The death of Toni Morrison, 88, American editor, novelist and professor, is a huge loss to many around the world. Morrison, who won both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was especially influential on black authors, academics and activists working on race issues today.
Morrison wrote her debut novel at almost 40-years-old after working for years as a book editor. She started writing because she was tired of the lack of representation of black people as full complex human beings who love, laugh and cry in most of the novels she was editing.
I was in my teens when I read her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The book told the story of a young black girl who was teased about her dark skin, hair and eyes. She then decides that what will solve her problems is if she was to get light skin and blue eyes. It is a desire she starts praying for consistently.
The novel made me think deeply about internalised racism and how the black community copes with the trauma that racism visits upon us daily. Through reading The Bluest Eye and her other work, and listening to her interviews, I was able to craft my voice on race issues better and be unafraid and unapologetic about my stance because Morrison constantly emphasised the importance of being unapologetic when dealing with racism.
In an interview, when asked when she would write books with central white characters, she admonished the interviewer for her racist question that centred whiteness and then declared that she writes for black people and does not need to white gaze for her work to be validated.
Morrison also constantly reminded us that the real work of racism is to keep black people busy proving they have a history, a language, a heritage. This reminder was important for me, when as part of the “Decolonising the Curriculum” movement, I would constantly be challenged with the question how it’s possible to decolonise Mathematics and Science which was claimed as Western subjects of enquiry. This despite the existence of the pyramids and other entities on the continent that proved the ancient mathematical prowess of Africans long before imperialism, colonialism and other systems of oppression.
With Morrison’s death, I am comforted by the fact that while we won’t hear any new thoughts from her, we are left with a large canon of work and many interviews that can inspire us to think differently about race and racism.
In her own words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
– Ngoasheng is a political analyst and research associate at the Centre for Rights and Justice at the University of Sussex.