'You Didn't Build That': Toni Morrison Edition

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I wanted to highlight a stream of objections that were raised a few days ago to the notion that black women's writing--and Toni Morrison's in particular--are unconcerned with the white gaze. Here's Morrison, again, in her own words:


"In American literature, African American male writers justifiably write books about their oppression," she says. "Confronting the oppressor who is white male or white woman. It's race. And the person who defines you under those circumstances is a white mind - tells you whether you're worthy or what have you. And as long as that's your preoccupation, you're defending yourself against that. Reacting to it. Reacting to the definition - saying it's not true. African American women never do that. They never write about white men. I couldn't care less - I didn't want to spend my energy refuting that gaze."

As I said, I'm somewhat in sympathy with this desire to produce a canon of literature which doesn't hold "I Am Not Inferior" as its focus. But one point made repeatedly in comments was that Morrision's own work, while certainly more than just another iteration of The Struggle, isn't exactly unresponsive to the idea of refutation:

How does the author of The Bluest Eye, an extraordinary novel about a black girl who wants blue eyes so she can be pretty; Song of Solomon, a fabulous novel that has as as one of its main threads a group of men so warped by the racism of their nation that they've formed a murder/assassination squad to kill white people and their black accomplices as revenge for white acts of racism; Tar Baby, a novel about the disillusionment of a young woman and her grandparents who've sought to distance themselves from blackness; Paradise a novel where racism and colourism have so warped a group of otherwise intrepid black men that they've almost lost their humanity, make such a statement? 

How does the author of such acclaimed works of literary and cultural criticism like 'Playing in the Dark:Whiteness and the Literary Imagination"; "Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power"; "Birth of Nation'hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle" say this with a straight face and be taken seriously? 

I'm a big fan of Morrison the novelist/critic/essayist and have read, taught, and reviewed just about everything she has written and I'm at a loss how this statement squares with her body of work in either fiction or criticism. The white gaze and its deleterious effects, particularly on the relationship between black women and men, seems to me to be at the very core of her work.

There's also the fact that a life of non-refutation is a luxury, and to the extent that Morrison has enjoyed that luxury, she owes a good bit of it to black writers who took up confrontation and refutation on her behalf:

Here's a link to the letter to the NY Times, January 24, 1988 that 48 black writers & critics, including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and June Jordan, wrote critiquing the fact that Toni Morrison had not yet received major recognition in the form of awards. 

 A key sentence: "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." 

Later that year (1988), Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer. A few years later, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. No question that letter in the Times helped pave the way.

Indeed, sometimes we forget on whose shoulders we stand. I think part of the problem is that being a black writer is like being drafted and sent to war. You want to "just write" and you have this idea of what "just writing" is. It's not apolitical or disconnected, but it isn't connected to the ultimate fate of whole communities.I started out desperately wanting to go to war, despising the notion of "just writing." And now I have sympathy for the fantasy. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/07/you-didnt-build-that-toni-morrison-edition/260357/