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  • More Beautiful than Democracy:Toni Morrison and the Idea of a Shareable World
  • Lawrie Balfour (bio)

The destiny of the twenty-first century will be shaped by the possibility or the collapse of a shareable world.

—Toni Morrison, "Home" (2009)1

I. Democracy in Danger

Democracy is in danger, and the signs are everywhere. The popularity of authoritarian leadership around the world has enabled strongmen to strip citizens of their rights and the earth of its wealth with shocking impunity. In the US, the old handbooks of self-governance are being discarded or rewritten on the fly. The legitimacy of elections is now disputed before anyone casts a ballot. The militarization of borders and walls inflicts devastating human and environmental costs. The militarization of schools and communities heightens vulnerability and deepens existing inequalities without making anyone safer. The list goes on. We are rightly concerned—as citizens, teachers, parents, neighbors—about whether the basic meaning of democracy as rule by the people has been "eviscerated."2 For political theorists, especially on the left, the obvious answer to these threats is to call for more democracy—to double-down and mount ever more robust defenses of popular rule. If the demos has come "undone," then one of the tasks of political theory is to articulate the terms on which the people can reclaim its voice.

Without minimizing the urgency of these alarms, my paper asks how political theorists might, simultaneously, address an equally urgent concern: that US democracy has always posed a danger to nonwhite people living within its borders. Can we articulate new demands for the empowerment of ordinary people without relying on an uncritical view of the demos?3 Or American political institutions? Is the call for more democracy the best or only response to undemocratic forms of rule? More pointedly, is democracy a defensible ideal in view of its historic and ongoing depredations, and its plunder of Black life in particular? Are there other ways to think and other ways of being that exceed the conventional repertoires of democratic political thought? [End Page 85]

Few thinkers illuminate these questions more profoundly, I argue, than Toni Morrison. Although she is best known as a novelist and literary critic, Morrison was also an ardent advocate for democratic principles and an opponent of repressive regimes. She devoted much of her time as a senior editor at Random House to democratizing the field of literature.4 And, when she became a celebrated novelist, she used that prominence to urge her fellow writers to protect each other against authoritarian encroachments and to persist in doing the work that is distinctly theirs: to use their imaginative gifts to translate trauma, cruelty, and exploitation into words and to disturb the operations of unjust authority.5 Drawing from the deep reservoirs of African American experience, Morrison's writing vivifies the conditions of collective life in the US at different historical moments, from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, and reveals that the demands of equality are steeper than most of us appreciate—especially if we forego the "national solace in continuing dreams of democratic egalitarianism available by hiding class conflict, rage, and impotence in figurations of race."6 Her conviction that "the function of freedom is to free somebody else," furthermore, suggests why a concept so widely trumpeted is so rarely enacted.7

In other words, Morrison refuses to venerate democracy, especially in its nation-state form, and she is a keen interpreter of the challenges of sustaining forms of collective life in which everyone is free. Her analysis of the entanglement of US democracy with racial slavery, colonial dispossession, patriarchy, empire, and capitalism raises uncomfortable questions about how visions of collective self-governance that are most beloved by democratic theorists elide key features of our history. Because her writing emerges through deep relation to Black histories, furthermore, it refuses the "forcible forgetting" or "colonial unknowing" that often insulates the idea of democracy from the violence committed in its name.8 Morrison's writing cautions against enshrining any regime; calls attention to the ways that political membership depends on ruthless forms of expansion and exclusion; and spins stories from the experiences of women, men, and...

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