in memoriam

Toni Morrison’s Joyful, Unfinished Work

Photo: Bettmann Archive

Begin with unabashed joy, at the end of Toni Morrison’s 1977 masterpiece Song of Solomon: “Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar … For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Like all of Morrison’s work, Song of Solomon is saturated in equal measure with the folk traditions of black American life, the language and narrative forms of the Bible, and an instinctive literary authority that reaches out from the American canon to embrace the world — in this case, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and other Latin American writers who, in the 1960s and ’70s, remade the idea of the novel as a new national myth.

But for all that significance, at its best, her prose feels almost weightless. Beloved, a book about unspeakable horrors spoken, is also about the divine pleasure of eating a handful of berries, or seeing a particular shade of red. The first time I encountered her work, when I was in high school, it was an audiobook of her 1991 novel, Jazz, and the sentences were so hypnotic I had a hard time following the story. (When I finally read it a decade later, I discovered a kind of carefully controlled irony that I would never have noticed otherwise.)

Instinctive pleasure and artistic subtlety, the reframing and renewal of old traditions, and the unshakable authority of the black imagination at the center of American life — those were Morrison’s themes, which extended from her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a testament to how white archetypes haunt black life, to her editorial work at Random House, where she championed a new generation of writers (Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones), to the height of her fame in the 1980s and ’90s, leading up to her winning the Nobel Prize in 1993 — the last American novelist to do so.

And yet — speaking in the only way I can, as a white novelist who began studying fiction in the ’90s — I only realized the significance of her work relatively late. She wasn’t taught in any of the workshops or fiction courses I took in my late teens and early 20s, from high school through graduate school. Even after she won the Nobel, none of the white writers, teachers, or critics I knew would ever have referred to her as the most important living American novelist. When I finally read Beloved, around 2002, I realized two things simultaneously: (a) This was the most intensely rich and beautiful American novel published in my lifetime, and (b) I’d been unconsciously influenced by Morrison’s style from the beginning, through other writers who had long since absorbed her influence without saying so.

That realization launched me on a trajectory that has taken up much of the last two decades of my life. I started by reading Morrison’s signature work of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark, which dives deep into the American canon — Poe, Cather, Hemingway — to uncover the ways white Americans have often written about race without quite knowing it. And then I posed a question for myself that I still haven’t entirely been able to answer: Why is it that white novelists, even today, keep avoiding people of color as characters, and race as an explicit subject, when race and racism are stitched so indelibly and painfully into the fabric of American life? How have the same strategies — erasure, avoidance, plausible deniability — persisted for so long?

In a 2015 profile for the New York Times Magazine, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote that in spite of Morrison’s success, her great project remains very much unfinished — that is, not just the inclusion of writers of color in the American canon, but a fundamentally altered culture in which people of color become decision-makers, curators, editors and publishers in large numbers. “When we still have to assert that we matter,” Gansah wrote, “when African-Americans represent an estimated 1 percent of those working at the big publishing houses, when women and writers of color have to track how seldom they are given chances to tell their stories and when the publishing industry fails to support or encourage this generation’s writers of color in any real or meaningful way, a dangerous reality is possible.”

Four years later, with white supremacist politics guiding the federal government, that kind of fundamental change seems more distant and impossible than ever. But that’s not the whole story. Ibram X. Kendi, in Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, offers a better way of looking at it: American racism, he says, is a metastatic disease that rearranges itself in every generation to keep up with the real change happening in our society. In the cultural sphere, that change is undeniable and constant: from the phenomenal literary successes of Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, and Colson Whitehead, to the mind-bending television of Atlanta and films like Sorry to Bother You and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, to the music of Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar, Rhiannon Giddens, and Tank and the Bangas. We’re in the midst of an artistic golden age that’s rising up as fast as our political culture spirals down.

I wonder if Toni Morrison would accept this analogy: America is a sick body that sometimes tries to imagine (in the words of Toni Cade Bambara) what it would feel like to be well. Fiction is one of the ways that work happens. Maybe Morrison would break that down and insist on saying “sick bodies,” plural, which sometimes come together and sometimes break apart. What I know with a little more certainty is that she would insist on being remembered as a preserver of joy and song above all.

Jess Row is a novelist and the author of a new essay collection, White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the Imagination, one of Vulture’s top August picks, out today from Graywolf Press.

Toni Morrison’s Joyful, Unfinished Work