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“For years now,” Toni Morrison said, “I’ve been bored — bored, BORED — with evil. It’s just not interesting.”
Morrison’s comments on the banality of evil continue to echo in my mind too often these days. I could hear them just six weeks later, when a 21-year-old white supremacist entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans engaged in Bible study. And then again this week, after the racially motivated murder of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
Morrison’s fiction is often rooted in historical fact, including the bloodshed and violence that continue to mar American history. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, that took the lives of four black girls aged 11 to 14? It’s in Song of Solomon. So, too, is the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi. These brutal facts find their way into her fiction because they are inescapable parts of our history and collective identity.
I have had the privilege and pleasure of teaching Morrison’s work to high schoolers, college students and adult learners on three continents over the past 15 years. What I’ve discovered is that Morrison’s novels — as intricate and incredible as spider webs — resonate with readers everywhere, and with good reason: She is our Shakespeare.
Like the Bard, many of whose plays drew on Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles for source material, Morrison mined American history as she invented plots and peopled her stories. Generations from now, students will still be studying her works because of her language, her imagination, her themes, her characters. They are magical and transcendent, comets that zoom by once a century, blinding us with their brilliance.
Through her novels and essays and plays, we come to know ourselves and our country better; we see new things, have new thoughts, experience new feelings — through nothing more, and nothing less, than the written word.
This is why I teach her works.
In Morrison, the past is almost always present. Fourteen-year-old Till might well be alive today — aged 78 — if he hadn’t been tortured and lynched more than half a century ago. His murder case, in fact, was reopened by the U.S. Justice Department last year after the white woman at whom he allegedly whistled recanted parts of her story. A memorial sign along the Tallahatchie River that marks Till’s untimely and unjust death has been repeatedly vandalized, and just last month three students from the University of Mississippi were suspended by their fraternity (though not their school) for an Instagram post that showed them posing, guns in hand, in front of the sign. Incidents like these make me wonder if we ever really learn from the past. But I remain hopeful that education — and literature — offers a path forward.
My students tend to have no trouble relating to Morrison’s vivid characters, but her writing also forces them to grapple with difficult ideas — like the notion that we can be both drawn to and repulsed by the same character, just as we can be with people we know or even with ourselves.
Song of Solomon is unusual among Morrison’s novels because its main character, Milkman Dead, is male. Morrison explained why in an interview with English professor Anne Koenen soon after the book was published:
Men have more to learn in certain areas than women do. I want him [Milkman] to learn how to surrender, and to dominate—dominion and surrender. Well, I think women already know that surrender part, and can easily learn how to dominate. But what I wanted was a character who had everything to learn, who would start from zero, and had no reason to learn anything, because he’s comfortable, he doesn’t need money, he’s just flabby and pampered. Well, that kind of character, a sort of an average person who has no impetus to learn anything—to watch that person learn something was fascinating to me as opposed to watching the man who already had that perfection.
Reading Morrison’s work has never been comfortable for me — a white male — but that’s all the more reason to read it. Literature, like all great art forms, has the power to introduce you to new universes — but also, and more importantly, to yourself. To be white and to read Morrison is to wrestle with uncomfortable truths about our ancestors and ourselves, and how racism was — is — a founding principle of this nation. To be male and to read Morrison is to witness not only the deep beauty of women’s relationships with one another but also to be confronted with the despair and destruction wrought by men’s misogyny for much of human history.
“Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from,” Morrison told Hilton Als of The New Yorker in 2003. “It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
She’s right. (Read her and see for yourself if you’re skeptical.)
My first encounter with Morrison was The Bluest Eye, which Mr. Kelly had assigned as summer reading for the English class I was to take with him junior year of high school, in 1993. (Months later, Morrison would win the Nobel Prize in Literature.) I found myself in a world of rape, incest and violence, a place warped by white domination and racism where a little black girl’s greatest dream was born of self-loathing: to have the bluest eyes of anyone anywhere. It was an unknown world to me. But it was a necessary world, and I needed, like Milkman in Song of Solomon, to learn about it and from it. Because it was America and our ugly past, if not also our ugly present and future.
School boards and districts have long loved to ban books like The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, as if forbidding such works would protect young minds or actually stop people from reading them.
Book bans are shortsighted and small-minded. They do nothing but reveal their champions to be ignorant of what art is and how it works.
As Franz Kafka wrote more than a century ago, the only indispensable books are the ones that bite and sting: “If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why are we even reading it? So that it makes us happy, as you write? My God, we’d be equally happy if we had no books. Those books that make us happy, we could—in a pinch—write ourselves. We need books that affect us like a very painful misfortune, like the death of someone we valued more than ourselves, that make us feel exiled to the woods, far away from humans, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Morrison’s novels are all this and more. Indeed, they’ve never been more relevant, as we continue to confront — or avoid, at our peril — the shameful legacy of slavery and racism in the United States.
Justin Snider teaches and advises undergraduates at Columbia University. Previously, he taught high school and college students in Europe and Asia, as well as adult learners in New York City through the Harlem Clemente Course for the Humanities.