BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
Toni Morrison is a national – and international – treasure. As a senior editor at Random House, she introduced Black writers to generations of readers.
Her novels include “The Bluest Eye’’ (1970), “Sula’’ (1975), “Song of Solomon” (1977), “Beloved’’ (1987), “Jazz’’ (1992), “Paradise’’ (1997), “A Mercy’’ (2008) and “God Help the Child’’ (2015). “Playing in the Dark’’ (1992) established her as an insightful literary critic. Morrison has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In “The Origin of Others,’’ based on a series of lectures she gave at Harvard University, Morrison reflects on an issue that is central to her work and her life.
Because they involve our “already known although unacknowledged selves,” she writes, encounters with strangers summon up feelings of alarm. They often “make us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other…to deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, in this slim volume Morrison focuses on the social and cultural construction of race-based Others.
To justify the enslavement of Blacks, she reminds us, southern physician Samuel Cartwright cited “unalterable physiological laws” demonstrating that ignorant, indolent negroes could have their intellectual and moral faculties awakened only when they were “under the compulsatory authority of the white man.”
Forced exercise, expended in cultivating cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco, “benefited the negro as well as his master.” Convinced that plantation slaves never had it so good, Cartwright claimed that runaways suffered from a disease he labeled “drapetomania.”
‘The color fetish’
Although the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and 20th centuries are no longer enforced, Morrison points out, “they have laid the carpet on which many writers have danced to great effect.”
Morrison also explains how she framed Otherness – and what she calls “the color fetish” – in her own fiction. She has “been excited to explore” the allure, power, and thrill attached to racism and the “triumphalism and deception” experienced by Blacks in color-coding.
Morrison set her novel “Paradise’’ in an all-Black town in Ruby, Oklahoma, for example, to imagine “a deepening definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity.” She hoped to “simultaneously de-fang and theatricalize race, signaling how movable and hopelessly meaningless the construct is.”
These days, with millions of people moving across national borders to escape famine, oppression and war, Morrison reminds us that deconstructing Otherness has acquired a renewed urgency.
She gives a shout-out to Camara Laye’s “The Radiance of the King,’’ as one way to re-imagine racial clichés.
In the novel, Clarence, a European, has moved to an Africa that is suffused with light.
Although the “natives” give him a cordial welcome, Clarence sees only hostility, and he, the White man, who had thought himself suitable to become an adviser to the African king, descends into depravity.
The novel, Morrison points out, forces readers to see what it feels like to be “marginal, ignored, superfluous, foreign,” to have one’s history stripped away: “in other words, to become a black slave.”
Morrison must have been tempted to end on this note. Indeed, in the penultimate paragraph of “The Origin of Others,’’ she notes how often we “cling maniacally to our own cultures, languages while dismissing other’s’,…deny the foreigner in ourselves and resist to the death the commonness of humanity.”
Morrison chooses, however, to conclude by revealing that “after many trials, enlightenment slowly surfaces in Camara Laye’s European.”
As Clarence’s “cultural armor maintained out of fear” crumbles, the boy king takes him in his arms and declares, “Did you not know that I was waiting for you?”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.