Toni Morrison reads A Mercy
Part of the Biennial Conference of the Toni Morrison Society
July 25, 8 p.m.
44 George St.
Recently a friend e-mailed me with a confession. He’s never finished a Toni Morrison novel. I’d e-mailed him about Morrison’s upcoming reading and went on and on about my favorite novel (Song of Solomon), all the while assuming that he knew as much about the novels as I did. He didn’t. He owns all of the books and started several of them more than once. But he hasn’t been able to make it through them. He said they were too hard.
I’ve heard this before, that Morrison is a great writer (they know because everyone says so), but they are intimidated by her prose. The non-linear structure of the novels, and the literary allusions and African-American history and folklore that often form the backbone of the novels, can sometimes be confounding, even to those who consider themselves experienced readers.
Morrison once said, “I don’t want to give my readers something to swallow. I want to give them something to feel and think about.” She doesn’t want to give us something that’s easily put aside. Instead, she gives us novels that stay with us, that reward slow reading, re-reading, and persistent reading. As I told my friend, the problem isn’t that Morrison’s books are too hard. The problem is that he gave up too easily. He should have persisted with each novel, and when finished, he should read them again.
The first time I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, I was a college junior. I’d never read Morrison before and didn’t know what to expect. The story of Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl who believes she’s ugly and prays for blue eyes to make her pretty, was like nothing I’d read before. It remains for me the single best expression of what it means to grow up nappy in a world full of blow dryers (to borrow a phrase from Nelson George).
The next time I read The Bluest Eye, I was in graduate school, and learning words like “intertextuality,” “heteroglossia,” and “metanarrative.” While I was still moved by Pecola’s pain, I was struck more this time by how beautifully Morrison described that pain. One of the reasons, perhaps the chief reason, we can read a novel about a little girl who is raped and impregnated by her father and then abandoned by her community is that Morrison’s exquisite language, her incredible skill, softens the blow, not a lot, but enough to make it through.
When I taught The Bluest Eye for the first time, the violence of the book stood out to me. While the literature professor in me could see and appreciate Morrison’s craft, could appreciate the book for its themes, I wasn’t sure my students would feel the same way. Would they love this book as I had come to, or would they be turned off by the horrible things that happen to Pecola? As it turns out, every time I teach the novel, I am amazed by how much students like it. We get into great arguments about whether to sympathize with Cholly, Pecola’s father. We discuss ways the culture continues to tell little black girls they are ugly.
The last time I read The Bluest Eye was in preparation for a program I help run that partners ninth-grade girls from Burke High School with College of Charleston students to work on various self-expression projects. This spring the Burke students read and then wrote essays inspired by The Bluest Eye. I was worried a story about rape and incest may be too intense for 14- and 15-year-old girls, and I wondered whether Pecola’s grief about being a black girl in a world that loved blue eyes would still resonate.
The students’ essays were amazing. They wrote letters to Pecola, expressing their grief about what happened to her and offering advice. They wrote wonderful fierce declarations of their own beauty and worth. They wrote essays about finding the novel difficult at first, but being happy they stuck with it.
It’s been 15 years since Morrison won the Nobel Prize and five years since her last novel. Recently, Morrison has been more famous thanks to Oprah and for infamously declaring Bill Clinton the first black president. Perhaps with her new novel, A Mercy, we will be reminded of why she is regularly called our greatest living American writer. Long before a historic presidential primary forced us to re-think how race works in America, Morrison was already giving us hints in her novels — it matters when it matters, and it doesn’t when it doesn’t.
And while that may sound flip or too simplistic to be true, consider novels like Song of Solomon and Paradise. In these novels, we find worlds shaped by the history of racism and racial tension, but they are also worlds in which race doesn’t even make the top 10 list of things to worry about. Consider Sula in which the lines between right and wrong and good and bad all but disappear, and Morrison challenges us to think about how we decide when someone is worth our compassion.
Morrison was once asked whom she wrote for. She answered, “I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people — people who can’t be faked, people who don’t need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria.” The ultimate reward for getting through a Morrison novel is knowing that you are one of these people.