...[T]hat the writer has no
more right than anyone else
not to take a stand against
the inhumanity of the world today…
Talent and genius cannot provide
any of that moral engagement
which issues from the self: to
Roth, On the End of the World
On August 5, 2019, we lost Toni
Morrison, and we’ll mourn the loss of her physical presence.
However, Toni Morrison will always be with us. As long as we read her
work, we’ll be united with her in the continuation of our
struggle for justice. That’s the legacy of her writing.
I was thinking about Orwell’s
Wilson, about the day he comes home, having already decided to open
the diary. He, Wilson, envisions himself in the act of writing.
wasn’t about to do anything illegal.
On the contrary! In the society where he lived, the people were told
they were free. “There
were no longer any laws.” But writing could result in anyone’s
demise. Wilson’s decision to write, therefore, could be fatal.
Why the necessity to write anyway? As free
person, he need only to heed Big Brother—propagated in
everyone, and present everywhere.
idea of even concealing this old diary in his home was an act of
defiance. Under the watchful eyes of a government that promised war
supposedly with another Enemy state
in perpetuity, In an instant, Wilson could become an enemy—small
“e”. But an enemy
of the people wasn’t his identity. Wilson, too, had a mind, and
in writing, he could challenge the State’s characterization of
himself and the way in which the totalization of anti-human ideas
smothers the life of supposedly free individuals.
If in writing he could break
free… Wilson opens the diary. In a corner of his apartment,
blind to the preying camera lens, he joins the Struggle.
“To mark the paper was the
were decisive acts of defiance for a seven-year old Frederick
Douglass when he begins the process of learning the alphabets. The
young boy decides he
wants to read and write—despite the fact that the ruling class,
the slaveholding class, has determined that his identity is that of
an enslaved black. Property, in
other words, of another man.
Like the fictional Wilson, the
world in which the human Frederick Douglass lives denies his humanity
and therefore his mind, his ideas. What does a piece of property have
to contribute to the world? To the narrative of who humans are on
a “slave” to write and “it” could jeopardize
our (property owners)
lives! Douglass recalls his master firmly conjuring a vision of
horror for his wife to see: Our way of being in the world, as we
record in our writings of historical narratives, could be overturned.
“‘Learning would spoil the
best nigger in the world… if you teach a nigger (speaking of
myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever
unfit him to be a slave… It would make him discontented and
idea of property, as
what provides wealth to maintain our world, in this instance—property
thinking itself into human
history—could effect a catastrophic revolution.
What if they decide to write
as a result of what they’ve read in the newspapers?
was a sight of horror for the master, witnessing his wife teaching
his property, a black boy, to read. It was a horrifying memory for
Douglass, who, many years later, in writing, relates
to us how he learns to read and, ultimately record for history not
only his “pathway from slavery to freedom,” but the path,
too, resulting in the overturning of enslavement in the US.
is it in the works of American writers of color that the political,
economic, and cultural apparatuses want to deny is white
came across Jonathan Beecher Field’s article, “Is
Majoring in English Worth It?,” in the Boston Review
recently. Field, responding to
an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal
written by William McGurn, Bush Jr.’s former speechwriter,
questions the article’s argument that “ethnic” and
“identity-based” narratives infiltrating English
departments is the reason the study of American literature is
worthless today. Shouldn’t the study of English return to the
days when Shakespeare was taught?, asks McGurn. Let’s free
students from the burden of having to read narratives written by the
likes of Olaudah Equiano and Toni Morrison? The former, a former
enslaved African who wrote a narrative of his experiences in
captivity, and the latter, a Nobel Prize winning novelist and
thinker, are, for the likes of McGurn, worthless. Why bother students
with works written by these people?
an African American, I’ve heard the idea that my life, my
existence, experiences are worthless for as long as I can remember.
Certainly reading novels
or history written by a black author was never encouraged. For most
of us, reaching adolescents in the mid to late 1960s, the reading of
Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison and others
meant we had to do so outside of
any formal classroom setting. Within educational institutions as in
society, reading what was NOT “American” or “European,”
that is, white, was tantamount to wasting time.
is not recognized in American society or in our educational
institutions is just how few white
professors, with PhD.’s, holding tenured positions are familiar
with narratives written by the majority
of the world’s humanity. Unless opting to study any one of the
world’s Indigenous populations or African American or Caribbean
studies, few have read outside of what’s categorized as
“American” or “European” literature. No Juan
Francisco Manzano, Adalberto Ortiz, Gloria Anzaldúa,
Camara Laye, Flora Nwapa, Bessie Head, Fawaz Turki, Tahar Ben
Jelloun, Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, Edwidge Danticat, Juan Rulfo.
No reading of Indigenous American or Latina writers.
generally, these white professors are considered educated!
It’s the studious
indulgence in whiteness, even if such a study has no barring on
Field’s article, he recalls another article written by the late
Phyllis Schlafy in 2007, in which the title gives away the argument:
“Advice to College Students, Don’t Major in English.”
Her concerns about the impure
state of English departments in the US is, Field’s points out,
a reiteration of her warning in the 1970s. Along with a wave of
first-in family black college students, I was in college, majoring in
English. I read 100 Years of Solitude,
by a Colombian writer, Gabriel
Garcia Marquez, who considered himself black, in
a college classroom—but only after
I graduate with the B.A. in English! I didn’t have the benefit
of scholarly analyses of works by Baldwin or Morrison within
departments. Maybe it was just the presence of African American
bodies occupying seats in colleges and universities by a larger
number than usual during the 1970s that disturbed folks like Schlafy.
We could question the absence of reality and
demand a remedy that wouldn’t please professors set in their
ways of seeing the world for white’s only.
I suppose Schlafy would of
congratulated those educational institutions for “educating”
me properly, seeing that I missed the opportunity to attend those
tradition-turned-progressive institutions that, according to her,
“became the vogue.”
2007, Schlafy reminiscences about the good ole days when English
majors “were required to study Shakespeare.” She
premise was that students should be introduced to the best that has
been thought and said. What happened?” Field doesn’t
state it plainly, but from where I sit in place and time, Schlafy,
perceiving an invasion of colored people, suggests a wall be built to
secure the interests of “American” and “European”
identity. “‘Universities deliberately replaced courses in
the great authors of English literature with what professors openly
call ‘fresh concerns,’ ‘under-represented
cultures,’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature,’”
McGurn will go away, writes Field. End of story. But, he, himself,
recalls Schlafy of the 1970s and Schlafy of 2007. Here is McGurn—and
what has disappeared? The perception of the worthlessness of ethnic
and identity studies in English departments is still present today.
The study of under-represented
or non-Western literature
is still considered an invasion of the unworthy. The primacy of
“American” and “European” works written by
white authors in the cultural realm shares a partnership in blood
with the economic (capitalist) venture to sustain a world for an
elite few. Only last month, echoing the former black president, who
identifies with the wealthy class, the media pundits asked that
Americans ditch “lofty ideas.” I suspect that would be
ideas surrounding justice and equality.
Field notes, Shakespeare
hasn’t left the college campus in the US; however, professors
erase from Shakespeare’s works his concerns about ethnic and
non-Western populations. As a reader who is African American, I can
attest that a forthright reading of Shakespeare doesn’t omit
the Bard’s awareness of England’s role in the world under
the tyranny of Queen Elizabeth and King James. He artfully dodges the
censoring and surveillance pogroms under the watchful eyes of
Elizabeth and James’ courts. I certainly recognize this tap
If today the study of American
literature is “worthless,” it is so because it has always
been nothing more than a shield to defend the idea of white innocence
in opposition to the necessity for justice and equality.
Writing is an engagement with the
struggle. Writing is, as former enslaved and narrative writer,
Olaudah Equiano, acknowledged, an attempt to “change things.”
This was Equiano’s goals, as Toni Morrison notes in the essay,
“The Site of Memory,” as it is the goal of writers
committed to disrupting and ending the subjugation of memory, that
memory of injustice, which allows for the flourishing of lies and
omissions in narratives such as those written by McGurn and Schlafy,
and others before and after them.
Morrison, in acknowledging
Olaudah Equiano’s summation of his work, “[t]his is my
historical life,” recognizes in her writing, too, to be that of
a “mark” in history, denoting, as Equiano explains, “my
singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents
turn, Morrison writes, Equiano “did change
“These writers [of slave
narratives] knew that literature was power.” We have inherited
from these writers and their work a tradition from which we come to
recognize our urgency and necessity to write always in confrontation
with anything that impedes a challenge to changing racial injustice,
homelessness, mass incarceration, global warming.
The risk to one’s life when
writing of the “horrors,” writes Morrison, living within
a tyrannical state. And what’s new? Equiano, acknowledged that
he couldn’t bare to make explicit “‘the terrific
representation of the untold horrors.’” He would pass
down that task to another.
Morrison turns readers attention to Narrative of the Life
of Frederick Douglass.
Frederick Douglass is equally
cautious not to subject his predominantly white to the “horrors”
of slavery, as Morrison points out; yet he slips in a cringe worthy
images of the brutality of the “singular” woman who
represents that systemic administration of brutality endured by
African Americans women, whether in the field or the home.
In fact, Douglass, seemingly on
the sly, suggests that perhaps life in the fields for blacks should
be abandoned for discussion; instead, he focuses the reader’s
attention on what he calls a “less repulsive”
existence—that is, existence in the home, for the enslaved
woman. “‘...Let us now leave the rough usage of the
field… and turn our attention to the less repulsive slave life
as it existed in the house of my childhood.””
Aunty Hester’s narrative is already in progress. No, she isn’t
transforming her thoughts and experiences to marks on paper, but she
is engaging a lived narration of life as a woman enslaved in the US
for her young nephew to observe, remember, and later record in
writing for future generations to read. Her story
Aunt Hester is in motion when
Douglass and us see her. In the act of defiance, she’s already
resisting the law’s established to force her submission and
thereby sustain the social ordering of racial hierarchy. And profits,
of course. Profits from the national institution of enslavement.
Douglass acknowledges, (apologetically, perhaps on the sly, too), his
aunt “‘was a woman of noble form, and of graceful
proportions, having very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal
appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood.’”
Aunt Hester imagines herself free to act as someone human, for she is
in love with Ned Roberts, enslaved on a nearby plantation. By
pursuing nightly visits to be with her lover, Aunt Hester disobeys
her “owner” and the
One evening, she’s caught
on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, writes Douglass. And, at this
juncture in his narratives, Douglass writes that he has no desire to
disturb the minds of his white readers with images of a brutalized
African American woman, and, heaven forbid, a sadistic master. But
imagine, there, of all places, in the kitchen… “he took
her in the kitchen…,” he removes her clothes, exposing
her “neck, shoulders, and back.”
there it is: the veil ripped away and the ugliness that is the true
site of the impure
revealed. Aunt Hester, made to stand on a stool, her hands tied to a
hook, her arms “‘stretched up their full length, so that
she stood upon the ends of her toes,’” resembles the
image of any livestock brought to this kitchen and prepared for
death. The slaveholder, rolling up his sleeves, commences to whip
Aunt Hester with “heavy cowskin,” all the while calling
her “a d___d b___h.” Warm blood drips onto the floor,
writes Douglass. And recalling his fear, Douglass describes the
terror: “‘I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the
sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till
long after the bloody transaction was over.’”
easy to see how this image of a black woman would make for impure
classrooms on university
campuses throughout the US. How this image of a black woman, tortured
at the hands of a white slaveowner isn’t among the images which
white professors carry in their memory and therefore transfer to
their students for an honest analysis of American literature or
does well to capture this decisive act of defiance on the part of
this black woman, struggling to be human in an inhumane world. Thus,
what the grown Douglass has to offer is like that of a gem in an
otherwise muddy field. See then how his struggle to learn to read and
write as a young man can’t be either restricted to the era of
slavery and post-slavery nor relegated to the margins of the
university curriculum of yesterday or today, for here is the
“interior” life of a nation whose identity (despite what
it claims) originates in the violence of conquest and enslavement.
The targeting of black inheritance is a way to continue the
concealment of white identity as anything but unscathed by legacy of
conquest, enslavement, and imperialism.
risk Frederick Douglass took on, therefore, served him well, and
continues to serve us, his descendants—readers and writers. For
Douglass’ writing Aunt Hester into history provides Toni
Morrison a view of what she calls the “interior” life of
enslaved blacks on plantations in the US. As we today read, and
generations tomorrow, of the fictional Sethe and her story in
remember the “interior” life of an enslaved Margaret
Garner, and understand the significance of that writing Morrison left
us—writing now among our most valued inheritance.
act of imagination,” she writes in “The Site of Memory,”
“is bound up with memory.” Her job, as a writer, then, is
“to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to
relate.’” Such an engagement with the imagination allows
one to see, to really
see, Morrison writes.
“The exercise is also critical for any person who is black, or
who belongs to any marginalized category, for, historically, we were
seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when we were its
the absurdity of a McGurn and others who would discredit the value of
slave narratives and writers such as Toni Morrison. Consider the fear
and hate such an effort requires it’s proponent to sustain.
Understand, then, it’s true
origins. Not the distraction of white faces in black paint or yet
another racial slur that sends the cable networks swirling.
A William McGurn may try as he
will, but nothing will take from us our inheritance, except our own
“If writing is thinking and
discovery and selection and ordered meaning, it is also awe and
reverence and mystery and magic,” writes Morrison.
would wait until I thought the students were ready, and it wasn’t
possible to go beyond that page.
There’s the escapee Margaret Garner and Sethe. And us—living
as we do with one foot in our story and the other in the present
continuation of what has never ended.
We listen with Denver.
“Sethe was trying to make
up for the handsaw…”
had to speak so that Morrison could hear her, see her.
the voices of Garner and Sethe…
“...to hold her face so her
head would stay on...”
These are the days, months, and
years in the late 1990s, and I’m teaching at a university in
Chicago. Observing African American students catching glimpses of
fidgeting white students, I continue reading.
“She might leave…”
might leave. But I continue to read.
anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to
mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you.”
It’s happened to her. Too
“She could never let it
happen to her own.”
Not her own.
best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her
all right, but not her best
thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that
I continue to read Morrison.
“No. Oh no. Maybe Baby
Suggs could worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe had
refused—and refused still.”
She, Garner, she, Sethe…
had done the right thing.
“It came from true love.”
What’s left unanswered is
our inheritance, which is never static. Questions are demanded of us
to ask and answer for ourselves, in our era of crisis. Tyranny of the
one voice doesn’t make for the restart of a democratic process.
So much easier, isn’t it,
to write of “becoming”… successful. A captivity of
the mind with one’s own set of designer chains.
In those evening classes, we
seemed a whole new people, arriving, once again, to the Clearing for
healing, to engage in one of the most historically dangerous of
activities: reading and writing. And we’ll go on…