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Toni Morrison, writers and re-centering of black humanity

Saturday August 10 2019

Toni Morrison

In this file photo taken on May 29, 2012 US President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Toni Morrison during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has died following a short illness. PHOTO | MANDEL NGAN | AFP  

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This was supposed to be an angry feminist piece. This was supposed to be a piece excoriating the West for all the problems of the global black community. This was supposed to be a piece wagging its finger at all people in positions of power (although in a sense, are we not all?) and trenchantly taking down all gatekeepers – cultural, political, economic. This was supposed to be a piece railing and lamenting about all that’s wrong in the world and how it is not fair at all, and someone should do something about everything. But, in the way writing is occasionally wont to do, this piece made its mind up to be something entirely different.


It has been a heart breaking year for the literary community. Losing not just its best writers but some of its most fierce and strident defenders of what it really means to be a writer: to be a keeper of the flame of humanity. It was with extremely dark humour that I remarked to Storymoja founder Muthoni Garland on Monday evening, that the death gods surely could have set their eyes on less deserving souls than Pius Adesanmi and Binyavanga Wainaina, both who died early this year. Adesanmi, the Nigerian essayist and academic, died in the March 10 Ethiopian Aircrash, while Binyavanga passed away on May 21 after an illness.

And then now Toni Morrison.

Why, surely, did it have to be our best and brightest taken away?

Toni Morrison will be remembered for a lot of things, but mostly for her centring of the black and black female narrative, presenting their voices and views into the world at a time when they had been devalued and pushed to the periphery.


Her writing was mystical, poetic, sometimes dark and gritty, but the non-literary seeing the world go gaga following her death (she lived a good long life till 88) may only remember her for having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. While many writers thumb their noses at prizes and fame and fortune, I want to suggest that this is the thing about her that bears remarking on.


To begin with, being black is something that is neither here nor there for us as Kenyans living in Kenya. Indeed, many will tell you that their first recognition of being black or even the concept of blackness or whiteness occurs only after they leave the country and are in racially diverse places such as Europe, the Americas or Asia. That is when, they look around them and, for the first time, recognise that racial identity. In a sense, however, there is an understated black consciousness amidst us. When Kenyans would speak vociferously in support of Robert Mugabe’s project to reclaim White farmers' land in Zimbabwe in the 2000s, and Julius Malema’s own populist statements to that effect, it is the recognition of a black consciousness. Ditto to almost every African’s almost automatic support of African countries against non-African ones during the World Cup.

There is a recognition that all is not well with the black world. We are still what Frantz Fanon seminally described in his book by the same title as ‘The Wretched of the Earth’. The shootings of black men in America, the daily deaths of Africans at sea as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean for Europe, the unremarkable casualness to epidemics such as Ebola in Africa. The normalised political violence, the institutionalised democratic failure, the mediocrity of education, health, housing and other social systems. The dysfunction that has come to be equated with ‘blackness'.

What does this have to do with Toni Morrison’s life or death, with literature, with writing, with the Kenyan literary sphere? In one word: Everything.

Everything rises and falls on writing. Because writing is the beginning and ending of everything. The Bible tells us: In the beginning was the word.


In a nod to another fairly recently departed African literary luminary, Chinua Achebe, the rain began to beat us when we failed to recognise writing's central place in our post-colonial society, in our world. I have been musing recently that I am something of a pioneer, being the first Kenyan to have a post-graduate degree in the seemingly frivolous subject of Creative Writing.

Our crisis as a nation, as has been noted by many others (this is a theme that has been coming out of the writing in the Kwani? journals, for instance) has been a crisis of imagination rather than anything else. Imagination is akin to the architectural blue print that is necessary before putting up a house. We are still stuck in the imagination our colonial mother Britain conceived of us: a place to extract raw materials and exploit. We have been unable to detach ourselves from this perspective. This is why our politicians spend all their time coming up with ways to fleece our economic coffers dry. Because it is still set up in the mold of an institution to extract and repatriate, rather than to nourish and nurture.

This colonial imagination is inimical to art and creativity, recognising that they are its ultimate kryptonite. This is why in our history as a nation, the system has always been quick to eject the writers, thinkers and revolutionaries. This is why Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, Oulu GPO, Oscar King’aara, Chris Msando, among others got killed. This is why humanists such as Chelagat Mutai and whistleblowers such as David Munyakei died humiliating lonely deaths. This is why one of our original liberatory politicians, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, lived a persecuted life, his son coming behind him doing the same too. This is why artists today keep struggling to find a footing in this nation, 60 years after independence.

Rest in Power Miss Morisson, thank you for your work.