Sunday, April 12, 2015

Another Simpatico White Girl who Felt She was Privy to the Secret

During the years that she worked at Random House, she published books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, whom she discovered in the 1970s. Jones’s manuscript was so impressive that when Morrison read it for the first time, uppermost in her mind, she once wrote, was “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” It was Morrison who helped promote Ali’s book and who once hired members of the Fruit of Islam to work security for him. She also reviewed a biography of Angela Davis for The New York Times in 1972, slamming the author for being “another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way.”
And when the poet Henry Dumas went to his death, the way so many black boys and men do, it was Morrison, who never had a chance to meet him and published his work posthumously, who sent around a book-party announcement that was part invitation, part consolation, which read: “In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.”
Two years after Dumas’s death, Morrison published her first novel, at 39. In many ways, she had prepared the world for her voice and heralded her arrival with her own editorial work. And yet the story of Pecola Breedlove, a broken black girl who wants blue eyes, was a novel that no one saw coming. Morrison relished unexpectedness. The first edition of “The Bluest Eye” starts Pecola’s story on the cover: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”
Morrison’s work, since she published that first novel, has always delivered a heavy load. Her books are populated by both history and the people who are left out of history: a jealous, mentally ill hairdresser with a sharp knife (“Jazz,” 1992); a man who as a child suckled at his mother’s breast until those in the community found it odd (“Song of Solomon,” 1977); an enslaved woman, who would rather slice her own daughter's neck than let captivity happen to her (“Beloved,” 1987); and a destitute little girl, belly swollen with her father’s child, holding a Shirley Temple cup, desperate to have Temple’s bright blue eyes (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970).

Someone Asked Her where She was Going to Have It

She wasn’t too interested in her 84th birthday, she said, until President Obama’s office called the other day to plan a lunch. When she told us this, oohs and aahs went around the room. Someone asked her where she was going to have it. “Huh,” she said, as if this were the silliest question ever posed. “At their house! At the White House!” Of course. “Well, actually, it isn’t a lunch; it is a dinner, and they said, ‘Now, Toni, this will be very informal, don’t put yourself out, you can even wear jeans if you like.’ ” She paused and shook her head slightly, saying to no one in particular: “Jeans! I’ve never worn jeans in my life, and I’m certainly not going to wear them to the White House. I mean.” Then she sighed. As if she couldn’t even explain it all to us, because we wouldn’t get it. Like we wouldn’t get how far she had come.

In 1984, Morrison was a single mother and a novelist with four books to her name, three of which — “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” — are now considered classics. She had recently stopped working as an editor at Random House and published the essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” in an anthology. The essay in many ways articulated the terms that would define her writing. She noted that the novel “has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it.” The novel that concerned itself with black Americans was remarkable and needed, she wrote, because it accomplished “certain very strong functions,” now that “we don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore” and “parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” The black novel was important because it could “suggest what the conflicts are, what the problems are,” not necessarily as a means of solving them but as a way of recording and reflecting them.

For years, dozens upon dozens of prominent black writers — people like Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni and John Edgar Wideman — were in orbit with one another. Some of these black writers had no formal affiliations, but many others organized themselves under efforts like Baraka’s Black Arts Movement, where they could share the duty of not only making art but also writing themselves into the world. They were not just producing poems, plays and novels, they were also considering the obligations of their specific genre — black literature — and its defining aspects and distinct functions. We no longer connect Morrison to that earlier, loosely defined constellation of black writing, but she was there, and she was there long before she was a novelist.