BY: Tiffany Courtney
A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity,” Toni Morrison writes in the opening of The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of selected essays, speeches, and meditations published six months before her death in August 2019. The works span four decades and illuminate the vastness of Morrison’s intellectual and cultural analysis and is a sweeping tribute to the capacity of a mind and a writer who remained prescient for generations of readers. Perhaps the best review of this work refrains from commentary to allow Morrison to speak for herself.
Thematically structured in three segments, “Part 1 The Foreigner’s Home” centers on displacement migration, globalization in governance and media, fascism, racism, and identity—the ideal vs. the reality of “home.” She reflects on a society’s need to define these terms while its people seek to be unbound from the borders of geography and time. Even as she dissects the humanitarian harms inflected across history that results in the “othering” of ordinary human differences, Morrison whispers hope. In “The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care,” from the 2013, she writes, “You, all of us, struggle to turn data into information into knowledge and, we hope, into wisdom. … None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others.”
In the “Interlude Black Matter(s)” section, Morrison begins by sharing a conversation with Martin Luther King III, written in 1998 for Time Magazine’s Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Gala. She questions Martin Luther King Jr.’s possible assessment of her work, granting readers a sense of her awareness. She writes, “Was I any better? Finer? Because I have lived in a world that is imaginary. Would he be disappointed in me? The answer isn’t important. But the question really is, and that is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. He made the act of assuming personal responsibility for alleviating social harm ordinary, habitual, and irresistible.” What follows in this section are “Race Matters,” a 1994 Princeton keynote address, “Black Matter(s),” a 1990 Clark Lecture, and the final chapter, “Hard, True, and Lasting,” a 2005 lecture at the University of Miami, in which she writes, “Every and each attempt I have made to write has centered on…this question: What is there of value in black culture to lose and how can it be preserved and made useful?” She finds “in order to reveal what seems to me the hard and the true and the lasting things, I am drawn to describing people under duress… And it leaves me wide open for criticism about bizarre characters and nonpositive images. I know. But…I believe it is silly, not to say irresponsible, to concern myself with lipstick and Band-Aid when there is a plague in the land.”
“Part II God’s Language” reads at times with the intimacy of a writer’s log as Morrison explores, expands, and probes the process and intent of art. She eulogizes James Baldwin, pays tribute to artists Romare Bearden and Chinua Achebe, praises Peter Sellars. She holds space, briefly, on “(Robert) Faulkner and Women” before launching a reflective critique of her work in the Beloved Trilogy.
Morrison writes, “In Beloved, I was interested in what contributed most significantly to a slave woman’s selfregard. What was her self-esteem? What value did she place on herself?” For Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, in 1858 as an enslaved person, it was a defiant and revolutionary act to liberate herself and her children from disregarding their humanity. Morrison placed this novel in the 1856 backdrop of the Dredd Scott decision, where the Supreme Court of the United States found a formerly enslaved person was an article of property under the adoption of the Constitution, not a person or citizen. Sethe, proclaiming the right to be human and children’s mother, broke the law with a willful declaration of her worth, her value, and her esteem, all a source of self-regard. And Morrison writes that this act gave birth to the “possibility of personal freedom, and interior, imaginative freedom” for future generations.
To swaths of readers, artists, critics, and educators worldwide, Toni Morrison is iconic. She authored eleven novels and twelve children’s books and was awarded the Pulitzer Award for Fiction and Nobel Peace Prize for bodies of work that captured, invested and reinvested, imagined and reimagined Black culture, thoroughly. It is apropos that her final non-fiction title is not a gift but a necessity that asks: What is your source of selfregard?
Tiffany C. Courtney is a freelance writer and storyteller who lives in Philadelphia with her wife and child.