Toni Morrison never forgot a childhood conversation she’d had with an eleven-year-old friend who said she knew God didn’t exist because her prayers for blue eyes had gone unanswered. Out of this incident, Morrison developed her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Written in 1970, it’s about a black girl growing up during the Great Depression, who longs for some white facial characteristics to alleviate the debilitating social perception that she is «ugly». This is not the racism of lynchings or murders, but of internal pain, the famed African-American novelist says in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am ; the self-loathing that a child learns from a master narrative artificially determined and imposed by those in power of what constitutes worth and beauty.
Morrison’s body of work overturns the notion that a person is only defined by what their oppressor thinks of them. The white world is peripheral to her novels, which place black women centre-stage — the books that, growing up, she had herself so wanted to read. The documentary leaves many of its words to Morrison, in apt tribute to the author, who died in August. Her radiant confidence, presence, and warm humour animate interview segments in which she shares memories illuminating aspects of race in America and elaborates on her approach to writing and the world of literature. Figures close to her and her work, including Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, and Fran Liebowitz discuss her significance, while black-and-white archival photos help set the wider context of the African-American experience that is at the heart of the history of the United States.
The first domain
The power of the written word: it’s inextricable, for Morrison, from the power to inhabit one’s authentic self; to find a language affirming the truth of one’s reality. She recalls her grandfather often pronouncing that he had read the Bible five times — a statement of rebellious pride since that book was the only one available and it was illegal for blacks to read. She remembers, too, her mother’s uproar, upon catching her in the middle of writing a swear-word she’d just learned on the pavement, in her first realisation the act of writing had incendiary possibilities. It’s a force that stayed close to her heart. When she received a letter from a corrections board informing her that her 1997 novel Paradise had been banned from Texas prisons for fear it might incite riots, she framed it and hung it on her wall. «How powerful is that?» she chuckles. History has always proved, she reminds us, that books are the first domain upon which battles are fought.
After working at a library and devouring everything in it, she attended the historically black Howard University in Washington D.C. — and was bemused to confront, not only, the racially segregated buses and restaurants she encountered for the first time, but a line of teaching that tried to inculcate the idea that the closer you got to whiteness academically, the better off you were (her proposal to write a paper on the black characters in Shakespeare was rejected). This institutionalised prejudice often, later, tarnished her work’s reception. A New York Times review for her novel Sula in 1973 praised her talent but criticised her for «limiting» it to portraying the black side of provincial life — as if lives have no meaning or depth in the absence of the white gaze. She was long overlooked for major literary awards, fuelling discussion on their racist and misogynistic bias, at a time when the notion of the entrenched canon was just starting to be challenged for its lack of diverse voices (she finally won the Nobel Prize in 1993, a journey to Stockholm we see her embrace in her love of a celebratory party).
Morrison’s body of work overturns the notion that a person is only defined by what their oppressor thinks of them.
Morrison expanded room at the literary table not only for herself but for other black female writers she brought to mainstream attention in her role as senior editor at Random House, including novelists Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, as well as radical civil rights activist Angela Davis, who she wisely persuaded had already done enough at 28 to merit an autobiography. All of this, while raising her children as a single mother and getting up at 5 am to write. «I am head of household, just like you,» she declared to her boss in demand that her pay raise be adjusted to be equal to that granted to the men.
Someone else is on their knees
The ever-present, physical threat of racist violence against blacks that has existed from America’s inception comes through in Morrison’s recounting of her grandmother’s decision the family leave Alabama for Ohio in fear for their adolescent daughters — sending a frantic note to her sharecropper husband that «white boys are circling». Morrison’s work also draws on traces of stories in the collective memory. A newspaper clipping about the case of Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in the 1850s only to be recaptured, and killed her infant daughter to prevent her return, inspired her 1987 Beloved. Authorities at the time were undecided over whether to charge Garner with murder (which would mean the acknowledgment that black children were human beings) or destruction of property. It is such detail that speaks of a near-unfathomable denial of an entire people’s humanity that underpin Morrison’s work of remaking selves; of dignifying those despoiled by horror. America is a melting pot, only blacks are the pot, says Morrison, commenting on how immigrants were brought together through the presence of a steady other that everyone felt entitled to look down upon. Racism is a distortion of a bereft psyche, that it is whites’ responsibility to change, she insists. After all, how can you become tall, only because someone else is on their knees?
For an alternative reading of this film,
as we try sometimes, see Collaborative Closeness/