One of the most frequently uttered phrases in the United States during the month of February, Black History Month, is the United Negro Scholarship Fund's slogan: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." While reading Toni Morrison's powerful nonfiction collection, What Moves at the Margin, I found myself considering the opposite of that slogan: an exceptional mind is a beautiful thing to develop.
That Morrison commands one of the most remarkable creative talents of our era is a celebrated fact. Her journey to iconic literary status began in 1969 with the publication of The Bluest Eye. Each of her novels since then--currently totaling nine, the latest being A Mercy--have consistently won critical acclaim, ultimately culminating in such extraordinary honors as the National Book Circle Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Literature.
With an illuminating introduction by Carolyn C. Denard, founder of the Toni Morrison Society, What Moves at the Margin stands as a self-defining commentary on Morrison's overall cultural vision and as a singular extension of her literary output. What Moves at the Margin presents almost thirty works of short nonfiction--written from 1971 to 2002-- to bring us the Toni Morrison who lives, breathes, thinks, and acts outside the fictional boundaries established by her novels. The book is divided into three categories that include: Family and History; Writers and Writing; and Politics and Society. They may be described alternately as personal essays; tributes to fellow warrior authors in the form of eulogies, forewords, and reviews; and cultural criticism that leaves neither a political nor a literary stone unturned.
The African-American tradition of honoring ancestors is well represented in section one. It is particularly interesting, in light of Barack Obama's election to the U.S. presidency, to note the dialogue on race relations between her grandparents in the opening essay: "A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say), Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say)." Equally compelling are Morrison's writings about her classic work on African-American history: "Behind the Making of The Black Book" and "Rediscovering Black History." The value of recognizing and claiming one's historical roots is not just academic, she offers, but imperative because "When you kill the ancestor you kill yourself."
The writers to whom Morrison pays tribute in section two stand among the handful of late-Twentieth Century authors whose works expanded the presence and acceptance of African-American literature in the U.S. publishing industry. (It should be noted as well that Morrison herself assisted that process early in her career in her role as an editor for Random House.) They include the great Toni Cade Bambara, whom she describes as "a writer's writer, an editor's writer, a reader's writer." Also present is her moving tribute to Henry Dumas, whose work she describes as "some of the most beautiful, moving, and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read." It is largely due to Morrison, the poet Eugene Redmond, and Dumas' widow that the world knows anything at all of this brilliant author whose life ended at the age of thirty-three when he was killed by a transit policeman in a New York City subway station.
Her eulogy for James Baldwin, whose collected essays and fiction Morrison edited for The Library of America, is a deeply personal and profound one in which she observes: "Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges to see and say what it was, to recognize and identify evil but never fear or stand in awe of it."
In the final section, "Politics and Society," Morrison engages contemporary issues with clarity, compassion, and unyielding conviction. "The Dead of September 11" reveal her to have been as stunned as any by the savage events of that history-altering day. Boldly lobbying on behalf of fellow writers in "For a Heroic Writers Movement," the author asserts "competitiveness and grief are the inevitable lot of a writer only when there is no organization or network to which he can turn."
The book concludes with two speeches that demonstrate Morrison's commitment to political and cultural responsibility. The first, "How Can Values Be Taught in the University," was delivered in April 2000 at Princeton University and in it the author delivers some of her most potent social criticism: "If the university does not take seriously and rigorously its role as guardian of wider civic freedoms, as interrogator of more and more complex ethical problems, as servant and preserver of deeper democratic practices, then some other regime or ménage of regimes will do it for us, in spite of us, and without us." Appropriately enough, the very last text is her famous Nobel Lecture in Literature. In the lecture, she uses a parable about a blind old woman challenged by a group of young people to state her concerns for the state of language in the modern world: "Sexist language, racist language, theistic language--all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas."
Morrison long ago identified as one of her primary goals the production of "word-work" grounded in the African-American experience and worthy of inclusion in the greater American literary canon (as represented by books regularly studied on the high school and college levels). To entertain such a noble vision is one thing; to actually achieve it is quite another. In What Moves at the Margins, readers get a good strong sense of the family influences, literary culture, and passionate political dynamics that made Morrison's achievements possible. It also illustrates that by striving so mightily to accomplish specific goals on behalf of one segment of humanity, she went beyond them to create literary wonders capable of enriching the lives of not just her own people, but of all people.
Causes Aberjhani * Supports
I make contributions to a number of charities through my lenses on Squidoo but the following are a few that interest me the most: