Just four days before South Africans celebrated Women’s Day, we were met with the painful news of Toni Morrison’s passing. The world had lost a one of a kind playwright, teacher, poet and author who had always remained intentional in making readers aware of the black experience in the United States and equally intentional in making women the heroes of her novels. It was fitting that she won a Nobel Literature Prize for her uncompromising work and was also the very first black woman to do so. As the end of Women’s Month approaches, we reflect on the current state of womanhood and blackness on our own soil and we’re reminded of the teachings that Toni Morrison has sewn for us to reap.
Through her storytelling, Toni Morrison serves as an inspiration for a myriad of reasons. She was instrumental in giving black women, young and old, a voice in literary spaces that always omitted the most intricate and delicate parts of our being.
In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, we follow the story of Pecola; an adolescent who deals with self hate as a symptom of the underrepresentation of black beauty around her. She longs to have “the bluest eye” as a means of diluting features of hers which she considers to be “too black” and thus, less beautiful. The novel was published in 1970 and dissects an issue that still rings true 49 years later. Girls in South Africa have been victims of self hate propaganda for decades on end, and it, essentially, boils down to institutional racism and misrepresentation. 2016 saw the rise of the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh movement in which girls aged 13 to 18 held a demonstration against school laws that illegalized their natural hair and denied them from speaking their mother tongue. The common ground between Pecola and the pupils at Pretoria Girls’ High is where misogyny and racism intersect. It is where the culture of overriding whiteness and male supremacy makes women, not only hate themselves for being women, but for being black, as well. We can all tear a page from this book in heightening our awareness of the systems that seek to deter us from loving ourselves and, ultimately, actualizing our full potential. We are also taught by Morrison to be gracious to ourselves in feeling insecure and wanting to change into versions of ourselves we’re most happy with. We needn’t be burdened with the work of trying to save the world and still trying to love ourselves.
Another pair of her most noteworthy characters includes Sula Peace and Nel Wright from the 1973 novel, Sula. She examines the complicated relationships they have with their mothers and follows their divergent life paths: Sula grows up to become a rebellious city woman with a healthy sexual prowess and Nel, stays in her hometown to become a wife, mother and caregiver. The parallels drawn here lead us to the ongoing politicizing of women’s career and lifestyle choices, even in 2019. There is still shame in using your body to serve yourself and shame in committing your life to solely taking care of your spouse and children. Morrison explores the pressures that both women are subjected to and unpacks the extent to which black women, in particular, are often forced into martyrdom in their professions and communities by simply remaining true to their choices. The book is essentially an ode to women actualizing by any means necessary, in spite of slut shaming, familial hostility or any negative external opinion.
Her most cherished and celebrated piece of writing, Beloved, invites us into the difficult journey of motherhood under oppression-based poverty. Although not the main tenet of the novel, we read about black mothers living under slavery, being separated from their children and forced to raise children who aren’t their own as a means of survival. This narrative is one that has remained true for decades and in the present day. We’re brought to empathize with the emotional and mental strain of many black women, then and now, who are left with no choice but to depart from their motherly roles due to laws or circumstances that white rule has left them under. We also learn that these types of working environments leave women continually disrespected, exploited and, sometimes, abused. In a day and age where we have women’s leagues in our government and holidays like Women’s Day exist, how do we fully advocate for the validity of women’s rights protection when women, particularly black women, are still forced to live this way in 2019?
Many women in the country find Women’s Month to be patronizing and redundant. It feels, to some, as though it’s yet another a lazy attempt to blanket the wrongs of the very generational misogyny and racism that Morrison wrote about, rather than to implement tangible, legislative change for the betterment of women’s livelihoods. With that being said, we can’t diminish the work put in by women, in the past and the present, to give the month meaning. The history of Women’s Day dates back to the Women’s March of 1956 but in the present day, it’s a period of self appreciation, celebrating our womanhood in all its glory and it must be said that the layered representation of black women was truly pioneered by writers like Morrison. Black women have a better self image and more spaces for self expression than ever before. In a world that fails to honour us, black women remain empowered to honour one another and ourselves. Toni Morrison’s passing leaves us with hearts that are heavy but swollen with hopefulness. We are far from where we need to be but closer yet, because she lived to tell our tales.