Toni Morrison’s generous legacy as a ‘wide-spirited person’

Remembering the legacy of Toni Morrison, whose writings on race, womanhood, and American culture left an outsized impact.

Kathy Willens/AP/File
Toni Morrison holds an orchid at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on April 5, 1994. The Nobel Prize-winning author died on Aug. 5, 2019.

Author Toni Morrison, who died on August 5, bequeathed a rich literary legacy to the world, including the novels “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon.” In a 1981 interview with staff writer Maggie Thomas, Ms. Morrison commented on the role of history in her writing. Her remarks speak to America’s ongoing discussion about race.

A theme that winds through her work is how historical wrongs – such as slavery –  inform the present. “I want to dust off what was already there, turn it up, and shine it up,” she said. “Let’s take a look ... and see if it has anything to do with the way we live.” 

Ms. Morrison observed that Americans live in denial of their history. “There’s a quality of not having any past – not just for blacks, just people in the country. Nobody is from anywhere. ... The cult of the new and the young ... is one of the characteristics of this country.”

She was concerned about the tendency of upwardly mobile black people, and she included herself in that group, to “lose a lot of the good stuff,” to jettison part of their culture and bury their origin story. “Some of it was awful,” she said of black history, “but the point is to know what it was.”

Recognizing that some people would consider many of her characters socially unacceptable, she said, “They are us, and the feeling of the ancestor is there.” And she cautioned against passing judgment, explaining that she pulled things inside out, “so that you can see what it is made of. Then if you still think this person’s bad, this one’s good, it’s based on real information, rather than assumptions.”

When asked how she managed this process in her writing, Ms. Morrison said, “One way to do it is to become a grown-up, wide-spirited person.”

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