Culture //

Time, ancestry, and Toni Morrison’s guiding light

On the impact the late author has had on her readers.

Art by Ranuka Tandan.

Toni Morrison has been a presence in my life at once electric, kind, and devastating. I am still discovering the ways in which her work is making and re-making me, her visions of time and ancestry constantly and quietly transforming my thinking. I suspect this transformation will never end. Morrison’s words sink below the skin like saltwater, colouring everything inky-bright and a little sharp. I see her everywhere; in fragments of music, text and images that initiate me into a dialogue with a fluid past. I remember the potential of ancestor-oriented futurities and the role language plays in this. I gain hope.

I first read Beloved last year and it sat with me gently, in the way that Morrison’s words do; a tide crashing quietly, with electric impact. My body of water met her endless shore. In Beloved, I was first struck by the tenderness with which Morrison imbues her characters, her refusal to let the text become a tragedy heavy with unnamed bodies. The people in Beloved, as in all her work, undergo massive suffering yet do not blur into each other. They demand recognition, and singularity. This was radical to me.

Morrison’s treatment of time and the past drew itself more slowly upon my consciousness. Morrison frequently employs a non-linear writing style and multiple narrator perspectives to evade a traditional sense of time and narrative development: “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” / “Beloved is my sister.” / “I am Beloved and she is mine.” This project is widened in scope when her novels are viewed in tandem, forming webs that speak to each other. Beloved forms a trilogy alongside Jazz and Paradise, texts unconnected by temporal or geographical location. When time and place cease to be significant purveyors of meaning, what remains?

Here, Morrison’s notion of ‘rememory’ moves away from the official history of institutional stories of the past to a more personal past that is always in flux, as is characteristic of human memory. It serves as an intervention into the erasure of marginalised groups by official history. Morrison suggests that where gaps will always exist for those without adequate resources to tell their stories, and where the concept of truth is unhelpful, collective dialogue and cultural memory open spaces for the creation of imagined alternatives, and the impelling of agency.

In an essay from Morrison’s archives, she reflects on memory as fraught with pain and possibility: “the stress of remembering, its inevitability, the chances for liberation that lie within the process.” Does this gift us something in thinking through Morrison herself, the legacy she leaves and how we might go on in her absence? As with her work, learning of Morrison’s passing was an experience of gradual, building emotion. I sat still in my bedroom, a little shocked by the waves of grief pressing themselves softly on me. I felt panic at the thought of moving through the world without her. I was also aware of a deep gratitude for having been touched by her work and the gaping hole left by her loss. Reading Morrison’s words and the words of others about her, it was clear her presence was not diminished but pulsed stronger through multiplication of the love and joy she inspired.

Doreen St. Félix, in an essay in The New Yorker, considers “the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up.” If time as treated by Morrison is collapsible and expandable, divorced from Western understandings of truth and objectivity, Toni Morrison remains a tangible presence. Perhaps we can conceptualise Morrison’s thinking around time to speak to her and our other ancestors, opening a line from the past to as-yet unknown futures.

This sensibility of ancestral dialogue is explored by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her book M Archive: After the End of the World. Gumbs describes the work as one of speculative documentary, which imagines and bears witness to a post-apocalyptic world through poetry and prose. She says, “M is for must be and maybe and much.” In creating a direct line between irrecoverable pasts and unknown futures, Gumbs’ work embodies Morrison’s vision for a surpassing of temporal linearity.

I locate a similar experience listening to music by artists such as Dev Hynes and Solange, whose songs reference history in a swelling, non-linear fashion that places it directly into the confusing rush of the present. In ‘Augustine’ by Dev Hynes’ Blood Orange, he sings, “our heads have hit the pavement / many times before.” He is talking about a million forms of harm and none of them; his words, for me, are a form of time travel collapsing black experience(s) into a single, infinite, multitudinous point.

In her book of essays Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison talks about the act of writing as one of fabrication and fantasy. She argues that novels never indicate truth but are instead the product of “the imagination […] which bears and invites rereadings, which […] implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language.” This act of fabrication is often co-opted by a white gaze, conceptualised by Morrison as observing people of colour through a lens framed by both need and desire; fear and longing.

Playing in the Dark reminds us that even with Morrison’s disruption of time, bodies are still impacted by the violence of institutional racism. Against this, she provides us with a fantastical image of her own: the power of language to rectify harms by imagining new histories, telling more complete stories, and establishing ancestral lineages through openings in fluid time and space. In 1993, Morrison said, “we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” In Morrison’s hands, language is a tool for people of colour to continue surviving; it becomes both the blood-line and the beating heart.

Morrison argues that in a racialised world, for people of colour, “imagining is not merely looking or looking at;” instead, it is an act of “becoming.” Perhaps this project of becoming through imagination is never-ending, a point never to be reached but strived for across temporal space and ancestral layers. The dialogues I have with the women of colour in my life grow us towards this space of imaginative becoming; they reignite worlds and realign realities. I want to keep moving towards openings in space for the creation of futures. In the meantime, I’ll look for traces of Toni Morrison wherever I can find them; infinitely grateful for her guiding light each time it touches my skin.