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On Incendiary Art, The Moral Imagination, and Toni Morrison
Nancy J. Peterson
Audre Lorde's influential claim for poetry—that "poetry is not a luxury"—provides an apt way to think about why reading Toni Morrison's work is a necessary and urgent call. Lorde insists that poetry "forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives" (37). Lorde's words presciently describe the power of Morrison's body of work, a monumental and visionary series of novels, interviews, essays, children's books, and now an opera, that make it impossible any longer to think of America and American history without seeing black Americans and African-American history as forming the bedrock of all our lives. Morrison's sense of language as beautiful and political, as subversive and wild, as soulful and political, as lyrical and razor-sharp, provides readers with precisely the sort of revelatory and revolutionary power that Lorde ascribes to poetry.
In recent years Morrison and her writing increasingly have become a catalyst, a vibrant intellectual site, for interrogating some of [End Page 261] the most pressing concerns and contradictions of our world today. In her 1997 essay "Home," delivered originally as a talk at the Race Matters Conference held at Princeton University, Morrison characterizes the deep currents of her work as trying to find a way "to think of a-world-in-which-race-does-not-matter as something other than a theme park, or a failed and always-failing dream," and as a struggle with "how to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling" (3, 5). As Morrison points out, this struggle not only informs her own writing but also shapes fierce conflicts in the contemporary world, conflicts between globalism and nationalism, between the longing for free movement across and between borders and the systems of regulation put into place to police boundaries and identities. It is the responsibility of writers and readers, political and academic critics, Morrison urges, to expose "racist cant, explicit or in disguise" while working toward ways to create new intellectual homes, safe social spaces, where race can be imagined "without dominance—without hierarchy" ("Home" 11).
The critical work of the imagination is also emphasized in the remarks Morrison made at the Modern Language Association Convention in December 2004. Morrison participated in a roundtable on "The Future of the Humanities in a Fragmented World," along with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, a M¯aori scholar from the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Morrison begins by identifying two forces that drive a sense of fragmentation in today's world: a conflictual "field of rights" and "global figurations of culture and power" ("Roundtable" 715). A plurality of rights—citizenship, human, civic, natural, minority, cultural, consumer, and so on—allows for claims of personhood and humanity to be advanced amid a world of crisis and slaughter, but Morrison also points out that the discourse of rights can lead to "fracturing personhood" and fixing identity in ways that "may not serve the genuine and long-term interests of the indigenous peoples or minorities under threat" (716). Morrison similarly observes that globalism has positive implications when it brings diverse peoples together to work toward universal health care, for instance, or environmentalism, but it also brings groups together for nefarious reasons as well—as a prop for military interventions or as a means of forcing consensus. The humanities, and the full spectrum of creative arts, are vital for understanding these contradictions. Only in creative expression, Morrison insists, can we find the means to illuminate and communicate the wounds and fissures that result: "Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are...