On Aug. 11, in a building near Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Park, Toni Morrison fans gathered to pay respects, share reminiscences, and discuss her legacy.
Morrison, the groundbreaking African-American novelist who died Aug. 5, was also remembered on NPR’s Fresh Air program later that week. Host Terry Gross played back three interviews with Morrison over the last 30 years. This might give some measure of how widely her work is read and respected, both inside and outside the Black community.
But this popularity doesn’t necessarily mean that the legacy is entirely settled among all readers.
An awkward moment ensued during the 1992 interview when host Terry Gross asked the question: “I think it’s fair to say that in most of your fiction, there’s really been very few white characters.”
Morrison’s response was a guarded, “Well, yes.”
If Gross hadn’t gone on to clarify the question, the otherwise thoughtful interview could’ve ground to a halt. There were some similar moments in the Morrison tribute event where race became a passionate topic of discussion.
The four-hour-long tribute, hosted by the Kheprw Institute, occurred at the 16 Park Community Center, adjacent to Dr. Martin Luther King Park, on Aug. 11. The event featured poetry readings by Indianapolis-based poets Tatjana Rebelle and Januarie York, as well as a panel discussion involving local authors and poets, some of whom had set up tables selling their works.
As the gathering progressed, participants talked about, and debated, a certain double standard that still exists for Black authors in 2019. Black writers, according to more than one gathering participant, feel pressure from white writers and society at large to explain themselves, something that Morrison never felt was necessary in her work.
During the gathering, author John F. Allen explained that double standard this way: “I'm a black man, I was born a Black man, I'm going to die a Black man, and I'm proud of it. And I will never stop being proud of who I am. And I will never cater to someone or hide or downplay my identity because someone else feels uncomfortable. When I grew up, I watched The Breakfast Club. That's one of my favorite coming-of-age movies. Not one Black person in it.”
So, he went on to say, why shouldn’t white audiences be able to relate to Black characters in movies and in literature without feeling uncomfortable?
Morrison struck more than one of those present as an author whose work was unlike anything they had read before, in part because she dispensed with any inclination to explain herself to a white audience.
Encountering Toni Morrison for the first time
Near the beginning of the event, hosts Gizelle Fletcher and Chantel Massey asked the mostly African-American audience for input, including the question, “What was your introduction to Toni Morrison?”
Indianapolis-based science fiction writer Maurice Broaddus said he was introduced to Morrison’s work when he was attempting to write horror fiction before he switched to the fantasy/sci-fi genre where he has found considerable success.
“One of the big debates in the horror community was whether or not Beloved was a horror novel,” he said.
In the novel, the character Sethe is haunted by her killing of her eldest child, a murder she committed to prevent her child from being returned to slavery.
“It's funny, because I read it like, yes, of course it's a horror novel. It's been our experience. And our experiences are horrific.”
Fellow author John F. Allen’s experience reading Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye when he was younger made him think of his own identity as a light-skinned Black man, which was the opposite experience of the novel’s protagonist.
“This is about someone who's dark-skinned; they're striving to be white,” he said. “One of the things that I got from the novel was that I had an appreciation for darker-skinned Black folks, because I didn't want to be white at all. Because I didn't want to be teased. That was not the furthest thing from my mind ...
“But reading that novel put things into perspective for me with regards to accepting who I am,” Allen said. “My Black is beautiful. It’s light, but it's beautiful. And one of those things that resonated with that novel was loving myself. And it took me a long time to come to terms with that. And I love myself, I love my blackness. And I'm happy with who I am. So that taught me a lot of things. And she's a great wordsmith.
“She had a quote, I'm going to paraphrase, that inspired me to become a writer. She said if there's a book that you want to read, and it's not been written, you must write it.”
Gizelle Fletcher, who is Jamaican, said she grew up on a steady diet of Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew and John Grisham books. The first book she encountered was Song of Solomon, which she found to be revolutionary.
“It was kind of like a badge of honor to read her,” Fletcher said.
Why must we explain ourselves?
Fletcher’s next question to the audience was the one that inspired by far the most debate, the question about whether Morrison writes for “Black people” or for “humanity.”
Marilyn, who didn’t want to reveal her last name, argued for the universality of Morrison’s work.
“I don't really feel that giving a label as an African-American author or female author is appropriate,” she said. “And I know that our society wants to put us into a box. So [they] can say where you should shop, or what you need to sign up for. I would say that she is an emotional author, that what touches anyone that breathes it is emotion, the deep-felt emotion about a topic. And for us as people of color, it is a deeply felt emotion … your complexion, your hair, the way you speak.”
Fletcher replied, saying that she disagreed with the points made by Marilyn, “respectfully.”
“[Morrison] is a Black writer,” she said. “She's a Black woman writer in America. She writes the experiences of Black people in Midwestern America specifically ... I don't necessarily think that it's prudent to separate [her identity from her work].”
Leah Milne, assistant professor of Multicultural American Literature at the University of Indianapolis, made the point that there’s not necessarily a conflict between writing for a black audience and being able to be appreciated outside the African-American community.
“The fact that the primary default audience isn't the white audience doesn't mean that we can't also have the privilege if we're not part of that audience to benefit and learn from her,” she said. “[In regard to] The Bluest Eye ... I grew up seeing women with blue eyes as being the standard for beauty. And ... all of a sudden I realized that doesn't always have to be the way that it is.”
Ramla Bandele, recently retired as associate professor of political science at IUPUI, had probably the most passionate argument in favor of Toni Morrison’s particularity.
“What's wrong with just being a Black writer, Black poet, Black dancer, Black momma?” Bandele asked. “We are black people and we are global ... It's OK for us to be black writers and write about what we damn well please.”
She continued: “What I'm saying is yes, she was a Black woman, and a Black woman writer, and everything about her was a Black woman. ... She didn’t pull her punches. She wrote about slavery, she wrote about jazz, she wrote about whatever she wanted to … Why must we explain ourselves?”
When asked later what was so special about Morrison’s work, Bandele said it was the fact that when Morrison began writing, she wasn’t doing it for anyone but herself.
“That's why she was able to create her own authentic voice,” Bandele said. “Because she wasn't trying to get readers or trying to impress anybody or influence anybody. I think for her to be able to write that long and develop that voice was very helpful, was instrumental.”