We Had a Shakespeare

On Toni Morrison, 1931–2019

Dear Omari, 

When I read the news, I thought of the time you told me you read the ending of Sula aloud on the last day to your Intro to African-American Lit class and cried. I texted you and you told me you cried multiple times today and that you’re not a crier. I thought that I should cry, but I haven’t.

Instead, I’ve thought a lot about her name. Her books are always concerned with names. In Song of Solomon, the father finds names for his family by flipping through the Bible. Another character explains that, after the Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau wrote down the wrong name of his newly emancipated father; this mistake gave his family their last name. What last name did he have before those records? That of his master, the book implies. The names by which we call the descendants of enslaved people, Song of Solomon reminds us, are living records of slavery.

That she is so careful about names in her fiction is, I think, a comment about “the novel,” as a form. In Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, he makes a little discussed argument about how naming works in the genre. Because they focused upon exceptional people, genres predating the novel named characters after mythological or historical figures (Achilles, Richard III) or gave them metaphorical names (Everyman). But novels’ focus on ordinary people in everyday life required different names. The characters needed common names (Tom Jones) or their uncommon names had to be explained within the text (Tristram Shandy). The very notion of common names, Morrison implies in Song of Solomon, was unavailable to African-American characters in novels. The centrality of naming to the genre itself differed for African Americans.

Her own name bore a curious homology to those of her characters. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, and her family name at birth was marked by slavery. She chose the baptismal name Anthony after Saint Anthony, known both for his knowledge of the Bible and for his care for the poor. She took the nickname Toni after her baptismal name because her schoolmates struggled to pronounce the name Chloe. Morrison came from marriage. The first and last name by which we know her are masculine, one made so by religious choice and the other by marriage. Though I take her name for granted when I refer to her or see it on a book, her own name had a history, one made by violent institutions and by her choices. In this, she was like one of her own fictional characters, her life like one of her novels.

So what will I tell young people—how will I refer to her—who do not know who she is twenty, thirty, or forty years from now? We had a Shakespeare, I would like to say. People called her Toni.

E


Dear Elias,

I’m not a crier. However, I am profoundly inexperienced at dealing with the deaths of those closest to me. Outside of the passing of my paternal grandmother, Gloria, and my maternal grandfather, Norman, I have very rarely thought about how the world changes when those who have affected it and me leave us. But every time I do, I recall a poem I wrote in the fifth grade that I recited at my grandma’s funeral. The prosody itself is painfully unremarkable (even for a 10-year-old) but were I to close read it, I would say it deals with the lingering presence of those who continue to impact us after they are gone and our preoccupation with their safety once they move to the Great Beyond. I’ve thought about that poem since I woke up and heard the news of Toni’s passing. I didn’t know her personally. I never met her. But I hope that whoever cares for her essence now treats her nearly as well as she treated all of us, the black people that she wrote for and cared for deeply.

I imagine I feel much like Nel does upon her ultimate reckoning with the depth and breadth of the loss she experienced when Sula passed away. That loss defies language. Much has been written on the very collapse of language in Nel’s utterance that they was girls together, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” And yet, their relationship is also defined by the ways in which nature responds to Nel’s understanding of what this loss has changed for her even twenty-five some odd years after Sula’s death. Ruskin writes that the pathetic fallacy—the trope of assigning human feelings to non-human objects—is a fallacy at least partially because it can be solipsistic. When we experience intense emotions like grief or ecstasy, the world around us changes because our perception has shifted so drastically from our normal ways of seeing the world. But, how can it be a fallacy when the orientation of the world itself has shifted with the loss of one of the world’s most talented observers of its inner workings and outer imprints? As I write, the leaves stir for Toni’s passing. The mud shifts upon her release from this world. The smell of overripe green things all whisper the name for Toni Morrison that they know.

I cry at that ending because reading it provided me with the best encapsulation of what love was, what love is, what love could be. Love is quiet as it’s kept, revealing itself in moments you never correctly read the first time. Though Sula and Nel always loved each other, it is only after the former’s death that the latter can finally reckon with what that love meant. It isn’t something that can be captured in words but in affects, affectations, movements, gestures, feelings. Perhaps love never makes sense. Perhaps sensemaking is beside the point. However, it has been in the sensory impressions that Toni’s legacy has made on me that I now make sense of that which I have always felt towards her.

I loved Toni. I love Toni. And perhaps now I can spend the rest of my life working through exactly what that means.

Yours,
Omari


Omari,

Love is perhaps the topic I was most afraid of broaching. It’s everywhere in Morrison’s oeuvre. In the early works, from The Bluest Eye to Beloved, she writes of familial love, romantic love, love of friends, love of the dead, and more. Of the recent work, both Home and God Help the Child are stories about the love of kin. And love is there in her biography: she edited and wrote alongside that generation of Black Feminists who brought to light the violence black men did to those they said they loved, she wrote her first book while raising her children, and she almost quit writing after her son died.

But people do such horrifying things in the name of love and in such violent contexts in her novels. The Bluest Eye is the source of the quote that’s been circulating quite a bit since she passed: “Love is never any better than the lover.” In a novel in which intimate partner violence and child abuse take center stage, it’s hard not to read this sentence as a claim about love’s uselessness. Because of her dedication to chronicling the fallibilities of lovers under assault by the state and by their communities, her work seems quite ambivalent about love.

The most positive thing I could say about love in Morrison’s books comes from that novel, too, and even it is not exactly positive. Of the time when Pauline was pregnant with Pecola and working as a domestic, she recalls,

I used to talk to it whilst it be still in the womb. Like good friends we was. You know. I be hanging wash and I knowed lifting weren’t good for it. I’d say to it holt on now I gone hang up these few rags, don’t get froggy; it be over soon. It wouldn’t leap or nothing . . . You know, just friendly talk. On up til the end I felted good about that baby.

When I first read this passage, I thought of my grandmother, who immigrated to the US and cleaned houses while raising her children, and I cried, but the tears were not exactly sad. Then I tried to explain why the scene moved me to two non-black friends. They only saw the violence of labor that forced a pregnant woman to work. Yet for Morrison, that violence is exceeded by Polly’s love for her unborn child, someone with whom she can talk to outside of the physically violent confines of her home but within the workplace.

The way in which Morrison privileges love while describing violence as its enabling condition has recently been valorized in Black Studies. “But to be committed to the anti- and ante-categorical predication of blackness,” Fred Moten writes in the passage in Black and Blur that I am so fond of quoting, “is to subordinate . . . the critical analysis of anti-blackness to the celebratory analysis of blackness.” This subordination “is done not to avoid or ameliorate the hard truths of anti-blackness but in the service of its violent eradication.” Afro-pessimists may be right in arguing that violence constitutes blackness after the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Moten argues, but writers ought to celebrate blackness’s excess of it in the hope of destroying anti-blackness. In the scene in which Polly speaks to her unborn Pecola at work, she subordinates both intimate partner and labor’s violence to Pauline’s love for Pecola. Perhaps this is the sort of subordination Moten argues will eradicate anti-blackness.

But what does love offer Pecola in the end? The bond between Pauline and Pecola on display here flees almost immediately after Pecola is born. And just before Claudia’s meditation on love being limited by lovers, she writes that Cholly “was the only one who loved her enough to touch her . . . But his touch was fatal.” In Claudia’s eyes, his “love” produced the very sexual violence which drove Pecola mad. So, in Morrison’s novels, what does this love-limited-by-the-lover offer in the way of undoing the harms of racism, sexism, classism, and so on? I take seriously your point that love for Morrison transcends solipsism, but what good is that?

I hope you don’t take this disagreement as an indictment of your reading of Sula or even of her work; I quite like it. Perhaps this is just the weight of her being gone for more than a day hitting me. I bumped into HB and MC yesterday, who helped me realize that I took her for granted. HB pointed out that she published for the entirety of his reading life, that he went from childhood to adulthood reading her. She wrote so much and for so long that you forgot how old she really is, he said. You assume she will keep writing books for as long as you live so that, when she dies, you don’t see it coming. MC said she permeates the history of our field. I agreed and said she’s in the air. MC repeated, she’s in the air. We were reading her even when we were not reading her in much the same way French people read Capital by living their daily lives according to Balibar and Althusser. When I walked away, I wondered, how were we supposed to live without our air?

E


Elias,

To be fair, I don’t think we disagree all that much. Your note that the weight of our collective loss is still in its infancy and that perhaps our hot takes differ from our previous, more calcified readings—readings laboriously undertaken with ripped covers, countless underlines, and annotations built upon notes turned into essays—is well taken. You’re right to say that love is complicated in Morrison’s work. It seems true to me that love is rarely completely unwedded from violence, bad feelings, or traumas of various sorts. Taken out of context, Nel’s final understanding of the meaning of Sula seems like something she should have figured out while Sula was alive. Sula’s strategies for relaying that love take on a diverse array of configurations; sleeping with Nel’s husband comes to mind as, perhaps, the most direct way. Nel confronts Sula about why she could not keep away from Jude years later while she’s on her death bed and, in one of my favorite lines from that novel, Sula responds, “If we were such good friends, how come you couldn’t get over it?”

This is what I mean when I say that love often gets read incorrectly the first time (and, as in this case, sometimes the second time as well). Sula’s understanding of their intersubjectivity, encapsulated best in the infamous sticks-in-a-hole scene, goes back before they were born, to the ways Eva and Hannah, her grandmother and mother respectively, cultivate the kinds of intimacy that they desire. This takes on multiple forms, from participating in adultery, to severing one’s own leg (either intentionally or not), to filicide to name a few. Love is difficult, painful but, in my reading (and I believe yours too), worth it.

It’s comparatively easy to love Toni even as the difficulty of that love takes very different shapes. Teaching her work at a predominantly white institution has meant explaining references I had always taken for granted. “Quiet as it’s kept” can be a mystifying phrase to explain to people who did not grow up hearing it. Understanding Sethe’s act of killing her child can be impossible when you have never actually grappled with how elaborately and painfully destructive slavery was for the expression, experience, and enactment of black life. The doll tests, the power of oral history, the role of black soldiers in Vietnam—unlocking the depths of Toni’s work necessitates a working knowledge of all of this and more. Morrison’s work so often lulls non-black readers into a false sense of security with a lyricism that wraps black pain and black pleasure into a lush array of signs and images and sounds that can seem knowable if only you read carefully and attentively.

I imagine this lack of attention to the histories undergirding Morrison’s aesthetic may have colored your friends’ reading of the power of that quote from The Bluest Eye. What good liberalism to see an exploitation of labor and call it out. Because how could that reading be incorrect? Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman has one of my favorite readings of that novel in her book Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race. In a chapter on the prevalence of incest as a trope in black women’s writing of the late 20th century, Abdur-Rahman reads the violence that Pecola’s father enacts upon her as an inversion of her birth. Pauline delivers Pecola without pain medication as the obstetrician says “these here women you don’t have any trouble with. They deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses.” The parallelism of the dehumanizing violence done to black women and their bodies produces a relationship built upon an intimacy beyond any expressions of love or hatred that Pauline could articulate to her daughter. In my reading, Morrison asks us to consider what it means to construct kinship not only through the traditional way of genealogy but also through shared experiences of pain and terror.

Is this (not) at least part of the story of black girls that caused Toni to write The Bluest Eye? It’s fairly commonly known that she began writing because the stories that she wanted told had not yet been written. Is it Afro-pessimistic to acknowledge the ways in which black intimacy of all kinds gets routed through attunements produced by living in the longue durée of slavery? I think the obvious answer is: of course. There is no black past in the United States without slavery. There is no black present in the United States without slavery. There is no black future in the United States without slavery. There is what Christina Sharpe has called wake work, an analytic with which “we might continue to imagine new ways to live in the wake of slavery, in slavery’s afterlives, to survive (and more) the afterlife of property” by attending to and organizing around “a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un/imaginable lives.” How can we inhabit such possibilities without simultaneously inhabiting the accumulation of histories that brought us here and push down upon us with forces stronger than gravity? This inhabiting doesn’t require a return—as Sharpe’s readings of Dionne Brand’s work makes clear, we can construct new horizons of possibility without returning to that which made such horizons necessary. But what Morrison does here in representing the lives of Pauline and Pecola, which pushes a reading of their relationship beyond a dialectic of love and hate, is firmly establish how both are uniquely similar subjects not simply because of their genealogical ties but rather because of their shared relationship to histories of disregard for the pain of black women.

For many non-black readers, Toni Morrison’s work constitutes a re-reading of the past. This isn’t totally wrong and could be supported by the fact that only God Helps the Child takes place in the moment of its composition. However, her work means so much more to us, who can see ourselves or conceptualize ourselves in the wake of her language. This is not meant as a mere argument about increased cultural representations of black experience (though it is also not not that, as Deconstructionists say to account for a double presence through absence). More fully, it is an acknowledgment of what tarrying with the complexities of history affords us as black people who love black writing. It’s a recognition that love can never be anything but difficult, multivalent, hard, violent. Living and loving in the time of black history is not easy but perhaps relationality never is.

Yours,
Omari


O,

Your citation of Sharpe helped me realize that there’s something related to but not quite the same as love in Morrison’s works that I’m after. (I hate to sound like I’m single and bitter about it; love is great!) Among all the other things, in Morrison’s books, there is care, as Sharpe describes it in In the Wake.

Living as I have argued we do in the wake of slavery, in spaces where we were never meant to survive, or have been punished for surviving and for daring to claim or make spaces of something like freedom, we yet reimagine and transform spaces for and practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention).

What is the care that founds this ethical system which transforms the violence that created blackness? Care for black people, she writes, is “shared risk between and among” them.

The Morrison example Sharpe turns to is from Beloved, but I think Home is more relevant to our discussion. After Frank returns from the Korean War, while he is detained in the hospital, he receives a note that his sister, Cee, is in trouble. He breaks out of the hospital and makes his way to the home of a doctor, who has detained his sister to experiment on her (resulting eventually in her inability to bear children). When he arrives, Sarah, the doctor’s housekeeper, lets him in. The doctor pulls a gun on them; rather than fear, he sees “the quiet, even serene, face of a man not to be fooled with” (I imagine she wrote “fucked with” in the first draft). There is love amongst kin that drove him to see her, yes, but care is what he does here. Care led Frank and Sarah both to take on the risk facing Cee to make a new life for her.

After Frank takes Cee to the women who heal her, he finds their community structured by this kind of care. “There was no excess in their gardens because they shared everything,” Morrison writes. The garden’s lack of excess, at first glance, might be read as a sign that they produce the exact amount that they need to eat. But it might also be read as evidence that they produce too little to eat and that they shared their food anyway because they prioritized feeding their community. “They took responsibility for their lives,” Morrison continues, “and for whatever, whoever else needed them.” Regardless, we might add, of whether or not that incurred risk: of going hungry in the case of sharing food, of repercussions for caring for Cee, and so on. The world that you said has changed from Morrison’s departure is, in Morrison’s own novel, proof of the transcending of solipsism in a way that enables life.

Meditations on care run throughout her work. At Random House, she edited the biography of one of the FBI’s ten most wanted people (Angela Davis), which may have been lucrative but must have been a scary prospect nonetheless. As an editor and as a writer, she contributed to a variety of works that both gestured toward the then unwritten about tradition of Black Women Writers and that formed the foundation for the scholars (Mary Helen Washington, Deborah McDowell, Barbara Christian, and so on) who made that tradition a field, a field which birthed our world. She edited a collection of essays (which includes Nell Painter, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Paula Giddings, to say nothing of Homi Bhabha, Cornel West, and others) about the combined racism and sexism on display in the Anita Hill case at a time when both political parties conspired to undermine Hill. There is so much, and so much more, that Morrison did that was risky in the service of making new kinds of lives for black people, which was itself like the kind of care on display in her work.

Like the women who tend the garden in Home, she took responsibility for whatever needed her, even when what needed her was long dead. In this, she is like Almeyda in Gayl Jones’ Song for Anninho. After Almeyda has come to terms with the death of her beloved, Anninho, she narrates, “Now I make roads for you, Anninho. I make roads.” She makes a path on which the dead can travel back to her, in the way that Morrison did for enslaved people to return to the present in Beloved, and even in the way that Morrison did for herself to return to us as an act of care for us. I can only hope we can care for her too.

E

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