Revisiting Toni Morrison: On Writing, Recognition, and the Power of Community

I didn’t mean to be glib in yesterday’s post, wherein I compared us all to Toni Morrison.

As noted previously, there is no comparison. I should also note, while I’m on the topic, that I learned, care of an interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review, that Toni Morrison writes in the predawn morning, a habit forged early in her writing life, not because there was any inspiration to be found in that early darkness, but for the reality of life as a single mother of young children.

Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning

While I promise this isn’t going to turn into a Toni Morrison fan site (although I’ll be the first to admit, that would be a phenomenal thing, and I’d be well-served to reconsider), I wanted to share also that I’ve been thinking about Beloved. Specifically, since I wrote that even Toni Morrison experienced rejection, of some kind, at least in the National Book Foundation’s decision to pass her over for the 1987 National Book Award, conferring the honor instead on Larry Heinemann’s perfectly serviceable Paco’s Story.

In the glare of hindsight, one can characterize this gesture as foolish and shortsighted, at best. Nevertheless, I think it’s also important to consider the sociopolitical  in which Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved was overlooked, and the ways in which the book held a flame to dominant discourses of what it means to be a writer, whose knowledge we take as authoritative, and which stories we take seriously.

It is also imperative, when thinking about the tide turning for Toni Morrison, to stress the fact that the recognition and critical support of black authors and artists provided an undeniable push, but for which, who knows.

Now, I don’t think that Toni Morrison is the sort of person who sits around waiting for people to recognize her brilliance. And for anyone paying the slightest attention, her greatness is as undeniable as the rising and the setting of the sun. So National Book Award or no National Book Award, Morrison’s reception on the global stage was inevitable, and she would ultimately come to be recognized as the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. In 1993, of course, came the Nobel Prize for Literature. Three years after the fact, with no shortage of egg on its face for the Paco’s Story debacle, the National Book Foundation awarded Morrison the 1996 Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Better late than never, guys.

But before all that, in the aftermath of the Paco situation and on the heels of the death of James Baldwin, nearly 50 of the greatest black American writers said what was on their minds. In Black Writers In Praise of Toni Morrison, published in the January 24, 1988 edition of the Sunday New York Times, Maya Angelou and Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian and Lucille Clifton,  Angela Davis and June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez and Alice Walker, and many, many more spoke truth to power and called the devil by its name.


They wrote:

And so we have buried this native son, Jimmy Baldwin, with a grief that goes beyond our sorrow at his death. We also grieve for every black artist who survives him in this freedom land. We grieve because we cannot yet assure that such shame, such national neglect will not occur again, and then again.

From that actual and emblematic death we turn, determined, to the living: 18 years ago the living black writer, Toni Morrison, demanded our collective and our private confrontation with the power of her work.

Rightly and reasonably, with more restraint than the American reading public deserved, they went on:

Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy.

The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied. We, therefore, urgently affirm our rightful and positive authority in the realm of American letters and, in this prideful context, we do raise this tribute to the author of ”The Bluest Eye,” ”Sula,” ”Song of Solomon,” ”Tar Baby” and ”Beloved”:

Alive, we write this testament of thanks to you, dear Toni: alive, beloved and persevering, magical.

While I’d like to think that Morrison would have received the recognition she so richly deserved in her national context without this intervention, what we know is that a year earlier, Beloved was passed over like the Israelites’ firstborn sons on Pesach, while Paco’s Story won an honor which, regretfully, was never Paco’s to begin with. The 1988 letter was a rallying cry and an expression of solidarity, a demand for justice and a call to reason.  It was a love manifestation, in many ways, a declaration of community and a statement of resistance.

Power concedes nothing without a fight. But with a community to stand for you, you can get there. Toni Morrison did it. And while we’ll never be Toni, there is art to create, there are gifts to be given. There are joys to be shared and surprises to be found in other places. People to stand for and those who will stand for us. If we haven’t already done so, I have every confidence we’ll find them.


Continuity: A Love Proposition

Note: I was inspired to write this essay after reading Nina Badzin’s thoughtful piece, I Am Jewish for Me, Not for My Kids, recently published on Kveller, one of my favorite blogs. While my approach diverges from Ms. Badzin’s, I appreciate her perspective and am grateful to have come across her essay.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? — Hillel

I am not Jewish for myself. I am Jewish for my child. And for my grandmother, and her grandmother, who fled the pogroms of Poland and came to this country alone, in search of a new world while holding onto the traditions of the prior one. I am Jewish for everyone who died in the Shoah, for all the Jews airlifted out of Yemen in 1949 during Operation On Wings of Eagles. For those who support the State of Israel in her quest for peace, for those who support BDS, for those who believe in a two-state solution and those who believe that Zionism is a myth. I’m Jewish for those bubbelehs who did what they were told, the vilde chayes whose very breath is an act of resistance. I’m Jewish for Malka Zdrojewicz, the Polish resistance fighter who by some miracle of fate survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Majdanek death cam I’m Jewish for those Haredim who might not consider me a Jew at all. I’m Jewish for Golda Meir, with whom I most vehemently disagreed, and for Susan Sontag, with whom I agreed on virtually everything. I’m Jewish for those whose destiny was to live and those who did not make it out alive, for Hadassah grandmothers and Jews for Racial Justice, of which I am one. Because I am. Because others had to hide or fight, flee or resist, and while identity politics are problematic, they are real. I am because we are, and because they were.

In a manner of speaking, continuity is a myth. We rely on this fiction because it gives us order. The Judaism I practice, the Jewish life I lead, differs markedly from that of my grandmother. Hers departs radically from that of her grandmother, who migrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, in the hope of finding a newer world. The Judaism a Yemenite Israeli immigrant to the United States might practice in 2016 differs significantly from that of his grandmother in Israel in the 1970s, or his grandmother’s grandmother in Yemen, some 50 years before. Still, history, and the memory that emerges from that history, resonates. We existed then, and we exist now, through and in spite of ruptures, and in some sense this is the essence of what it means to be Jewish.

So there is a connection, whether I like it or not–when I daven or cook for my family or observe the Shabbos– between the past and the present, between history and memory, between those who came before and those, I hope, who’ll come after. For me, continuity is a choice, freely undertaken, founded not in guilt or shame or fear, but in dignity and courage and love. It is an aspiration and a testimony and a gift, offered in respect for those who came before me and in prayer for those who may come after. Continuity is a love proposition, rooted in a recognition of our history as Jews, whether in Poland or in Yemen or the United States—in Ethiopia, Russia, or Israel.

Ours is a history of exile and return, of continuity and change, of survival in the face of unlikely odds. My life, I hope, is many things, but one of these is a living testament to the strength and resilience of our people. So for me, honoring this legacy, our shared history, carries value and meaning. It represents a fundamental aspect of who I am and what I hope to impart to my children. It serves as a reminder of why we practice Judaism and who we are, as a people.

Now, I am an American, which means many things, not the least of which that I have a strong sense of myself as a lone ranger, a solitary sou, first and foremost an individual. But in spite of that, or perhaps in recognition of it, to say that I am Jewish for myself alone would miss the point of what it means to be a Jew—really, of what it means to be human. It is impossible for me to think of Judaism as for myself, per se, because I am not, and have never been, alone. Judaism occurs in a social context, and Jewish identity is communal. We make a home, and grow a community, and this becomes our world. The present depends on the past, and the future depends on what we build. And so I embrace the traditions that have been handed down to me, and those that I have chosen. You can call it continuity; I call it a love proposition. To honor the forebears who made my life possible, out of devotion to those in my home and community in the here and now, with a heart full of hope for the future.

Even Toni Morrison: On Writing and Rejection

I’d like to begin by sharing with you the belief that everyone gets rejected, all of the time.

Well, not everyone, but who hasn’t, at one time or another, in one realm or another, felt spurned? An adored boyfriend unexpectedly dumps your tuchus, an agent or editor rejects your work, a prospective employer declines to embrace your candidacy. It happens and you do what you can to move on.

When I get rejected, which happens with great and generous frequency, I try my best to channel my inner Toni Morrison, to the extent that I have an inner Toni Morrison.

I used to read biographies and interviews of Toni Morrison and feel terribly about what it all meant. You really can’t compare yourself to Toni Morrison in the affirmative, and no one should try. I remember reading somewhere that Morrison, a powerhouse editor and publisher long before she shared her own writing with the world-–would write when her children were sleeping (before or after a long day at work, I can’t recall the particulars). But Toni, I thought to myself, I’m exhausted. Before my child was awake, I was sleeping, and after my child is asleep, I have all the energy of a wet noodle, and am lucky if I can do anything more involved than stare blankly at the wall. So you can’t compare yourself to Toni Morrison, she’s inimitable, she’s the best writer in the English language. Don’t argue with me, you know I’m right. And you’re awesome, but you’re you, and that’s another thing entirely.

Still, in weak moments, I remind myself even Toni Morrison has been rejected. Seldom, I’m sure, and with great retrospective embarrassment on the part of the rejector, no doubt, but I know for a fact that she’s been passed over.

So if you’re having a bad day, week, year, or whatever, and especially if you’ve endured some sort of crushing or foolish rejection, just remember that in 1987, the National Book Award went to Larry Heinemann for Paco’s Story, rather than Toni Morrison for Beloved. I think we can all agree that Toni Morrison is among the greatest writers, living or dead, and arguably the greatest American writer of this or any other century–future, past, present. No disrespect to Mr. Heinemann, but I have no idea who he is. Of course, in 1993, six years after this absurdly mystifying and egregious failure on the part of the National Book Foundation, Morrison won the Nobel. So whatever went wrong for you lately, don’t worry about it. You’re no Toni Morrison and I’m no Toni Morrison. Never mind. Your 1993 is coming.