When I learned today that the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died at the age of 88, I was more devastated than I had expected to be. Her presence in this world seemed to make everything our society is enduring a bit more bearable.
Today, it all seems that much harder.
While there are others who are more fluent in her work than I am, she had a profound influence on me. Toni Morrison’s work conveyed the pain, sacrifice and trauma that exemplifies so much of the African-American experience—Eva’s sacrifice of her leg in Sula, the pain of racism that gives way to self-loathing in The Bluest Eye, and the violent trauma of slavery in Beloved, a trauma so painful that a mother would murder her child rather than consign her to such a fate.
Morrison’s work provided black people, especially black women, with representation.
In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in any category. More than 25 years later, she remains the only black woman to win the literature prize and the only African-American woman to have won a Nobel regardless of category. Before #RepresentationMatters became a part of our lexicon, Morrison’s work provided black people, especially black women, with representation. As an editor, she amplified the voices of writers like Wole Soyinka, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. As a writer, her novels allowed African-Americans to see themselves and their experiences reflected in literature and to see how those experiences could be celebrated and appreciated at the highest levels.
The way she addressed the themes of race and racism in the African-American experience has influenced how I live my life and choose to be in the world as well as my work on systemic racism in the Catholic Church and its impact on black Catholic identity. Morrison once described the function of racism as “distraction”:
[K]now the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.
In television interviews—notably with white interviewers—she rejected as “illegitimate” questions that presumed her work should or needed to center the “white gaze” and called out the racism that is inherent in such questions.
In television interviews—notably with white interviewers—she rejected as “illegitimate” questions that presumed her work should or needed to center the “white gaze."
For the 20 years that I have been researching and writing about systemic racism and black Catholics, I have found that more often than not, I am expected to juxtapose the experiences of African-American Catholics and those of Catholics from various white ethnic groups. I have largely gotten away from that approach but still often find myself distracted from celebrating black Catholic identity and expression solely on its own. In that way, I have not lived up to the standard that Morrison set. When I find myself not living up to that standard, I remind myself how I refuse to succumb to the trope of exoticizing black Catholics in my work. This form of the white gaze only serves to center whiteness, and that is not why I do my work. I do it to center black Catholic identity and expression.
During an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Morrison talked about writing her “to-do” list years earlier. The list was so long that she took out a second piece of paper. Once she realized even that would not be enough, she decided to take another approach. She took another piece of paper and decided to write down “the things I needed to do or else I would die.” She came up with only two things: be a good mother to her sons and write books. Everything else would be in the service of those two things.
While I was in graduate school, I once found myself reaching for a third piece of paper for my weekly “to-do” list. I was suddenly reminded of Morrison’s appearance on “Oprah.” In following her example, I also came up with two things I needed to do or else I would die: finish the doctoral degree I had already been working on for years and write about black Catholics. Everything else I did would be in the service of those two things.
It would take several more years of work that sometimes seemed futile, but I did finish that degree. And today, I research and write about black Catholics.