Remembering Toni Morrison
By Divya Bhatnagar
I feel the pain of losing the one who gave me a meaning to lead a self-awakened life…the one to whom I owe - learning, thinking, understanding, and the power to create consciousness in terms of self with a WE feeling. Yes, she is none other than Toni Morrison - 1993 Nobel Prize winning first African-American female author, who left this earthly abode for heavenly peace on August 5, 2019.
Late on the evening of August 6, 2019 (as per the time zone), I started receiving calls and messages for the sudden, sad demise of Toni Morrison, as everyone in my family and circle was well aware of the love, respect, and admiration I owed for Ms. Morrison. For the past 19 years, Morrison had become an integral unseen member of the family. It all started with the thought of pursuing a Ph.D., and Toni Morrison was the prominent name that struck my mind. At that point of time, I had only read “The Bluest Eye” and “Sula,” and reading them helped me to understand the thin line of difference between living in dreams and talking about realism. My Ph.D. thesis concentrates mostly on “The Bluest Eye to Love,” but the inspiration to read Morrison’s writing is unending.
She is one of the most influential, celebrated, and respected authors of her time. Her writing is richly known for epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed African-American characters. In other words, she’s not a mere one-time reading. Though her writing ranges for more than 4 decades, still one element that has always fascinated me in all her writings is that there is something and that something needs to be addressed even today. Each of her novels explores the power of self-consciousness that emerges from each individual’s connection with her roots. Toni Morrison’s progression as a writer can very well be interpreted from one of her famous quotes:
If there is a book that you want to read, but it has not been written yet, you must be the one to write it.
Her ideology has worked as a catalyst to my thought process. It gave me the power to own a meaningful life - a life full of purpose and hope. If I could boil down my learning from Morrison in a couple of words it would be, Speaking the Unspeakable. She had the power to unveil the harsh cruelties and truths which remain undercover of silence with a face of injustice. It was not an easy task to talk about Pecola (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970) or Sethe (“Beloved,” 1997).
Each of her novels reflects the growing awareness of the common oppression, exploitation, and victimization of black people in American. “This is not a story to pass on...” is the concluding statement of “Beloved” (1987) and suggests that blacks (now used to describe a free man of colour) first need to know what they have been, where they are, and the significance of what they are. By renewing this they will get some idea of what they still must be. Morrison taught me that the idea of freeing oneself from the brutal facts of inhumanity and injustice not only applies to the black community but to all those individuals and communities (across the globe) who readily accept themselves as a symbol of powerlessness - falling in a trap, the web of victimization. As Morrison says:
Freeing yourself was one thing claiming ownership of that freed self was another. (“Beloved,” 1997)
Morrison’s writing nurtures the thought of awakening an individual’s sensitivity over the socio-psycho rigidness of society. The biggest oscillation between “Why” and “How” appears in “The Bluest Eye” (1970):
There is really nothing more to say - except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
This statement suggests that one needs to find a solution by either retrospecting or introspecting the “how” (as per a situation). There is no single scene in our daily life that fails to find a reference from Ms. Morrison’s writing. It reminds me of many such unforgettable incidents that I came across. Whether it be the incident of a female soft-skills coach who refused to take up assigned sessions on fear of being unwelcome by the audience for being dark-skinned, or be it the girl child of rural areas for being deprived for technical higher education, or be it the grievance of working women who at many times face sexual atrocities from their senior male colleagues, or an individual being deprived on grounds of minority status. Whether I read Morrison’s African-American society, or I talk about my Indian society, or about any other society across the globe, what really matters is how you handle “how” instead of “why.” The “how” will help you find alternatives for constructing a positive approach in society. I somewhere believe that my thesis would have been incomplete if I could not contribute, like Claudia, Milkman, Paul D, Mrs. MacTeer, and Baby Suggs, towards the betterment of society.
Like, Claudia (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970) and Paul D (“Beloved,” 1987) it was my social responsibility to enhance the feeling of self worth in the female coach and help her recognize her inner beauty and potential of knowledge. Characters like Felice (“Jazz,” 1992), Mrs. MacTeer (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970), Baby Suggs (“Beloved,” 1997), and Pilate (“Song of Solomon,” 1977) insist that I sustain the feeling of pride for being a female and that I too am an empowered woman. Taking this as a duty, I worked in rural areas to educate people to value the existence and the right of each and every girl child. As a result to this, twenty six (girl) children were able to attain engineering and pharmaceutical degrees.
Reading Morrison has given us the power to contribute meaningfully. Her brilliant writing has taught us to love one’s own self, to understand the gravity of belongingness, to write about both the triumphs and also the sufferings. By doing so we create a society where conscious souls emerge to celebrate ways of survival and hopes of creating a Paradise through love for race, community building, and emotional bonding.
I tribute my Ph.D. thesis - research based on Toni Morrison’s novels from “The Bluest Eye” to “Love.” Rest well and in peace, Ms. Morrison.
Copyright©2019 by Divya Bhatnagar, Ph.D. – All Rights Reserved