February 18 marked the 88th birthday of one of America’s and the world’s most influential voices that speaks against injustice through literature. Yes, she shares her birthday with fellow feminist writer Audre Lorde.
Toni Morrison has been instrumental in shaping a black identity and consciousness for women. Carolyn Denard, founder of The Toni Morrison Society, considers the author a healer and prophet, nurturer and guide for many generations of African-Americans. On her birthday, the author of The Bluest Eye, Sula and Beloved, gave the world a gift of her collection of essays—The Source of Self-Regard. Her collection of essays is informed by fiery social commentary and dispassionate understanding of racial and cultural realities.
The Source of Self-Regard is a collection divided into three parts. It is a bit unconventional, upsetting even, to begin a book with obituaries and eulogies. Self-regard begins with respect and empathy for the dead. Out of the three eulogies, two have been dedicated to two monumental figures in black history—Martin Luther King Jr and James Baldwin. Martin Luther King Jr’s eulogy is rather a searching meditation that every person of color should read, while Baldwin’s eulogy reads like personal loss, full of heart wrenching pain and unwavering respect. However, the most significant is the collective eulogy written for the victims of the 9/11 disaster. It is Morrison’s prayer for the dead, her solidarity to the cause of pacifism.
As the reader moves on to the second part of the book with a heavy heart, s/he discovers a more analytical side of the author. One of her essays in this part, “Women, Race, and Memory” was a speech the author delivered at Queens College, New York in 1989. The essay is an intense criticism of women and the ideology called feminism. It asks some direct questions like, “How can a woman be viewed and respected as a human being without becoming a male-like or male-dominated citizen?” In this essay, Morrison sees sexism as the oldest form of class oppression in the world. She carefully chalks out the different schools of feminism and how they are aligned, i.e., how radical and socialist feminists define “men” or the “system” and yet, how they are trying to reduce hostility among women. She also points out three different camps—feminists, anti-feminists who have “the greatest support of men” and non-aligned humanists. She then points out some concerns that generate rifts among women, one of them being “the tenacity of male bigotry and its grave effect on the lives of all women regardless of what camp they belong to.” Women, as a collective, have to rise above these divisions, and the author explains how that can be achieved.
In the next few essays, the author deals with challenging social issues of race, the press, financial matters, the foreigners and human rights. Many of these essays are harrowingly relevant to the present political scene of the world and the United States. As an example, Morrison’s allusion to the 1996 US-Mexico border controversy is significant here. “…it is precisely ‘the south’ where walls, fences, armed guards, and foaming hysteria are, at this very moment, gathering.”
In the third part of her collection, readers of literature are in for a critical treat. As an author, she was never afraid to offer commentary for her own work and putting it under critical lens. The essays included in this volume are the ones on Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, Paradise and her debut, The Bluest Eye. She has also given her valuable insight on the works of other artists, including author Toni Cade Bambara, theater director Peter Sellars and collagist Romare Bearden.
One of the most significant essays is the one in which she deals at some length with the way African-Americans have been represented in American fiction. She analyses the many different ways in which African-Americans have often an invisible presence in American literature, which, still, is a rampant practice. However, many contemporary authors such as Colson Whitehead and Britt Bennett, she points out, have added new color to African-American ideas and ideals.
Toni Morrison’s linguistic flair that her avid readers have seen in her fiction is detectable, yet her clean, straight-to-the-point style is something new to those who have not listened to, for instance, her Nobel Prize address. The speech is on language, and the systematic looting of language through subjugation and menace. Oppressive language, according to the author, “does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge” for which the true nature of it must be exposed. The speech’s ideas are reminiscent of Spivak’s idea of epistemic violence—how branches of dominant or “superior” knowledge obliterate the ones belonging to the others. Morrison similarly points out such violence in language itself, “arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.” The speech is, in fact, a parable in disguise, a conversation between a wise woman and some arrogant yet inquisitive children. The language is soft, flowy and sometimes whimsical, almost as if one’s grandmother is lovingly telling one a bedtime story. The Nobel Prize address constitutes one of the brilliant essays that has been included in this book.
In spite of rampant racism and chauvinism all over the world, Toni Morrison’s writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, comes as a beacon of hope for us women to reclaim our realities, to fight for our self-worth. The Source of Self-Regard is a book that can help us reevaluate our society, and our state as human beings, irrespective of race and gender.