I don’t believe there are many ways in which European-Americans can even begin to comprehend the African-American experience as it has played out in this country for the past 400+ years, but one of those few ways is to read fiction by African-American writers. Fiction puts you as inside that experience as folks like me are ever liable to get, and my go-to writer for my smidgeon of understanding is Toni Morrison.
In an earlier post, I acknowledged one of her novels for one of my most memorable insights: . Toni Morrison's first novel put me in the shoes of someone I could never be and showed me a view of the world I had never imagined.
This year’s catalog of the killing of young black men by police and the subsequent rise of Black Lives Matter made me determined to read all of Ms. Morrison’s novels. I know there are other voices out there, but hers has spoken to me in language that reaches me, language that is neither stridently angry nor cloyingly sentimental – language that is simply descriptive of a culture that is both familiar – in that her stories take place in familiar American landscapes – and as much a journey into the unknown as any science fiction tale of aliens who have settled down on the south side of town.
The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is the heartbreaking tale of a child damaged both by abuse and deep feeling of inferiority. Her second novel, , explores the relationship between two women who grow from childhood friends through painful betrayals to whatever understanding they can achieve. We are also immersed in a rich community of characters whose lives are lived largely apart from their Anglo neighbors, and yet whose larger hopes are dependent on them.
Here is how Morrison sees them:
What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones. They did not believe doctors could heal – for them, none ever had done so. They did not believe death was accidental – life might be, but death was deliberate. They did not believe Nature was ever askew – only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as ‘natural’ as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.
We sometimes speak of novels as being “richly imagined.” Morrison’s novels, so far, seem not so much richly imagined as deeply known. It’s very often a painful world for one such as me to enter, and I’m never entirely at home there. But that’s okay. I’m grateful for the chance to visit and, with any luck, to take away another tiny shard of knowledge.