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Why we must read and keep Toni Morrison’s last words

Saturday August 10 2019

US author Toni Morrison

US author Toni Morrison smiles in her office at Princeton University in New Jersey, while being interviewed by reporters on October 7, 1993. Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, has died following a short illness, her family said in a statement on August 6, 2019. PHOTO | DON EMMERT | AFP  

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As we mourn American writer Toni Morrison, the social media is full of her wise words, some culled from the pages of her many books. Others picked from her speeches. More from her essays. Her books are being dusted and (re-) read and will be shared for quite some time.


But worth noting is that the matriarch of (African-) American writing did leave us with some selected words of wisdom, reflections on the meaning of life and shared humanity, as seen through the lens of literature and art. This wisdom is found in her latest book, a collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019).

It is instructive that the preface to this book is a short reminder about the ‘perils’ of living in a violent and oppressive world, for writers/artists, as well as for the rest of humanity. She writes, “How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and works of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the chocking off or a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.”

These are words that should remind us powerfully of the loss we suffer today with the death of Toni Morrison — though not incarcerated by some political order, now claimed by death. But it is also a reminder that a world in which writers/artists, the creatives, are hunted and haunted by repressive regimes is a world that has lost its humanity. Pen International, through the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), notes that they monitor between 700-900 cases every year of writers who are harassed, threatened or jailed. Toni Morrison reminds us to beware of the perils of being a writer with the words, “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

However, The Source of Self-Regard is about a bigger philosophical question: how can one have self-respect in the world today, a world that’s defined by deprivation, violence, inequality, dehumanisation, among other acts and thoughts that lessen the individual’s dignity every day? Toni Morrison throws her eyes across history, especially of Black people and their relationship with the world to illustrate this human tragedy. To do so she addresses the misfortune of homelessness, of being not of home, even when in one’s home. Africans in Africa who somehow don’t belong because the legacy of colonialism created boundaries that deny them to date coexistence with their neighbours, across country borders; or African-Americans or Latinos, who today are still seen as foreigners in America.



For Toni Morrison, globalisation and globalism, despite offering the illusion of one big, inclusive global village, has actually accentuated the alienation of the poor majority in the world. She is worried that too many migrants who leave Africa (or other parts of the world) because of economic hardships still end up rejected and dehumanised because of the very same capitalistic world that created the conditions that uprooted them in the first place. This is the essence of the section, ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ in the book.

Of course racism and fascism threaten to undo much of what humanists have worked towards in making the world more open-minded and homely to all mankind in the recent past. That Toni Morrison died in the wake of the El Paso massacre should remind us to reread her. For she warns that even “fascism talks ideology, but it is really just marketing — marketing for power.” Indeed fascists are reinventing the old divisions in the world today; divisions of racial superiority, of ethno-nationalism, of economic isolationism etc. Even the spectre of a nuclear confrontation is being discussed openly — something that nearly a whole generation living hadn’t heard of.

Toni Morrison warns that racists and fascists are indeed quite organised but there is a dark intention in their plans. “When our fears have all been serialised, our creativity censured, our ideas ‘marketplaced’, our rights sold, our intelligence sloganised, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.”


The gems of advice in The Source of Self-Regard include one of the most difficult debates in the world today: what exactly to do to keep the arts alive, articulated in the essay ‘Arts Advocacy.’ Here Toni Morrison is worried that the problem of how to treat artists and support their work remains unresolved — partly because “artists have a very bad habit of being resilient — and it is that resilience that deceives us into believing that the best of it sort of gets done anyhow — and the ‘great’ of that ‘best’ sort of lasts anyhow.”

This is the situation that somehow haunts artists — the rest of us think that artists can and will or even should continue to produce great artwork even in sickness, penury, jail etc. There is an assumption out there that artists today don’t need the kind of patronage’ of the past, which guaranteed some artists a livelihood and market for their work. But is that the case?

For today, in these mourning times, the urgent urge would be to advise those who haven’t read Toni Morrison’s 11 novels and three non-fiction books to do so. For, after all, this is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. But that is a personal initiative.

However, a worthier advice would be for one to ponder what Toni Morrison thinks of literature. Why should we read literature? What is in it that is better than other cultural forms? Is it better than the spectacle on TV, of news, of film, of the sitcom, etc? Toni Morrison argues that, “Literature has features that make it possible to experience the public without coercion and without submission.


Literature refuses and disrupts passive or controlled consumption of the spectacle designed to nationalise identity in order to sell products. Literature allows us — no, demands of us — the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons. And in so doing is far more necessary than it has ever been.”

This idea is later highlighted in the concluding essay of The Source of Self-Regard, ‘Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading’. Here Toni Morrison reflects on what it takes to not just write but also read. She argues that reading can be both, or should be, a skill and an art. Her proposition here is that indeed one can read because they have been taught to do so. But one should be able to read to enjoy critically; to negotiate with the writer; to decipher the history, geography, economy, sociality etc of the story, rather than just to relish it. In her words, “Writing the reading involves seduction — luring the reader into environments outside the pages. Disqualifying the notion of a stable text for one that is dependent on an active and activated reader who is writing the reading — in invisible ink.”

In the end, the point is that she who decides, for instance, to read Toni Morrison today has to do so by seeking to reimagine the lives of the characters in her books just as much as thinking critically about the circumstances that gave birth and creative energy and purpose to those characters. In other words, respect for the self has to be found in the humanity of others’ lives and stories. This is the word, according to Toni Morrison.

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]