“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” (106)
In the generosity of her final year, 2019, Toni Morrison packaged pieces of herself and her magnificent career into two forms: an essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, and a documentary film, The Pieces I Am (dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders). They are records of how the Nobel Prize for Literature and National Book Critics Circle Award winner has done language, and done so in such a way as to create new languages for the American and global reading and writing public to illuminate life and interrogate histories of the past and present. The Pieces I Am richly captures Morrison’s interventions in the publishing world by both providing black writers access to major publishing houses and establishing a prolific creative writing career of her own centered in historically-informed Black worlds. The film traces the manner in which her novels, starting with The Bluest Eye (1970) and ending with God Help the Child (2015), have reshaped the terrain of American letters and have given expression to the content and cadences of African American life.
A highly sought-after speaker and acclaimed essayist (one thinks here of her renowned 1992 monograph of literary criticism Playing in the Dark), Morrison’s incisive social criticism offered in nonfiction and non-literary formats has received far less attention. The Source of Self-Regard highlights over four decades of poignant commentary and analysis delivered in the form of graduation and conference keynotes, essays, invited lectures, and Nobel Prize duties. The result is a lens through which to view not only the esteemed author’s perspective and comprehension, but also the unchanging nature of American and global values concerning life, peace, transformation, history, truth, and human connection. Indeed, countless essays in the collection read as urgent and necessary in the contemporary moment, even though some were originally written for delivery or publication decades prior. The collection is broken into three sections: Part I “The Foreigner’s Home,” an interlude entitled “Black Matter(s),” and Part II “God’s Language.”
Part I contains a broad swath of speeches and essays on matters as far-ranging as immigration, sisterhood, higher education, racism, literature, war, and happiness. Morrison showcases her commitment to empowering people to think more critically, to act with more compassion, and in so doing, to be better national and global citizens. She advocates for the power of art, inveighs against the thirst for power, and petitions those who are courageous or percipient to act. “With such a past,” she states in a 1976 speech given in response to one by James Baldwin, “we cannot be optimistic about the possibility of a humane society. . . . we cannot be optimistic, but we can be clear. We can identify the enemy. We can begin by asking ourselves what is right rather than what is expedient. . . . We can be clear and we can be careful. . . . We can be careful of tolerating second-rate goals and secondhand ideas.” (47) Morrison was committed to excellence—of word, thought, and deed. She asserts, “We are the moral inhabitants of the globe,” and it is evident throughout Part I that she hopes and expects people and nations to do and be better. (48) “The function of freedom,” she offers, “is to free somebody else.” (111)
… countless essays in the collection read as urgent and necessary in the contemporary moment, even though some were originally written for delivery or publication decades prior.
The heart of the collection is the interlude entitled “Black Matter(s).” In it, Morrison curates lectures and essays on blackness—the Africanist presence, as she calls it—in American literature. This is the work of literary criticism for which she is most prominently known, so it makes sense to encounter it in the book’s center. Nonetheless, despite granting this section a crucial place, the author also undercuts this prominent placement by designating it as an “interlude.” In some instances, an interlude may be seen as a filler to lengthen a body of work, an inspired expression that ran out before it could become something fuller, longer. In other instances, an interlude notes transition, serves as bridge, declaration, or translation of parts preceding it and parts to come. In Morrison’s case, the interlude reads as a potent interstitial: as musical interludes are often sections without words, the section “Black Matter(s)” calls out the “unspeakable things unspoken” in American literature. Meticulously attuned to the studied shrouding of the Africanist presence in American writing, Morrison underscores the centrality of race in the formation of canons and the orientation of critique even as it has been downplayed or evaded to favor the so-called universal. She also, in curating her collection in this way, displays how significant this race work has been to her own writing, thinking, criticism and success, as it grounds the positions she takes and showcases in Parts I and II.
Part II, “God’s Language,” reveals Morrison’s connections to other writers and artists such as novelist and essayist James Baldwin and songwriter, collagist, and painter Romare Bearden, reflects on the significance of memory, and reviews the author’s own works with a critical eye. In this section, she dwells on craft, exposing her own processes for coming to and coming through character and plot development as well as explaining some of the desires and challenges in taking on the intimate contours of African American life, culture, relationships, and histories in her fiction works. She states, “What I want my fiction to do is to urge the reader into active participation in the nonnarrative, nonliterary experience of the text. . . . It is important that what I write not be merely literary” (264). Readers encounter Morrison at various points publicly picking apart some of her authorial choices in published works even while she acknowledges that the most important thing was to write and rewrite until some truth was presented in a manner both engaging and challenging. The author delivers speeches on a number of occasions while in the process of writing, or referencing crucial editorial decisions about, such masterworks as Beloved, making some of the inclusions in Part II indispensable to scholars looking to gain more interpretive insight into Morrison’s texts. Moreover, memory and “rememory” (a term coined in Morrison’s work) are emphasized as key tools in the author’s process of re-membering black communities and contexts through the vehicle of fiction. In exploring her decisions to write on two topics, slavery and jazz, she notes her desire to render historical and cultural sites of memory in such a way that underscored and teased out how the black subjects in these contexts valued themselves: she wanted to contend with their sources of self-regard. (317-18)
In exploring her decisions to write on two topics, slavery and jazz, she notes her desire to render historical and cultural sites of memory in such a way that underscored and teased out how the black subjects in these contexts valued themselves: she wanted to contend with their sources of self-regard.
Morrison has for decades positioned herself as master crafter, master curator. Across her oeuvre, she teases out and tussles with the haunting of history; the fragility of memory and identity; the artifice, authority, and authenticity of language; and the blessings and blunders of loving and being loved. In her essay collection, one must shift orientation in order to absorb fully the riches of the work. Not at all a narrative, this form of collection or anthology requires rupture and articulation (a la Stuart Hall) and encourages scattered or selective reading, enabling novel juxtapositions of thought and context to emerge in the process of readerly selection. Morrison’s organization of texts into loosely, yet specifically, defined parts draws together the variegated subject matter reflected in each into thoughtful, yet mutable, relation. Indeed, the inclusion of texts delivered as speeches alongside texts conceived only to be read ( all resounding in Morrison’s voice) calls attention to the ever-present utility and possibility of the word. This is done even as the contexts of these various works are in ways flattened: there are some speeches that are apparent as such because clearly addressed to a gathering of scholars or for a graduation, but many other inclusions are detached from the time, place, and occasion of their delivery or publication. This blending results in a painting of a landscape that in ways is quite specific to an extended era in America, yet at the same time one that is determinedly ambiguous and perhaps even transcendent of the contexts which occasioned their writing and shaped their delivery. The “Peril” with which the collection opens is a brief rumination and self-charge to and by Morrison to write and work through truth and art. If “truth,” as she offers, “is trouble” and underscores the nation’s discontent with, if not all-out hostility toward, its artists, writers, and thought leaders, this collection, arriving at this imperiled political and social moment, resonates so powerfully that it is bound (no pun intended) to be trouble. (vii)
Toni Morrison, the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, literary and cultural critic, and giant in American arts and letters, died on August 5, 2019. The legacy of doing language she left cannot begin to encompass the full measure of her life. On more than one occasion in her collection, Morrison asserts that “what we are here for” is “to lessen suffering, to tell the truth, raise the bar.” The Source of Self-Regard is a compelling literary finale to her life. (32)