Tribute to Dr. Toni Morrison

“What does it mean to be human? FOREIGNNESS IS THE REALM OF THE CURIOUS.The dream state is where you are most vulnerable.The final frontier of home is the human body. Home is where the memory of the self dwells…”

—  From ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ lecture at The Louvre in 2006

August 7th, 2019

Mid-day Tuesday August 6th I land in JFK on the way to see family in Upstate New York. I turned my phone on as I was heading towards ground transport, my phone throbbed with messages labelled ‘Toni Morrison’.
Thinking, how wonderful, all these folks reading this great writer! And then I read the news of her death– and I am crying inconsolably at the ground transport desk– and can’t quite communicate to the young woman with the walkie-talkie why the death of this writer has so floored me.
Morrison tested me, provoked me and then utterly illuminated me. Her language bridges profundity and lyricism. Her images sear– and make the reader understand pain and struggle freshly– and why it is so necessary that we understand each other’s pain. Her book Beloved started the Salon– and continues to be the touchstone where I ground my reading in writing that weaves sublimity with the grotesque to reveal the depths of human experience. Her work made me face racism head-on– and shaped a life-long study– that I will never complete– to celebrate Black culture and recognise the fingerprints of racial inequity all across American cultural history. Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction has inspired my teaching: I want everyone to read her books and to discuss them– to be blown open by the sharp beauty of her art.
Many of her lines chant in my mind–here is a quote from her lecture ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ at The Louvre in 2006:

The destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or collapse of a sharable world. The arts community is unique: searing and reflective, the arts have the ability to re-interpret views of estrangement- (we are faced with a) question of cultural apartheid or estrangement….
Belonging vs. Dispossession

(We are in the process of) regulating the children of immigrants into a modern version of the undead- (in reference to the flood in New Orleans) we have a harvest of Shame- this almost Biblical flood (revealed the US government’s choice to leave for dead the poor, the black Americans whom they viewed as disposable) ….
All displacements have transferred cultural riches into foreign soil.

The double meaning of the title of this conference: The Foreigner’s Home is of course purposeful. Either the foreigner’s own home or the foreigner is home….the theme: being, fearing or accommodating the stranger.
Art enlightens….history instructs.”

Across the years, I can still feel the power of her spoken voice—how every word came through in its full potential when she spoke. Her vocal expression honoured words—the listener became more attuned to both the particular music of language and the voltage of meaning.

One of my favourite quotes–best description of love:

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” –Beloved

I have read, re-read and taught Jazz, Beloved and Sula. Her more recent work, A Mercy, deserves your reading attention.

It is a deceptively slim book that presents the land of the United States before that particular organisation was established. It is a fecund and golden world—and the struggles for power and dominance have not yet been codified. Free labour-enslavement—is not yet solely a function of skin colour. Morrison uses this moment of discovery of the New World (that was already another people’s world) to ground the outrageous history of a country founded on ideal of freedom, undercut by the reality of slavery. A Mercy considers the accidental family of a group of people with no cultural connection to each other as they try to create a home and a living in the fresh land. The story starts with an act of mercy—the grace that is inherit in us all:

“One chance, I thought. There is no protection but there is difference. You stood there in those shoes and the tall man laughed and said he would take me to close the debt. I knew Senhor would not allow it. I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight. I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing, to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”
― Toni Morrison, A Mercy

I hope you read and talk about this book—and the other (many) gifts of this extraordinary mind. I am about to facilitate another Belovedstudy in Virginia—I think this is my 28thstudy of this work but I do not know. What I do know is every dip into her writing leaves me with joy for the sensually-evocative, knife-sharp phrase, love for the beauty of the world and the human souls who grasp it—and a greater desire to fight racial inequality.

I will miss her clear account of the horrors of our tribal feuds and grimy politics. I will miss her celebration of the redemption available in art.

Rest in Peace, Dr. Toni Morrison. Your generous heart, your extraordinary vision ripples out and offers hope.

—  Toby Brothers, Director London Literary Salon