By Emily Lever
Toni Morrison was arguably the first black woman to be accepted into the “studiously” white American literary canon, and, after winning a litany of official accolades including the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for Literature, she could deservedly rest on her laurels.
But instead she’s trying her hand at a somewhat new exercise with her latest book, The Origin of Others. Adapted from Morrison’s instalment of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, the text has the clarity and intimacy of the spoken word. In a series of essays that provides equally unique insights into American literary history and Morrison’s own mind, The Origin of Others explores how otherness, particularly racial difference, is socially constructed, and the ways Morrison has always worked to explore and confound that construct through her writing.
“Race is the classification of a species, and we are the human race, period,” she writes. And yet it seems that “the hostility, the social racism, the Othering” is a universal phenomenon — a human impulse that Morrison explains by a “social/psychological need to a stranger, an Other in order to define the estranged self.” As philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said in his 1944 essay Anti-Semite and Jew: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti‐Semite would invent him.”
And in a way, the anti-Semite did invent the Jew (an imagined, grotesque image of the Jew, that is) through political discourse, propaganda, and literature, and so did white slaveowners and colonizers invent their vision of black people, investing them with the very traits they feared they themselves possessed: inhumanity, brutality, barbarity.
It is the role of literature in the construction of this black Other that Morrison is especially concerned with. Among her diverse examples are “classics” like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — a bestseller among white audiences in which “slavery is sexually and romantically sanitized and perfumed,” obscuring the pervasive, brutal violence (including sexual violence) whites inflicted on the people they owned. Morrison also notes that plot points such as “the relationship of little Eva and Topsy — in which Topsy, an unruly, simple-minded black child, is redeemed, civilized by a loving white child” serve to romanticize slavery and reinforce the idea of black people’s unfitness for freedom.
Freedom did not bring the end of otherness; Morrison traces the use of racial tropes shaped by slavery in works by post-Emancipation authors, like canonical giants William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway; the latter writer’s novel Garden of Eden is characterized by “a dominating theme of physical blackness as profoundly beautiful, exciting, and sexually compelling.” Against the backdrop of a literary canon that routinely uses racial tropes to make stories seem more compelling, Morrison’s own literary project, as she explains throughout The Origin of Others, is to counter and undermine this literary tradition, to “simultaneously de-fang and theatricalize race, signaling... how moveable and hopelessly meaningless the concept was.”
"It’s no coincidence Morrison places empathy at the center of writing: writing is “an opportunity to be an become the Other."
In several works, she uses devices that deliberately confuse our socially conditioned reflexes of othering. Recitatif is a dialogue between two women, one white, one black, but we’re never told which speaker is which. And in Paradise, she depicts an inverted version of “sundown towns” open only to white people — defined as people who ostensibly had not one drop of African-descended blood; the town of Ruby is a freedmen’s colony where only the most dark-skinned black people may live, and anyone with any visible sign of white ancestry is considered “impure” and forbidden entry.
Art “with a message” sometimes strains to stitch together form and content, but Morrison has always seamlessly integrated socio-political issues into her narratives, bringing out the power dynamics at play in people’s lives without ever losing sight of the characters as people. As she explains in her account of the genesis of her indelible novel Beloved, “Compelling as the real Margaret Garner’s story is, the novel’s center and spread are the murdered child. Imagining her was for me the soul of art and its bones.”
It’s no coincidence Morrison places empathy at the center of writing: writing is “an opportunity to be an become the Other...with sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.” For as we can learn from the grotesque caricatures of colonizers, when we gaze at the Other we are largely just projecting onto them what we fear we know about ourselves: “There are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from.” LSP