books, Essays, People of Color, Political Writing, Reading, Women Writers

“The Origin of Others” by Toni Morrison (and two Atlantic articles by Ta-nehisi Coates)

“Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture or the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology.”

On this day – September 12, 2017 – the newest works of two heavyweights are being IMG_0805released to likely widely differing attention. Hillary Clinton’s memoir assessing and assigning blame for her tumultuous loss in the 2016 presidential campaign is on the tip of everyone’s tongue and at the top of every news feed. What isn’t likely to get the buzz and analysis that “What Happened” is enjoying is Toni Morrison’s new release,”The Origin of Others”. This small but weighty treatise, drawn from Morrison’s Norton Lectures, also reflects on the current socio-political climate, particularly on how ‘othering’ informs history, politics, and literature.

One would face little argument in placing Toni Morrison among the greatest living American writers, and this work is introduced by a foreword from another, Ta-nehisi Coates. In the foreword, Coates beautifully captures the premise of Morrison’s collection:

“This is a work about the creation of aliens and the erection of fences, one that employs literary criticism, history, and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.”

This premise is one of great promise and desperate timeliness, and this collection of essays is deeply informative and flawlessly composed. What it isn’t, unfortunately, is the commanding, mesmerizing voice one has come to expect from Toni Morrison. I suspect that hearing Morrison deliver these thoughts in their original lecture format would have been powerful and impactful. Their tenor and tone as essays, however, are constricted by their origin as lectures; in the place of narrative flow, one finds frequent quotations and a pedantic tone that just don’t translate well to the page. I suspect that her agents and she herself are well aware of that fact, thus the relatively quiet release by a small publishing house. “The Origin of Others” is a less successful work by an inimitable author, but one which is timely in its content and as part of America’s struggle to understand ‘what happened’ and how can we change what we have become. In no way does its measured success diminish her voice, her body of work, or her stature among the greats.

In an unusual turn and out of respect for the import and validity of Morrison’s premise, I would like to turn to two articles which I consider to be companion pieces to “The Origin of Others” and which, in my opinion, carry out the premise to greater effect. I am referring to a pair of Coates’ own articles in The Atlantic: the January/February 2017 “My President Was Black” and the October 2017 “The First White President”.  In these two breathtaking and heartbreaking articles, Coates points to the role of race in this political moment and eviscerates the argument that what this moment is a result of the voices of the white underclass being ignored.

“These claims of origin and fidelity are not merely elite defenses of an aggrieved class but also a sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men.”  (October 2017)

Coates unabashedly indicts the role of racism in the 2016 election and in the fraught landscape of 2017.

“[W]hiteness – that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” (October 2017)

“Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.”(January/February 2017)

Ta-nehisi Coates has a gift and a power which he is exercising for the common good. Reading these and other in depth works by Coates, I am simultaneously invigorated and despondent. He can say the things I long to say because he is a gifted writer. He can say the things I long to say because he has aspirational access – to people and platform. He can say the things I long to say because he has unimpeachable credibility. He can speak his heart, and in doing so, speak so many of ours.

Thank you to Harvard University Press for providing a complimentary copy of “The Origin of Others” in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

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