner (who saw race) and Ernest Hemingway (who did not) respected the codes of Jim Crow by dehumanizing black figures or ignoring the connotations of blackness in their nonblack figures. But the process of exiling some people from humanity, she observes here, also ranges beyond American habits of race: One need only look at the treatment of millions now in flight from war and economic desperation. Othering as a means of control is not just the practice of white people in the United States, for every group perfects its self-regard through exclusion.

Morrison anchors her discussion of these complexities in her personal experience, recounting a memory from her childhood in the 1930s: a visit from her great-grandmother, Millicent MacTeer, a figure of enormous power whose skin was very black. On her arrival, MacTeer looked at Toni and her sister, two girls with light skin, and pronounced them “tampered with.” Colorism ordinarily refers to black people’s denigration of dark skin and preference for people who are light, but in this case it meant, more broadly, a judgment based on skin color. “It became clear,” Morrison writes, “that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser, if not completely Other.” Deemed “sullied, not pure” as a child, Morrison finds that Othering, as well as the racial self-loathing of colorism, begin in the family and connect to race, class, gender, and power.

Morrison’s history of Othering represents an intervention in history on several fronts. Although the theme of desegregating the literary canon reappears in The Origin of Others, times have changed since Playing in the Dark. Surely thanks to the more multicultural, multiracial canon that Morrison helped foster, no respectable version of American literature today omits writers of color. Morrison herself has received nearly all the honors a novelist can win: the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the French Legion of Honor, among many more. The Origin of Others is the result of her lectures in the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton series at Harvard University, where she is only the fourth woman and the second black lecturer in the 92-year history of the series.

Within the Norton Lectures’ tradition of wisdom, and among its tellers, Morrison represents a novelty by virtue of her gender, her race, and her American subject matter. Historically the series has shown a preference for European topics and for British scholars as avatars of learning. Not until 2014, when Herbie Hancock addressed “The Ethics of Jazz,” did the Norton recognize wisdom in the humanities as both pertaining to American culture and emanating from a black body. Morrison’s lectures and book are a historic achievement, as they confirm the impact of her intellectual tradition in American thought—a tradition that links her to James Baldwin, and in a younger generation Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the critique of whiteness. ...




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