Toni Morrison and the Black Radical Tradition

Toni Morrison was widely praised in mainstream circles upon her death. But they failed to note the most enduring part of Morrison's legacy: her enormous contribution to the black radical tradition.

Toni Morrison performs at the Jazz At Lincoln Centers Concert For Hurricane Relief at the Rose Theater on September 17, 2005 in New York City. (Brad Barket / Getty Images)

The final lines of Toni Morrison’s poetic preface to The Black Book read:

I am not complete here; there is much more,

but there is no more time and no more space . . . and I have journeys to take,

ships to name, and crews.

The words are not those of Morrison, who died earlier this month at the age of eighty-eight, but rather the remixed lines of the slain poet and fiction writer Henry Dumas. In 1968, at the age of thirty-three, Dumas was gunned down in the W. 135th Street subway station by a New York Police Department transit officer. In the eyes of the state, Dumas’s death was unremarkable. There was no published obituary, and the only news story covering the incident was riddled with errors.

But for Morrison, who was posthumously introduced to Dumas’s words by Quincy Troupe, Dumas’s death was a formative event, one that would leave an indelible mark on her life and work. A famously voracious reader, Morrison saw something new and revelatory in Dumas: “Different from other black writers,” Dumas drew from “a wider geography and broader plateau,” summoning distinctly African traditions not as a practice of melancholic remembrance, but as a tradition of resistance.

By concluding her preface to The Black Book with Dumas, Morrison did more than offer tribute to the brilliance of a mostly unknown writer whose flowering had been brutally cut short. She modeled for readers an ethos directly inspired by Dumas: the transformation of “terror into revelation” and collaboration with the black past in the service of what Morrison would later refer to as “a more human future.”

For Morrison, “the condition of black life” was not, as Claudia Rankine has recently suggested, “one of mourning,” but one of fugitivity. As Dumas’s verse suggests, even as one mourned the blueprint drawings of the slave ship, the transformation of black people into propertied cargo, to lay prostrate in reverence to ancestral pain was anathema to a tradition marked by creative subterfuge and disobedience.

Beginning an appreciation of Toni Morrison with borrowed language is a risk. Morrison’s remarkable aesthetic talent earned her a long list of accolades, including the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012), the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction (2016), the National Humanities Medal (2000), the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1996), and two major international awards: the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur in 2010 and the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993. Morrison’s oeuvre offers a wellspring of exquisite, arresting sentences that affirm both her individual genius and her influence on other writers — Marlon James, Tayari Jones, Salman Rushdie, Colson Whitehead, Esi Edugyan, Caryl Phillips, Jacqueline Woodson, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, and Brit Bennett, to name only a few.

Yet haunting this individualist, accolade-driven approach is an impulse to annex Morrison’s work into mainstream literary canons, where relatable content and empathic engagement are treated as the marks of great fiction. For example, the New York Times’s obituary introduced Morrison as an author who “helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage,” and Newsweek identified Morrison as a “pioneering force for multiculturalism.” Morrison’s foray into collaborative authorship with Dumas offers another, arguably more holistic, frame through which we can understand her most enduring legacy: her contribution to black study and the black radical tradition.

In her critical and literary work, Morrison reminded readers that black history was neither a chronicle of events to be revered nor an archeological exhibition to be observed. Engagement with the black past required transformative participation. Although her work was rooted in history, Morrison understood black study as a project of world-building. But to construct this world, she would have to “diminish, exclude, and even freeze over any overt debt” to the dominant historiography, including Western literary history, neither of which delivered on their promise to present a “race neutral” or “race transcendent” record of events. Though she knew she could never be rid of such entanglements, the effort to divest from such colonial artifacts and build anew became the work of her life.

More than a representational corrective to American literature, this elevation of black humanity was a devastating critique of mainstream humanism as a model for ethical relations. Morrison was not calling for an expansion of an existing category, nor a more inclusive revision of the category of “human”; rather, in refusing to labor on behalf of a stunted conception of sociality, Morrison argued that the inherited category of “human” was beyond repair. Such a standpoint placed her in a genealogy of black radical thinkers that included Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter.

Morrison protected the sanctity of this tradition with cutting ferocity. Consider the opening paragraph of her scathing book review of Regina Nadelson’s biography of Angela Davis. Identifying the author as the literary descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Morrison lacerated Nadelson’s intellectually thin account of Davis’s revolutionary life first with a rhetorical question followed by a single breathless sentence:

On the other hand, who is Regina Nadelson and why is she behaving like Harriet Beecher Stowe, another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way? How Liza could get to the point of actually crossing the ice or how Angela Davis got to the point of actually joining the Communist party was quite naturally that white intelligence informed them both; and since Harriet was prey to the scientific racism of her day, she attributed Liza’s feistiness to the genetic transference of information via white blood; but Regina lives in the 20th century and is an enlightened racist who knows about cultural determinism, which is to say Angela got her courage not from white blood but white culture and that her sublime militancy was spawned by white teachers, white boyfriends, white psychoanalysts, and a special brand of white terror perpetrated on some respectable colored folks for how else could she dally with Black Panthers and fight Ronald Reagan and carry the Card, for surely no black folks influenced her (except abstract victims and her middle class — read white‐oriented—family) which is why Miss Regina who knew Angela at Elisabeth Irwin High School didn’t take the trouble . . .

Forty years after Morrison defended Davis, Davis returned the favor. In a moving posthumous tribute to Morrison facilitated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Davis reminded listeners that Morrison was 1) not simply a writer but a black writer, and 2) a student of history whose scope went beyond the United States.

Although her literary work engaged primarily with American history, Morrison was an internationalist who framed domestic oppression as part of an imperial order. Throughout her career, Morrison linked racist policies in the United States to apartheid regimes in South Africa and Israel. Unfortunately, it was Morrison’s detractors who were more apt to note this aspect of her politics (a result of the US literary establishment’s tendency to domesticate African-American writing and African-American writers). Consider the following paragraphs from an obituary in the Jerusalem Post titled “Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Winning Author and Critic of Israel, Dead at 88”:

Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, died in New York at the age of 88 on Monday. She was known for speaking her mind about many subjects, including Israel and her disdain for its government’s policies.

In one 2006 incident, which upset many who were disappointed that a writer of Morrison’s stature could ignore the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a letter signed by Morrison and 17 other writers criticized public outrage over Hamas’s kidnapping of Gilad Schalit while there were “approximately 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.”

. . . Morrison’s views on Israel [are] especially painful because she was an iconoclastic figure who had challenged so many conventions about race and oppression. Morrison’s work illuminated the experience of African-Americans and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993. The Swedish Academy praised her “visionary force” and her command of “language itself, a language she wants to liberate” from racial concepts.

While the Jerusalem Post preposterously used Morrison’s criticism of Israel to cast her as a hypocritical reverse racist, they also unwittingly pointed to her connection with Palestinian arts and letters — where writers labor creatively in the service of a future informed by struggle instead of one determined by repression.

In the two weeks that have passed since Toni Morrison’s death, we’ve lost another literary giant, the Caribbean-American writer Paule Marshall. Though only two years older than Morrison, Marshall belonged to an earlier literary cohort forged in the double crucible of African decolonization and American Jim Crow racism. Dubbed the “indignant generation” by literary historian Lawrence P. Jackson, this group of writers and artists “yanked the country into a new era” of black political possibility and expressive culture.

Yet despite their foundational work preparing the literary landscape for the Black Arts Movement, and for Morrison, many of the writers of this era — especially black women writers like two of Marshall’s comrades in the Harlem Writers Guild, Rosa Guy and Sarah Elizabeth Wright — remain underappreciated. Given the scope and continuing relevance of their writing, their relative invisibility is a genuine tragedy. Like Morrison, all three authors were committed internationalists who wrote politically, historically, and aesthetically rich novels that urged readers to continue to resist and imagine otherwise.

So while we rightfully celebrate the beauty and genius of Morrison’s capacity to “do language,” we must not forget that her sublime “word work” was, above all, a political project that insisted on the dissemination and preservation of a robust black literary landscape supported by the active participation of a community of readers. It’s fitting that a writer as deeply talented as Morrison achieved worldwide renown, and it’s fitting that in local libraries across the country her novels are all checked out. I would like to think that Morrison would remind us that a robust black literary landscape goes beyond the work of any single writer, even one so gifted and admired, and spend some of our “time” and “space” in the “much more” to be discovered in the writers with whom she aligned herself.