Toni Morrison: Our Saving Grace
Toni Morrison: Our Saving Grace

By Barbara Christian

     I remember the first time I held a Toni Morrison novel
in my hand. In 1970, I had read a review of a book called
The Bluest Eye by an African American woman writer. It ran
in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, so unusual an
occurrence that I immediately bought the book.
     Stunned by this lyric tale of a Black girl who desires
the bluest eye, and by the author's chorus of African
American women's voices, I instinctively knew that a
previous -- heretofore unknown -- tradition of Black women's
writing existed. I recognized the way the story was told. It
was the shape of my mother's storytelling -- a simple story
becoming increasingly complex, mythic, beyond solution, yet
teaching me a lesson I needed to know. For the next decade I
would work on a book about the tradition of African American
women's writing, while everybody in the academy and the
publishing world, and I mean everybody, told me no such
thing existed.
     I was not alone. Others, many of them friends who
seldom read "serious" literature, passed The Bluest Eye from
hand to hand. When Morrison's second novel, Sula, possibly
her most controversial, was published in 1973, we argued
with each other on the phone. Here, Morrison juxtaposed two
characters, Nel, the traditional nurturer, and Sula, the
woman who insisted on "making herself," in a tale so much
about African Americans history of displacement that some of
us were provoked to self-revelatory anger. I remember one of
my friends telling her husband that he had to read Sula
because while she was a Nel, there was in her, as well as in
every other Black woman, a touch of the supposedly selfish
and terrible Sula.
     Long before Morrison got the Nobel Prize for literature
last week, "regular" African American women were calling her
our writer. "Toni" (as we called her, because we all felt we
knew her) sang to a world that, being neither white nor
male, we African American women had to invent ourselves. To
us, she had already won a Nobel Prize.
     By 1975, I was teaching a class on African American
women writers. By now, not only women of different
ethnicities, but also African American men rolled Morrison's
words on their tongues. Sometimes uncomfortable with the way
she placed women at the center of her stories, they
nonetheless loved her sound -- one student called it the
"language he dreamed in," a feeling intensified for him by
her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977). Yes, Morrison was a
woman writer, but yes, she could imagine the lives of men,
their desire and resistance to flying -- her metaphor for
the capacity to surrender, even under the madness of
capitalism and racism, to communal love.
     Morrison's diasporic novel, Tar Baby (1981), ignited
international response. As I write this piece, one of my ex-
students -- Gurleen Grewal, a South Asian who wrote her
dissertation on Morrison's works -- has just called me,
jubilant about Morrison's receipt of the Nobel Prize. To
her, Morrison is the writer who dug deep into the
intricacies of post-colonialism as no other living writer
has done.
     As reams of literary criticism are being written about
Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), some
of us know it to be not just a novel, but a prayer, a
healing ritual for our country's holocaust of slavery. Still
others are poring over Morrison's revisionist take on the
Harlem Renaissance in her most recent novel, the supremely
artistic Jazz (1991), which edges literary experimentation
into the 21st century. Her book of essays, Playing in the
Dark (1991), on race the literary imagination, has set many
an English professor's teeth on edge, while ethnic studies
scholars like myself see it as the foundation of an entire
rehauling of American literature.
     Literary criticism aside, my most riveting memory of
the power of Morrison's work is when I conducted a workshop
with emotionally disturbed Black patients using Beloved. For
them, the novel was not difficult in the way so many "sane"
readers found it. The supposedly "fragmented" quality of its
narration -- which mirrors the country's fear of
remembering, for remembering is painful and dangerous, as
well as freeing -- was visceral, and quite normal, to these
readers.
     As we circled the novel, distinctively a folk opera, I
recalled Morrison's sense of herself as a writer, as one who
should be of service because of the saving grace her folk
have with language. It is a grace that has led her to
explore a world in which claiming freedom, and therefore the
power to love, is dangerous, risky -- but always blessed.
How bereft we would be without Toni Morrison's liberating
sound! How fortunate to have lived at a time when we can
dwell in, and heal, through her language!
     Barbara Christian is professor of African American
literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is
the author of Black Women Novelists: The Development of a
Tradition (Greenwood Press, 1980) and Black Feminist
Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (Pergammon
Press, 1985) She is currently writing a literary biography
of Toni Morrison as part of the University of California
Press series on American genius.