By Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Given the eternal life of the written word, it would be odd to call this the end. But with the death of Toni Morrison, one of the most gifted and boundary-pushing contemporary writers we’ve had, it feels like the beginning of the end of something huge.
Though her wisdom will live on indefinitely, it seems painfully cruel to lose a figure like her now, in the wake of massacres and ideological attacks on increasingly vulnerable communities, and as we witness an almost laughable pivot to “calling out” white supremacy in name only. With social progress hanging by a thread, the timing of her departure is dreadful, as selfish as that sounds.
We’re deep into an era that, sometimes with the complicity of our leaders, actively celebrates the avoidance of critical thought. Many of us are unable to differentiate fact from fiction. Many more of us struggle with the very concept of introspection, on any level. It’s never the “right time” to lose anyone, but this has been more crushing than I’d ever anticipated.
My admiration for Morrison, like many wide-eyed aspiring writers itching to make sense of the world, deepened when I did my undergraduate degree in comparative literature.
I’d just begun to grasp what it meant to write honestly and bravely about race – to question the things I’d learned about what black writers should contribute to the world, and, to the best of my teenage ability, to forge my own lane, ever preoccupied with the notion of black people “talking to black people”, as opposed to the “self-flagellation” of striving to write to satisfy a white audience – the default audience. In other words, to reject the “white gaze”.
Throughout those years, I was reintroduced to some of her most famous works: The Bluest Eye, Beloved, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and more. I devoured her essays and speeches, poured over YouTube footage of her, tried my best to imitate her, even. But it is one of the many wise things she’s said, in this case as part of that famous interview with Charlie Rose in 1998, which has stuck with me since.
Responding to Rose’s question: “Can you imagine writing a novel not centred around race?”
She said: “I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said this is all well and good but one day she, meaning me, will have to face up to the real responsibility and get mature and write about the real confrontation for black people, which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
It’s an idea that has since been twisted, confused in some circles as being too insular. But the notion that anyone scrutinised through the lens of whiteness could free themselves of those restraints by refusing to pander to them at all was and still is, a lesson we could all do with keeping in mind in the current political climate.
The foundations on which many of our prized institutions were built rely on that very gaze. It’s why it has taken so incredibly long, far too long, for the media to take seriously issues like white supremacy, too often relegated to the corners of academia. It’s the framework through which the far right has made horrifyingly vast gains across the entire globe. It emboldens those who already hold positions of privilege, reminding and convincing them that their historical perspective has and always will matter more than anything else, even if the truth is at stake.
These are things that should be understood, at a basic level at least, among anyone working in fields that shape our world view. Sadly, they aren’t. And here we are. But who knows what things could look like, what politics and news and everyday life could look like if we did understand?
To go back to Rose’s question, a question I’ve been asked too many times, the implication always being that writing about race as a black woman is somehow limiting, basic or self-indulgent, I hope we can move towards a space in which the absurdity of questioning the importance of race becomes glaringly obvious.
We are, devastatingly, going backwards in every sense of the word. We could do with listening to and consuming the work of writers like Morrison who have similarly dedicated their work to shattering the moulds that have held society back … if we really want to move forward again.
Part of that process will require the rejection of ideas we didn’t even realise were harming us in the first place. Doing so has since allowed me to break free of the naivety that once saw me frame Morrison’s rejection of whiteness as a reaction to a world that used to be, rather than a world that still is. As final and upsetting as this all is, under Trump under Johnson and more, taking her teachings with us in ways we’ve often failed to, could be the start of something new.