The politics of defining one’s own art
David L. Horne, Ph.D ow oped | 8/8/2019, midnight
Chloe Wofford, otherwise known to the world as Toni Morrison, has just passed away this past Monday, Aug. 5, 2019, at age 88. Hers was a writer’s life fully lived.
Ms. Morrison, if looking for accolades, was either the predominant American writer of the last 40 years, or else quite simply the most awarded African American novelist, editor and wordsmith this country has produced in the last 50 years. Actually, both are true.
Yes, she wrote and published over 10 novels, several books of literary criticism, gave a series of master classes in literature at Harvard, won the Pulitzer Prize for writing, and became the first and thus far only African American woman to win the Nobel Prize (1993) for literature (an award that means one is chosen as the best writer in the world at that time).
Yes, she became the first Black American book editor at Random House Publishers, and worked with and shepherded into the limelight several other great writers, including Gayl Jones, Henry Dumas, and Toni Cade Bambara. Yes, she was the role model for how to unapologetically write about the Black Experience and make it meaningful to a very wide audience.
Four favorite Morrison quotes will always be:
(1) “I’m writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.
(2) Writing is really a way of thinking, not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.
(3) To get to a place where you could love anything you chose, not to need permission for desire, well now that was freedom.
(4) The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Her most famous books remain, “The Bluest Eye,” Song of Solomon,” “Sula,” and “Beloved.”
The many varieties of the Black American story had, until Morrison, been most frequently told though the voices and reflections of White authors like William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Harper Lee. The Harlem Renaissance writers had broken the mold, and Toni Morrison carried the craft to its highest peak.
It would be a great honor to her and them if this new generation of “Street Lit” writers put in the necessary time and talent to extend the clarity of thought and acuity of sight that Toni Morrison brought to the writing table, rather than to simply bulldoze through a number of action sequences and call that art. Laziness in writing is a great sin for those who truly can see further, but who choose, instead, to take the easy road forward.
Toni Morrison was blessed with immense sight and talent, and she left the world better read and more understandable than she found it.
May she rest in peace knowing her job was exceedingly well done.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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