The list of reasons to admire novelist Toni Morrison—who died two weeks ago, at age eighty-eight—is long.
Morrison was a dedicated teacher—at Texas Southern University and Howard University before she became famous, and at Princeton University afterward. She also made a name for herself in publishing as the first black woman to become senior editor in Random House’s fiction department. While working and raising two children on her own, Morrison rose each day at 4:00 a.m. to devote time to her own writing. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Her most famous, Beloved, followed in 1987, and was later made into a film. For her depictions of African-American and female experience, Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature for giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
What I most admire about Morrison’s work, in addition to her explorations of race and gender—topics which still dominate “American reality” and which deserve all the nuanced treatment they can get—is her refusal to be scandalized by evil. Equanimity in the face of terrible acts has never been a small accomplishment, but it is particularly rare (and thus particularly valuable) in the present moment.
Consider mass shootings, one of the most publicized kinds of contemporary violence. These shootings now occur so frequently that it is difficult to keep track of them, let alone process their horror thoroughly. No locale is too mundane or innocuous to be safe. First it was schools and movie theaters, then churches. In the last month alone, human beings have died in settings so banal that they become obscene when recast as final resting places: a Walmart, a bar, a garlic festival.
Public responses often fall into two categories. The first, which I associate with politicians, is to declare that some people are just impossibly crazy or evil in a way that cannot be predicted, understood, or prevented. The second response, which media outlets and viewers perpetuate, is to train a salivating eye on the disaster, thus incentivizing other would-be shooters to seek their own moments of fame.
Morrison avoids both traps in her fiction. She doesn’t dismiss evil as unintelligible, but she also doesn't glamorize it. She shows why people become hurtful and hateful, and (without spoiling any plots) it’s always because someone else showed them the ropes first. That is to say, those who commit harm are often hurt or hated by another first, and they lash out in order to temporarily escape their own pain and shame.
In The Bluest Eye, this tragic cycle plays out in the Breedlove family. The young daughter, Pecola, is raped by her father and then subjected to further mistreatment by a resentful mother. Morrison doesn’t shield us from these painful acts, nor does she sensationalize them. Through the patient miracle of narrative, she carefully takes readers back in time, so that we can see firsthand the events that helped make Pecola’s parents capable of such cruelty. For her father, Cholly, it was being discovered as a young man with a girl in the bushes, and forced to copulate while a group of white men watched and jeered. For her mother, Pauline, it was sitting in a movie theater, pregnant and with her hair done up like Jean Harlow, and cracking a tooth. “Everything went then. Look like I just didn’t care no more after that,” she recalls. “I let my hair go back, plaited it up, and settled down to just being ugly.” When Pecola is born, Pauline projects this feeling of ugliness onto her daughter.
At the end of the novel, the reader doesn’t have to like Cholly or Pauline, or excuse or forgive their actions, but she is encouraged to grapple with the idea that they aren’t brilliant, diabolical villains or unstoppable, unforgivable monsters. Their cruelty has discernible roots in earlier cruelty. Armed with this information, the reader is even free to wonder whether, had life treated Cholly and Pauline more kindly, they might have been more loving, able parents. Morrison’s work is one reason why, when I see bad news of a shooting on television, my first thought is always: Tell me about the shooter's family, and tell me about his experiences in school.
What astonishes me isn’t just that Morrison bothers to tease out the roots of evil in this way, but that she herself seems totally unfazed by the darker sides of existence. Three years ago, I felt devastated when I finished her last novel, God Help the Child, which ends with an abuse survivor expecting a child of her own. The unborn baby’s future seemed bleak to me, and when I went to a talk Morrison gave to publicize the book, I marveled to see the author of such dark material laughing her way through an enjoyable evening.
The ending was still nagging me a week later when I sat in on a colleague’s class at the United States Military Academy, on the day that cadets were discussing God Help the Child. One cadet—who, as it happened, was African-American and a woman—pointed out that Morrison simply has a healthy acceptance of original sin. She knows that the potential always exists to choose wrong over right, evil over good, and that some people will make the wrong choice. But that doesn’t stop Morrison from taking joy in existence, or from telling the story of how it is that some people come to make wrong choices—perhaps so that others may choose what is good and right.
That kind of composure, I now think, springs from a patience that is also forgiveness. Morrison doesn’t rush to condemn anyone in her fiction or essays, but rather casts a little light so that those wandering in error have a better chance of finding the path. When they get on the path is up to them; forcing them wouldn’t do her or them any good. But she also knows that we’ll all be better off when they arrive.
If you don’t have time to read a novel right now, I would recommend her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I’ve read it half a dozen times at least, and each time it yields new gems and leaves me with new questions. It is a stirring defense of language’s generative properties, wrapped up in a complicated and shifting parable about a blind woman who sees the truth and a group of children who come to mock her—or perhaps to seek her wisdom. In the end, dialogue between two initially antagonistic parties yields connection and understanding. To refuse to mask frustration with people who let you down—while also refusing to give up on them completely—is slow and hard work, Morrison suggests, but the only way forward. The speech’s conclusion could apply to her readers, too: “How lovely it is, this thing that we have done—together.”
Cassandra Nelson is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. She was a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the United States Military Academy from 2015–2018.