The Spiritual Depths of Toni Morrison

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During Banned Books Week 2022 (September 18-24), library workers across the country brought attention to current and historic attempts to censor and silence authors. Joined by many colleagues in publishing and education, they sought to shine a light on specific authors and topics targeted in school districts and public libraries across the country by individuals and groups seeking to have shelves of books that could be offensive or indoctrinating. An author who will be familiar to many America readers came many times: She got not one, not two, but three of her books on the “most banned” lists: Toni Morrison.

Both Beloved and The bluest eye have been repeatedly targeted in recent years for removal from libraries and schools. The first won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Another of Morrison’s novels, Song of Solomonwon the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, but was also the target of challenges by school boards in three different states.

As Baby Suggs notes in Beloved“Not a house in the country is filled to overflowing with the grief of a dead Negro.”

In 1993 Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 2012 President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison died on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88. A memorial service several months later in New York included eulogies from Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Fran Lebowitz, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Ondaatje.

According to the American Library Association, the most common grounds for challenging books on school reading lists are depiction of LGBT lifestyles, sexual material, controversial religious views, profanity, and content that discusses racism and police brutality. In Morrison’s case, the criticism tends to be more vague, as the real problem seems to be that Morrison’s fiction makes white people uncomfortable.

It should. Beloved is a difficult book to read, not because the book is grim or exploitative or crude, but because it is relentless in its depiction of the horrors white people inflicted on black people during and after slavery. The casual and reckless violence of our culture shines through in almost every interaction. Morrison does not tell watered down versions of his stories. Rape, incest, pedophilia and physical violence are present in his books because they were and are present in the real lives of people very close to Morrison’s characters. As Baby Suggs notes in Beloved“Not a house in the country is filled to overflowing with the grief of a dead Negro.”

Boreta Singleton: “Toni Morrison’s characters always find faith in themselves, in God, and in life’s circumstances, without always explicitly naming it as faith.”

In his book Longing for an absent God, Nick Ripatrazone examines the role of the Catholic faith in American fiction since the Second Vatican Council. It posits that Morrison (who became a Catholic as a teenager – “Toni” is a shortened version of her Confirmation name, Anthony) draws strong connections between the suffering of black people and that of Christ, especially in Beloved and The bluest eye. “Morrison’s theology is that of the Passion: of bruised bodies, public executions and private penance,” he wrote.

Morrison’s characters are resilient and strong, but that’s because they inevitably find themselves in a situation where the alternative is death, either of body or soul. His characters also often thrive in a liminal space between the natural and the supernatural. “Belief in a world other than one in which black people are dehumanized and devalued helps its characters thrive, as it did for members of Morrison’s family,” Nadra Little wrote in a 2017 America article. “She remarked in a 1983 interview that her characters are high achievers – they are able to navigate everyday life in a racially stratified society while struggling with the supernatural. Steeped in spiritual lore African American, his characters are at ease when encountering otherworldly or extraordinary forces.This is especially true of Beloved and Song of Solomon.”

In 2021, Little released The spiritual vision of Toni Morrison, in which she examined how faith, spirituality, a culture of storytelling, and Morrison’s own feminism intersected and complemented each other in her books. She also noted that despite the often cruel worlds Morrison’s books explore, they all share another common theme: “Healing – through religious syncretism, racial pride and the wisdom of elders – is central to the fiction of Morrison,” she wrote.

“Toni Morrison’s characters always find faith in themselves, in God, and in life’s circumstances, without always explicitly naming it as faith,” Boreta Singleton wrote in his review of The spiritual vision of Toni Morrison for America. “As Nittle notes, these discoveries lead them to new realizations and moments of deep awareness of life and love. The reader can see God in all areas of Morrison’s characters’ circumstances – in the magic,” in pain and suffering, and in the call to healing and wholeness that leads to life.”

In a 2019 tribute to Morrison in America, Tia Noelle Pratt noted how important it was for black readers to have a writer like Morrison, who did not center his stories from a white point of view or adopt a “white gaze” in his storytelling. Rather, she sought to give a hearing to the authentic experiences of people who were too often voiceless: “Toni Morrison’s work conveyed the pain, sacrifice and trauma that so exemplifies the African-American experience.”

Can we also consider Toni Morrison as a Catholic novelist? The hosts of America‘s Jesuitical Podcast explored this question with Nadra Little in this 2021 episode.

Nadra Little: “Healing – through religious syncretism, racial pride and the wisdom of the elders – is at the heart of Morrison’s fiction.”

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Our selection of poetry for this week is “A Nun Leaves the Veil”, by Julia Alvarez. Readers can see all America‘s poems published here.

In this space each week, America features literary reviews and commentary on a particular writer or group of writers (new and old; our archive spans over a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this gives us the opportunity to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that does not appear in our newsletters.

Other sections of the Catholic Book Club:

Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America

William Lynch, America’s Greatest Jesuit You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The Catholic Faith (and Pessimism) of JRR Tolkien

Curé, sociologist, novelist: the many imaginations of Father Andrew Greeley

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Joan Didion: a chronicler of the horrors and consolations of modern life

Good reading!

James T. Keane

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