We can probably all agree that Toni Morrison is pretty awesome. Her awesome is turned up to eleven in her new book The Origin of Others. The book is a slim volume that packs a huge punch. Originally delivered as a series of talks at Harvard in 2016 on the topic “the literature of belonging,” they have been revised a little to make them work as a serious of connected essays. These pieces take a look at race and identity and as Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the introduction, “the psychological work of Othering — of convincing oneself that there is some sort of natural and divine delineation between the enslaver and the enslaved.”
Morrison is so expert at weaving together past and present and making connections between the personal, political, historical and cultural that I can’t begin to even pick out one or two pieces of her argument without completely summarizing everything. A few broad themes then?
The first essay in the book, “Romancing Slavery,” talks about just that. Whites have turned logic inside out in order to make themselves feel better about the whole thing, putting some shine and gloss on it all. One slave owner even noted all the times he had sex with his slaves, what time, where, and how satisfying it was! This was ownership romance that as an owner you could do whatever you wanted with your property. Morrison then turns to a discussion on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book in which slavery is “sexually and romantically sanitized” and “profoundly sentimentalized.”
Othering is all about belonging, about keeping the “stranger” out, of creating an in group and an out group, of defining what or who you are by what or who you are not. It is thrilling to belong to something bigger than oneself; it makes us feel powerful. But of course history shows us that who the Other is shifts over time. It is one reason we have to work so hard to keep enforcing it. And the teaching begins early. Morrison uses a Flannery O’Connor story, “The Artificial Nigger,” to show how this is done.
In one of the essays Morrison talks in detail about Othering and her novel Beloved. Her discussion made me not only want to immediately sit down and read every single one of her books, but also made me wide-eyed with wonder over her brilliance as a writer and a thinker. She also makes it clear why reading, and in particular reading fiction from a diversity of perspectives is so gosh darn important:
Narrative fiction provides a controlled wildenrness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.
When it comes down to it, the concept of race itself is immediately Othering because “race is the classification of a species, and we are the human race, period.”
There is nothing else I can say except read this book.