Morrison’s words constitute a secular religion. Her novels and nonfiction are holy writ. Every book, every paragraph, and every sentence are love-songs for a lovelorn and weary people.
Content Warning: mentions of death by suicide
By Robert Randolph, Jr.
I often wonder if Kalief Browder read Toni Morrison. Did Nigel Shelby or Blake Brockington? Did they have occasion to read Song of Solomon, or Sula, or Beloved? (The thought that they may have read The Bluest Eye frightens me, though). In some ways, my inquiry seems grotesque or crass. But it is an honest question. Could the words of this brilliant Black woman have buttressed them against the impossibility of Black existence in America? My inquiry is also sensible, given how often I have heard my students and strangers say that her words saved their lives and helped them find their way in the world. This inquiry tests my abiding faith that literature has the capacity to save us from the worst parts of ourselves and the societies we inhabit, especially those of us who are most vulnerable, the most marginalized.
Toni Morrison’s characters are burdened with unspeakable suffering. But they are also imbued with beautiful survival tactics. In a 60 Minutes interview, Morrison told Ed Bradley, “The truth I happened to be most interested in has to do with the nature of oppression and how people survive it or don’t. It’s amazing to me, particularly for African Americans, just amazing, that we’re not all dead. That’s a constant shocker” [emphasis added]. And we often forget (perhaps because we have to) that some of us do not survive white supremacy and that the lynch mob is only one way it takes us out. But surviving and not surviving is a neat binary we cannot afford. Dichotomies are the answers to narrowly defined questions. And sometimes, marginality can be the answer and condition of grappling with those confining questions.
What happens to literature or even to our understanding of ourselves when we center our purported “marginalized” experiences, narratives, and perspectives in mainstream texts? What brilliant facets can we see if we turn the object of study or fascination slightly to the left or right? When you turn cultural narcissism in on itself, the effects are spectacular.
Quiet as it’s kept, I was so foolish back then. I thought foolish things and acted foolishly with foolish people. Friends were few and sound decisions were even fewer. I measured success by the lowest means while seeking validation from family and strangers alike. I actually cared what people thought of me as if it had any bearing on my life. Chances seemed plentiful. They were not. If an opportunity was missed, I foolishly thought another would appear like manna from Heaven. And in the early spring of 2007, I missed an opportunity that I still regret.
Toni Morrison came to Greensboro, North Carolina for Guilford College’s Bryan Lecture Series. The coliseum parking lot was packed with throngs of people vying for a space to see the Nobel laureate. I was kicking myself because I left my copy of The Bluest Eye at home in my rush to get to the reading. Luckily, there was a book vendor in the lobby. I was going to buy a book and get it signed after the reading. I picked up a hardcover copy of Song of Solomon. It was the first time I had seen the bright yellow dust jacket. It was jarring. As I was about to purchase the book, the vendor told me that unfortunately, Morrison wouldn’t be signing books that evening. I was crushed. But I thought to myself, I’d see her again, that I’d have another opportunity. I found my seat and readied myself to hear Morrison read from a novel or something she was working on. What we got was something equally powerful though unexpected.
It is easy for some of us to forget the frenzied days just after 9/11—and how those anxieties lingered for years, especially in the decade after—how everyone with a hijab or turban was suspect, how brown folks with “funny names” were made enemies of the State, how they were treated in airports and dragged off planes, or how Congress rushed to imbue President Bush with broad war powers to retaliate on the behalf of a scared populace. But who among us was really afraid and why? Toni Morrison knew and she came to warn us about the real cost of giving in to our base fears. In an essay titled, “Grendel and His Mother,” she delivered a withering critique of our xenophobic, bloodthirsty society. As an anti-war treatise, she asked each of us to examine why, who, and how we name and treat those we think are enemies.
In her reading of the Anglo Saxon heroic epic of Beowulf, Morrison centers Grendel, who is traditionally depicted as the monster. What happens to literature or even to our understanding of ourselves when we center our purported “marginalized” experiences, narratives, and perspectives in mainstream texts? What brilliant facets can we see if we turn the object of study or fascination slightly to the left or right? When you turn cultural narcissism in on itself, the effects are spectacular. Now, Beowulf and his gentry’s motives are apparent. Grendel and his mother’s violence seems proportional and justified and not merely evil. What she taught us that evening is that the ideology of imperialism employs violence beyond the plunder of land and life; it also impoverishes language and our humanity.
Though there were other items on the program, I left shortly after Morrison finished. I wanted to “beat the traffic.” The next day when my colleague showed me her signed copy of Song of Solomon I was floored. She regaled me with a story of how she stood patiently in line and how Morrison had been so sweet and welcoming. I was jealous. I remain jealous. And I am still in awe with how foolish I was, how unfaithful. My colleague laughed at me then. And she still laughs when we discuss it now.
Circles and circles of sorrow.
When confronted by white interviewers about centering white characters in her novels, not only did she throttle them with the ridiculousness of the question, but she also affirmed the necessity and pleasure of writing about the interior lives of her community her way.
Toni Morrison was my first queer theorist. She had a radical commitment to what I call “critical marginality,” and she worked diligently to discuss and imagine the margins as a place to dismantle patriarchy and social oppression.
In 2004, I was admitted to North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, to study African American Literature, the only such Masters degree program in the country. That summer before enrolling, I read The Bluest Eye and Playing in the Dark. Those books set my academic agenda before I arrived. Pecola’s demise wounded me in ways I could not express (I am still haunted by the ending of the book). But I knew I could not give in to the voices that made me doubt my own worth and sanity. Morrison’s thesis in Playing in the Dark gave me hope that my life belonged to my own imagination and not the prying eyes of others. As a queer man, I had spent a great portion of my life wishing to be at the center of my society and culture rather than relegated to the periphery. Because of my positionality, I had spent too much time worrying about why I felt I was at the margins, thinking about who socialized me that way and thinking about why I desperately wanted to escape those margins.
But along came Morrison to decolonize my mind. Reading and studying, I slowly began to realize that the margins were a blessed place that could (and often does) provide the benefit of learning to survive despite my circumstances. Thus, I began to orient my queerness around radical self-making, characterized by a distinct aesthetic, politic, and ethic. Again, I took my lead from Morrison. Aesthetically, she insisted on a participatory readership. Her books do not have tidy conclusions, and her endings tend to leave the reader with more questions than the novel initially answered. Does Milkman fly at the end of Song of Solomon? Where does the baby’s ghost go at the end of Beloved? Politically, she was committed to disorienting the master narrative. As an editor, she invested in writers who illuminated the spiritual transcendence of the margins. Under her tutelage, we were blessed with radical works from Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, and Gayl Jones. Ethically, her commitment to critical marginality was on full display. When confronted by white interviewers about centering white characters in her novels, not only did she throttle them with the ridiculousness of the question, but she also affirmed the necessity and pleasure of writing about the interior lives of her community her way.
For years, I’ve heard some Black queer scholars bemoan her lack of queer-coded characters. She never explicitly depicted queer romantic relationships. And many think it’s a blind spot in her work. But I believe most scholars who examine sexuality and queerness in Black literature have grossly overlooked Morrison’s literary style and performance as a Black queer discursive intervention in itself. And if we turn her work slightly to the left or right, indeed disorient her characters and motifs, we would see something meaningful and imaginative.
Morrison’s novels offer models and strategies for Black liberation and resists the gaze of what bell hooks names, “the culture of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” For Black writers, a part of that liberating project includes obliterating normative notions of race, gender, class, sexuality, and the like. For Morrison, this work is both aesthetically and politically charged. In her Nobel Lecture, she defines her use of language: “Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.”
These differences are gendered, embodied, sexualized, raced and are rich with ancestry and cultural memory. But she also argues that the State uses language, as well, to exploit those differences and to abuse its citizens and to marginalize them through scientific and social articulations. Thus, her work addresses concepts of (in)visibility, a major trope of queer studies. And though some work of the writer is visible and evident, other labors are not. That is, while Morrison’s texts are vigorously critiqued as treatises of race, she is also making statements about queerness and its radical politics and personal potentialities. As she once extolled,
“We can agree, I think, that invisible things are not necessarily ‘not-there’; that a void may be empty but not be a vacuum. In addition, certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves; arrest us with intentionality and purpose . . .”
In other words, what is “not-there” in her work is purposefully absent. What activates me as a writer and scholar is to ask why and what I will do about it creatively.
If “literary whiteness” buttresses the oppressive social order of the United States, then perhaps a “literary heteronormativity” buttresses the social order of Black community. Simply, a compulsory heterosexuality is imposed on much of her writing. Not only does that produce lazy reading, it equally diminishes her work, makes it smaller than it actually is. For instance, my reading of Song of Solomon seems to be a radical one. Whereas most readers and scholars read Milkman and Guitar’s relationship throughout the novel as a friendship, I read it as more than that. They have a complicated queerness.
Just as Morrison urged literary scholars to examine the coded and scripted racial discourses that uphold our society, I want us to carefully examine coded queer discourse in Black literature. My choice to rhetorically read Morrison’s perceived lack of queer characters and themes more impulsively and intuitively relies on Morrison’s own stated aims for the Black writing tradition, the generative performances of Black language, and her authorial demands for a participatory readership. Morrison assumes that the reader, especially a queer reader like myself, will work collaboratively with her to convey local and global meanings. Thus, a queer reading of Morrison’s work becomes a rewarding endeavor and infinitely more challenging.
I am a writer. I am seduced as much by hyperbole as I am by simplicity. For me, Morrison’s words constitute a secular religion. Her novels and nonfiction are holy writ. Every book, every paragraph, and every sentence are love-songs for a lovelorn and weary people.
Love was a principal theme in all of Morrison’s work. Her commitment to developing a rigorous love ethic vexes many readers. After all, how can we love when we don’t fully understand the thing that makes us tick? How can we move love from the realm of attribution to vigorous action? These were the questions that occupied her worldview, and she broadened our ideas of love as social and political, personal and public, self-regarding and communal. Her characters see love in many ways: as some cloyingly sweet emotion with romantic attachments, as an aspect of life that enables community building and solidifies families and friends, and as a survival tactic in racist and oppressive spaces. Toni Morrison’s love is discursive, generative, unending—indeed, it is as ethereal and divine as Morrison herself.
Robert Randolph, Jr. is a scholar and writer from Down East, North Carolina. His research and teaching interests include 20th- and 21st-century African-American literature, and cultural production, socio-cultural foundations of education, and Black feminist/queer rhetorics. Randolph holds a PhD in educational and cultural studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Graduate Poetry Fellow of The Watering Hole. You can find him on Twitter: @rrandolphjr.