AS DAYLIGHT STRENGTHENS, welcome, you fierce dragons. ♥ When I think of our truth-tellers in literature, the ones unafraid to show us how broken our world is, and adroit enough not to let us fetishize that brokenness, Toni Morrison rises. Like Okorafor (find her Flash!Future post here), Morrison writes characters powerfully shaped by, yet never reduced to, their trauma. And their trauma, often rooted in America’s transatlantic slave history, is immeasurable. When interviewed about the diminishing of Black stories into horror narratives (today’s featured video, below), Morrison addressed her choice to center her characters over their trauma:
…the big problem is that slavery is so intricate and so immense and so long, and so unprecedented, that you can let slavery be the story, the plot, and we know what that story is and it is predictable. And then you do the worse thing which is you de—the center of it becomes the institution and not the people. So if you focus on the characters and their interior life, it’s like putting the authority back in the hands of the slaves rather than the slaveholder.
Neither of our truth-tellers strip their characters down to any moment or lifetime of pain. Take Morrison’s Sethe (Beloved) and Okorafor’s Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death): Sethe is a slave so steadfast in her resolve to save her children, she’s willing to kill them; Onyesonwu is a child of rape, outcast, and rage-bent on burning the world if it brings justice. Yet we experience them as greater than their struggle. We eat with them, bowls of rabbit livers and curried stew; we stand beside them and work palms of flour into milk for biscuits; we feel the warmth of who they love, and the heat-touch of those they desire. And every tactile moment is Morrison and Okorafor empowering them, and nudging, prodding, pushing us to see beyond their trauma to the “complicated, extraordinary survival life” they embody.
Toni Morrison in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Charlayne Hunter-Gault