Toni Morrison: The Muse Beloved

Toni Morrison: The Muse Beloved

I have thought not of the sadness of black history in terms exclusive; no race’s history is a private or exclusive affair: the histories of the world and its peoples are made by the different groups intermingling, merging and then melding into one history for the world to read and muse on to reach that point where the harmonious progress of the human race can be guaranteed through the deletion of past wrongs, and the reconciliation of those qualities salient to rightful human living. I think not that we should as the human race expend our energy by focusing on the negative aspects of humanity and its self-destructive tendencies; for those often lean toward the worship of evil in raucous cacophonies and choruses,whilst in the same breath muting the humble selfless contribution of gooddeeds as performed by some children of the human race whose struggles and tears go unrecognised as the sweat of a dog. That history should seem to remember the 6 million Jews exterminated by Hitler and the Third Reich in the Holocaust, only to forget the 60 million and more slaves of African descent murdered on the Atlantic Passage to slavery in the Americas is a travesty I will not seal my lips to speak against.

All men are born equal, and their histories should therefore be recounted with the same amount of fervour; that some histories are considered more relevant than others is educational misconduct in my books: it is mis-education of the highest order, a malady that should be excised from the psyches of our children as an oncologist would deal with a malignant cancerous tumour. I fail to understand why I had to know about Christopher Columbus, Walter Raleigh, Ferdinand de Magellan and Marco Polo before I was taught of Olaudah Equiano, MonomotapaKaparidze, Sundiata Keita, Marcus Garvey, Pharaoh Kafre and other beacons of African civilisation in the early years of my ‘education’. That I met only the faces of Europe’s dictators and genocidal megalomaniacs like Leopold and Hitler, before being taught in-depth about the wisdom of King Moshoeshoe I is a fact that makes me wonder why we live in a world that seems to worship only a snippet of humanity; when humanity is in reality a huge palette of colours that paint the canvas we call the world in beautiful cultural colours if equally applied. Education mis-taught (if there is such a word dear linguist) me, the curricula and the syllabi were geared towards a model that in every essence only serves European interest and not the interest of global progression. If you teach me the lores of your land and make me forget the tales of my land, you are in every essence making a fool out of me: for this land of my forefathers is more familiar to the myths of ‘Maliepetsana than it is to the tales of your Cinderella. It is good that it took a writer from the African diaspora to teach me the true tales of my people’s plight on the passage to slavery in the Americas. She is a muse whose story I have to tell.

Born Chloe Ardelia Woffordon February the 18th1931, Toni Morrison is an American novelist, editor, and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters, andamong her best known novels are the sad tale of a black girl who wanted to have blue eyes like white girls do namedThe Bluest Eyepublished in 1970, the beautiful but sad tale of contradictionsSulapublished in 1973, Song of Solomon published in1977, and the masterpiece of a literary workBeloved,published in 1987, and which literally shot her to the top of the literary guilds’ walls as the best American (and world) literary figure.

100 novels-toni morrison

Professor Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. The masterful Beloved was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in 1998. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 andher citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She is currently the last American to have been awarded the honour. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honour for achievement in the humanities. She was also honoured with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Morrison was commissioned to write the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. On May 29, 2012, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

This brief biography cites the awards and honours bestowed upon this giant, this Amazon of literature who, in her quest to bring out the salient truths on black history to the light, does more than just recount the sad history of the black folks of the Americas. Her polyphonic storytelling style recounts the tales in the many voices of the characters; the voices in the singular characters’ voices in their heads, the myriad voices in the spirit of the communities within which the characters live: the many voices make up for a blend that leaves the reader with a feeling that is nothing less than wowed from the first page of the work to the end of the novel. Many critics have put forth the assertion that it takes at least eight readings to understand a Morrison novel, I say that Toni Morrison is not one to be read as one would a thriller, for despite the fact that her words leave one’s hairs standing on their ends due to their profundity; Toni Morrison is to be read as one would savour a favourite brew: sip her words slowly in with your reading eye, roll them on the tongue of your mind, taste their sweetness and depth, let your mind’s eye envision the scene recounted, read her slowly; for Toni Morrison tells her tale as the oracle does: slowly, surely, leaving out nothing for the imagination to wonder. The citations do her justice, but they will never equal the depth of thought this sacred muse puts into the writing of her works. They are tales lived, life as it is; seen through the eyes of a woman, the struggles of whose race through the passage of time have left inerasable scars on the psyches of its people and the youth. She does not recount the tales in the antipathetic tone of the oppressor whose dehumanisation of the slave is treated on the same scale as an experiment into human behaviour. Where Willie Lynch saw black slaves as mere mules and quarry animals, Toni Morrison presents an empathetic perspective of the black slave as a human being to be respected and granted the same reverend sanctity the white members of society are granted. She is Mother Earth speaking for the rights of her children oppressed by history, she is the teller of the tale many have chosen to subjugate to the status of urban legend and not the truth it is in reality.

In The Song of Solomon the ‘old folks’ lie about the return of African-Americans is proven true when Macon Dead sets out to reclaim his heritage for, it is in his own words far more precious than gold. To be defined by other people is a result of the abuse of power, and it is often the case that this heinous mis-identification of individuals as based on the unequal scales of social structure designed by the powerful ruling class ends up being passed from father to son; leaving one class or race with a perpetual inferiority complex that draws them deeper into the inferno of inhumanity where brother kills brother, son robs mother, and sibling rapes sister. Too often, we dream of equality but forget to exorcise the demons of being defined by other people whose only interest was erasing our true self, so that we could be more pliable tools in their hands. But through her of the ‘true voice’ and capturing its syntax, its metaphors and its music, Toni Morrison captures the essence of being black in a world that considers the black a permanent member of the underclass despite the tremendous contribution the black race has made in the civilisation of the world. Considered inferior does not exactly mean one is inferior; inferiority is determined by how one defines themselves in the mental prisons of the world where colour bars keep the black man from seeing the true light of the world.

You may have read of the endless civil war in Liberia’s Monrovia or Sierra Leone or the genocide in Rwanda’s Kigali. You may think of it all just as a ‘civil war’ even though the events thereof were not so civil, think again, and you will realise this one fact; the endless wars in Africa are the direct result of colonialism: they are the African’s struggle to define himself, to return to that place where they were before the colonist came. Colonialism put the whole world upside down so that the only one who could see the wealth of the world from the correct perspective was the colonist and the slave-master. Toni Morrison presents this picture in Sula, where the place called ‘The Bottom’ is actually a useless, rocky infertile land on top of a hill overlooking a rich valley where the rich white folks live. A passage from the book reads:

The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.” “But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave. “High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks own, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven-best land there is.” So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.

 

Those blacks in Sula are sadly represented by Shadrack, a shell-shocked twenty two year old whose mind has been ravaged by war. Content with living at the Bottom, many of us fail to see our true place in the world; that the madman clanging the cowbells is actually a saint come to save us from our state of being. Steeped in self-serving self-interest, many of us that have ‘made it’ forget that the ‘top’ we have reached is actually the bottom to those races that presented it to us. Wake up and live and see your place as you should, as it really is, so says the voice of Sula.

 

Upon reading Beloved and The Bluest Eye one enters into the houses where the black folks live with the ghosts of their past, their dreams, their wishes, and their true selves hidden from the rest of the world. Beloved is a literary masterpiece, I agree, but it is also a text as sacred in its pursuit of true identity as any chronicle of the religious sort. The characters have been scattered by history of slavery, re-gathered by the Abolition, then scattered again to the four winds by the pain of semi-freedom and the ghosts of their past. The voices in the book are many and deep, but the message they deliver to the black folks to deal with his past to understand the present is singular in its pursuit of true African and black American history and identity in the dark background of slavery and colonialism. The Atlantic is a sea full of ghosts from a dark past, but those ghosts are part of black history which should never be forgotten if the black race is to reclaim its true history. Barnett states of Toni Morrison:

 

Morrison guides her readers through the pain of extracting the memories that these characters have so long repressed, and the struggles they face “to confront a past they cannot forget. Indeed, it is apparent forgetting that subjects them to traumatic return; confrontation requires a direct attempt at remembering…”

 

That we cannot make peace in the present is simply because we treat the past and its events like a hushed wrong. Instead of recounting facts as they are, we shove them under the rugs at dinner tables of ‘truth and reconciliation’, pretend we have forgotten the past, and then wonder why it rears its ugly head the next day. I believe we should be inspired to write truthfully about our diverse histories as the muse does. Toni Morrison is a mother whose words can guide the world to a better place, where black girls and boys do not dream of being white; because they have been taught that the only standards are white. Love your fellow human beings as you love thineself, forgive them of their wrongs. But first love and forgive yourself first, then forget the sad past truthfully.

  1. S. Mothibi, Esq.

 

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