Dec. 19, 2017
"See? See what you can do? Never mind you can’t tell one letter from another, never mind you born a slave, never mind you lose your name, never mind your daddy dead, never mind nothing. Here, this here, is what a man can do if he puts his mind to it and his back in it. Stop sniveling,’ [the land] said. ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see!"
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Perhaps the greatest living keeper of the American collective memory, Toni Morrison and her novels have collected almost every award an author can hope to receive. Her influence in terms of how we understand the impacts of slavery, generations removed, is monumental. Since I first encountered and read her work, I never stopped. I sought out all of her novels, reading and re-reading them for inspiration, to remind me of the depths of white supremacy, and, even more so recently, to give me solace and hope within the intricate (yet imminently relatable) worlds that she creates. As this year draws to a close, the turmoil and deep-seated partisan and racial resentment that has so permeated our society sent me back to her work in search of that solace once again.
Morrison’s work is important for many reasons that have direct import on the politics and policy of the United States. Her work on race and reckoning with the hard realities of the past are critical to major pieces of nonfiction— Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” being chief among them. An aspect of her work that I don’t feel gets enough credit is her exploration of the difficulty presented by moving beyond race, party, class, and gender. Working towards equality is active work and these actions have costs and take a toll that we don’t fully account for.
The first time I heard the quote at the beginning of this piece, I experienced a type of validation that I hadn’t felt before or since. There is something uniquely powerful about knowing your family history and how it informs the way you walk through the world. More specifically, having that place to retreat to can be a critical defense against the kinds of noxious fears that we have of those we don’t know. Returning to that quote over and over again is a kind of self-care that gives me strength and support, even now.
That type of space for reflection is harder to come by now, both because of increased demands of our time and mental energy, but also because it is much harder to find companionship, friendship, and relationship. This is in no small part due to the type of polarization that has so constrained this country.
Scholars like Lilliana Mason have gone into great detail about how our partisan identities are becoming “increasingly aligned with racial and religious identities,” with Republicans seeing themselves more strongly as Christian and white, while Democrats see themselves as non-Christian and non-white. Mason is showing us here that our politics are “sorting” us into camps, creating levels of saliency for race and religion that would not exist at the levels that they do otherwise.
Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon is instructive in understanding how this sorting emerges. Milkman Dead, the book’s protagonist, reverses the conventional American movement of African Americans from South to North in order to return to his ancestral roots. His journey and process shows how resentment festers in isolation and how the lack of movement can calcify the sort of prejudices that are the precursor to hatred. In other words, we see how apathy breeds contempt.
It is important to note that I am not a disinterested party to Morrison’s influence. Beyond inspiring my way of thinking, Morrison also serves as a tie between my professional, personal, and familial worlds. As I prepared to graduate college in 2015, my mother wrote to Morrison, telling her about how much her work had meant to me and asking her to sign books on my behalf. Four months later, I received a set of inscribed books and a note congratulating me on my graduation. This set is now my prized possession and I keep the books sealed away for protection.
I’ve made one exception.
When my mother passed away, I read from Song of Solomon for her eulogy. In that eulogy, I talked about how our relationship grew closer as I got older because she was never afraid to listen to me and learn from me just like I listened and learned from her. Talking with my family afterwards, they commented on how I reminded them of her, but also of my great-grandmother. The type of candor and willingness to laugh at the darkest of moments is a trait that was passed down through generations in ways that I could not even perceive on my own. Knowing this information and receiving it, especially with Morrison as a catalyst, was healing on its own.
Counterintuitively, knowing more about yourself is a major prerequisite to caring about the interior lives of those not like you. Insights from the field of psychology suggests that the more we know about our family histories, the stronger our self-esteem and emotional resilience. Taken together with the political science research cited above, we can see that the volatility and obstinacy created by polarization crosscuts with the self-esteem and grit inspired by a deeper understanding of family history.
While there is less in the way of social science research to this effect, this intersection of the strength of family and the pull of polarization is something that Morrison has grappled with in her writings for years. Even as polarization has lurched into the public conversation, Toni Morrison’s work helps us understand the substantive stakes of decreasing the highly visible tension in our society. How might we imagine getting to know someone from a different background when our assumptions about their partisan identification shape how we perceive them and their moral fiber? Put another way, many find it difficult to befriend those with different politics than ours. This is especially true when institutions that previously seemed inert (sports, music, holiday greetings) are now used to demarcate other’s politics and their subsequent value in our lives.
As 2017 comes to a close amidst what seems to be unprecedented levels of polarization and separation, we need policymakers and scholars to help us understand how to disrupt the structures that have segregated us and made it harder to develop community across lines of identity. But we need storytellers to provide us with the moral imagination to dream beyond where we are now and help us work towards where we could be. Toni Morrison maintains such a high stature in American culture because her writing not only imagines the way forward but shows us the pains and the pitfalls to getting there. Her work is a lesson in struggle and survival. Hopefully we all take those lessons to heart.
This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. As we enter the holiday season, the Millennial Fellows have chosen to explore the ideas of community and home.