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Est. April 5, 2002
Jan 09, 2020 - Issue 800
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Toni Morrison:
Writing the Memory of Her story,
America’s Story of Struggle

"What 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."

...[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 combat evil.

Joseph 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.

Wilson 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.

The 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 decisive act.”

There 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 this Earth?

Teach 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 unhappy.’”

The 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?

It 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.

What is it in the works of American writers of color that the political, economic, and cultural apparatuses want to deny is white identity?

I 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?

As 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.

What 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.

And, generally, these white professors are considered educated!

It’s the studious indulgence in whiteness, even if such a study has no barring on reality.

In 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 those impure undergraduate English 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.”

In 2007, Schlafy reminiscences about the good ole days when English majors “were required to study Shakespeare.” She continues, “the 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,’”

Maybe 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 cultures and ethnic 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.

As 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 dance.

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 the race.”

In turn, Morrison writes, Equiano “did change things.”

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.

And 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.””

Douglass’ 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 is ours.

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.

As 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 law.

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.”

And 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.’”

It’s 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 history.

Douglass 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.

The 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 Beloved, we’ll 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.

The 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 topic.”

Consider 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 neglectfulness.

If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and ordered meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic,” writes Morrison.


I 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…”

Garner had to speak so that Morrison could hear her, see her. Indistinguishable are the voices of Garner and Sethe… 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…”

They might leave. But I continue to read.

That 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 many.

She could never let it happen to her own.”

Not her own.

The 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 was clean.”

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… Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.
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