The loss of Toni Morrison is a horrible blow to the world of American letters. Leaving us at the age of 88, Morrison composed a body of work that holds its own with that of every other legend in American literature and thought in the 20th and early 21st centuries. While much of the focus in the immediate aftermath of her passing will be on her remarkable novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, A Mercy—we would do well to remember her nonfiction and, in particular, how Morrison used the essay to shape the way that American culture came to understand the African American experience.
Morrison’s 1992 collection of lectures, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, continues to be a trenchant analysis of how the changing idea of black identity in American society has been a central part of American literature and culture since the white colonialists landed in North America. In it, she insisted the idea that “traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States” is patently false: “Even, and especially, when American texts are not about Africanist presences…the shadow hovers in implication, in sight, in line of demarcation.”
Morrison felt it was incumbent on a new generation of African American writers to bring this experience to the fore, and this ambition drove much of her writing: Both her fiction and nonfiction aspired to place the African American experience at the center of American storytelling. In Beloved, she used the supernatural and the macabre to bring to light the horrors of slavery while also offering an examination of the magnificent number of changes taking place in turn-of-the-century Ohio. In The Bluest Eye, she tackled the ever-present stain of internalized racism in the African American community. And in her essays and public speeches, she made clear, over and over again, that literature that was unapologetically for and about African Americans was also a central part of the American canon. In her 1987 eulogy for James Baldwin, she extolled him for having “un-gated” the language to allow black writers to “enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion.”
Morrison’s constant struggle to place African American experience squarely at the center of modern American life helped inspire a generation of black intellectuals and writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Angela Davis. As an editor at Random House in the 1970s, she championed their work as well as helped to introduce the Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to an American audience. By the late 1980s and early ’90s, her efforts had made her a key figure in the “culture wars” of that era. A veteran of a much older version of this conflict in the publishing industry, Morrison was ready to take on such a role, and she used her growing prominence as a novelist to refocus Americans’ attention toward the experience of African American women—depicting their struggles and triumphs as being unique and robust examples of human experience.