“No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest. … You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy.”
That was, in part, how Toni Morrison remembered her longtime friend James Baldwin, who would have celebrated his 95th birthday last week. For Morrison — the Nobel Laureate, transformational writer and scholar and generation-defining editor who died this week at the age of 88 — surely there could have been no higher tribute.
Morrison’s impact on America’s landscape of literature and letters was unmatched. From the 1960s to the 1980s as an editor at Random House, she fostered a cohort of writers of color and ushered in a new era of diverse voices by brilliance and sheer force of will. In an interview with poet Sonia Sanchez, she shared that the first book she edited there was Boris Bittker’s “The Case for Black Reparations,” and said “part of the business of editing was telling people to shut up.” In 1987, she published “Beloved,” and in 1993, she became the first African American woman to win a Nobel Prize (after publishing her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” at the age of 40).
In the 1990s, she harnessed radical artistic imagination on behalf of her students at Princeton University by creating and fostering the Princeton Atelier, which has now brought guest artists to campus to collaborate with students for decades. At schools across the country, multiple generations of students come to understand slavery, racism and American history in ways that would have been impossible without books like “Beloved,” “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye” — and in ways that, decade after decade, so many Americans have come to realize we cannot survive without.
Perhaps most poignantly relevant to Americans this week is Morrison’s seminal work on American whiteness. In 1992, she published “Playing in the Dark,” a work of literary criticism that gave ballast to the emerging field of critical whiteness studies, an academic discipline that put much-needed words to America’s willful failure to understand “whiteness” as a category of identity with its own twisted histories and need for understanding. Whiteness, in other words, was not a default or a norm that could remain invisible — it was a socially constructed category with an ideology that conferred social status that must be called out. Morrison helped trace those histories, revealing in the fiction of Willa Cather, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain an understanding of whiteness that was foundational, through its opposition to blackness, to what it meant to be American. In November 2016, Morrison returned to that relentless narrative, pointing out in the pages of the New Yorker that, “Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.”
In 1997, Toni Morrison published “Paradise,” her first novel since being awarded the Nobel Prize. In one of the book’s most quoted passages, Morrison wrote: “Love is not a gift. It is a diploma.” This, to me, is one of the most telling lines, because a diploma is never a beginning or an end — it is a passage, an invitation. For so many of us, the magic of Morrison’s work is in its demand that we re-read it, return to it all over again. Perhaps nowhere is that power more evident than in “rememory,” the word she created for Sethe, her protagonist in “Beloved,” to use: “Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place — the picture of it — stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”
In her worldmaking fiction and her world-altering essays, Morrison embodied her own homage to Baldwin. She knew, as she said in her Nobel Prize lecture, that “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” To keep “American English honest,” as she did and as she well knew, was an act of liberation.