The times they aren’t a-changin’ fast enough
Toni Morrison’s new book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations,’’ arrives 400 years after the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown, 49 years after the first celebration of Black History Month at Kent State University, 25 months into the Trump presidency, and amid the political implosion of Virginia, erstwhile home of the Confederacy, whose top white politicians have admitted to wearing blackface and top black politician stands accused of sexual assault. Clearly we do not deserve Morrison, and clearly we need her badly.
In this collection of nonfiction written over the past four decades, the revered (and sometimes controversial) author of “The Bluest Eye,’’ “Song of Solomon,’’ “Sula,’’ “Beloved,’’ “Jazz,’’ and over 16 other books reinforces her status as a piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race. “The Source of Self-Regard’’ has an arrestingly consistent argument: our problems, national and global, are rooted in the greed and “demonization” of the Other that have that have characterized colonization, imperialism, and globalism in turn ; the degradation of contemporary language signals and embodies those problems; the solution is to value the humanity of all; literature is a critical avenue for restoring both language and humanity; and writers are invaluable to observing how things are and envisioning how they could otherwise be.
The book’s tripartite structure reflects its thesis. Each section opens with an elegy that signals its focus and an early essay that provides its title and lays out its stakes; the sections move roughly from global politics, to race and literature in America, to Morrison’s own writing. In Part I, “The Foreigner’s Home,” the elegy is for the victims of 9/11 and the essay establishes Morrison’s compelling preoccupation with the links between mass migration (omnipresent), home (under threat), politics (hierarchical and oppressive), oppression (especially but not only racial), and, always, language. She traces how the degeneration of the language of war reflects how violent conflict has become our commonplace; how when American politicians use phrases like “public” good they’re really talking about protecting the private lives and assets of the wealthy; and how the media has followed the path laid by minstrelsy that has made “black” synonymous with “sexual rebellion, sexual license, poverty, and criminality.” If these insights seem familiar, it is in part because she has helped make them so. Yet she remains determined to find a way “to imagine and therefore to realize a genuinely humane society” in which language is used not to master but to understand the Other.
In “Interlude, “Black Matter(s),” and Part II, “God’s Language,” the elegies are for Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, respectively, and the focus shifts toward American literature and Morrison’s own fiction, which serves as a laboratory for her career-long effort “to create nonracist, yet race-specific literature within an already race-inflected language for readers who have been forced to deal with the assumptions of racial hierarchy.” Her analyses of the role of blackness in the white literary imagination and the limitations placed on black authors are affecting and will be particularly trenchant for those encountering them for the first time (much of this section echoes themes already traced in 1992’s “Playing in the Dark,’’ and some of it has been rendered less germane by time).
Where the book explodes into pure brilliance, though, is in Morrison’s comprehensive account of her own writing, from its origins in slave narratives, to its philosophical underpinnings, to its artistic influences (in tributes to Chinua Achebe, Romare Bearden, Peter Sellars, William Faulkner, and, of course, Baldwin), to the workings of individual narratives, sentences, and even words. To give just one example: As part of an examination of the first sentences of her first half dozen novels, she masterfully reveals how the darkness and botanical contrasts evoked by “the nightshade and blackberry patches” in the opening line of “Sula’’ establish the novel’s setting, themes, and even its contrasting characters, Sula and Nel.
The meticulous care with which Morrison constructs the prose of her magnificent fiction and elegant nonfiction make the sloppy editing of “The Source of Self-Regard’’ that much more distracting. In a collection where so many pieces are occasional, providing the date and occasion of each piece alongside its title would have made reading and comprehension easier. It is understandable that such a prolific writer would recount familiar anecdotes, rehearse similar themes, and even repurpose phrases. However, it is disconcerting to encounter entire paragraphs repeated from one essay to (literally) the next, two essays that appear twice in barely different guises, and a speech, “Black Matter(s),” that previously appeared as the introduction to “Playing in the Dark.’’
Yet despite its overflowing content, the book still inspires the desire for more. These pieces were written between 1982 and 2013, but only three in the last decade and none in the four years since Donald Trump declared his candidacy for president. Meanwhile, our children spend dramatically more time with apps than books; the canon wars Morrison describes in “Interlude’’ have subsided; and today’s bookstores and bestseller lists contain more books by US and immigrant writers of color than Morrison could have imagined when she was editing works by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Muhammad Ali for Random House.
Given these developments, Morrison’s claim that literature can save us feels comforting, even rousing, but also frighteningly quaint. The times seem to call out for a 2019 coda, whether affirmation or revision. Does Morrison still believe that literature can save us? Does she still have hope? Should we? The book provides no direct answer. And yet perhaps the very act of its publication speaks for itself, positioning “The Source of Self-Regard’’ as the definitive statement that Morrison, who has thought as much as anyone about the ways countries, cultures, and people fail and hurt each other and themselves, still believes that we can be better.
By Toni Morrison
Knopf, 354 pp., $28.95
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Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’