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.