I wept when Toni Morrison died. Unbeknownst to her, the Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning author had become a kind of mother to me through her 11 novels, each of which I have read at least three times. Her fiction resonates with the spirit of love, devotion, perseverance, and ferocious loyalty, all attributes she herself demonstrated. Perhaps most poignant, even shocking to me, was her refusal to hate, despite the almost unceasing abuse and hatred hurled toward her Black characters by the white society.
Yes, it is true that Morrison’s characters do not always behave admirably — some even act despicably. As in all fine literature, however, these characters are held up for scrutiny by the other characters around them, by the narrator, and by the reader. The best of these “bad apples” are capable of reflection and self-examination, and they become better people as a result. Contrary to what we might expect, Morrison always said her novels have happy endings, insofar as her characters learn something about themselves.
Sadly, we are hard-pressed to be able to say that about ourselves.
Toni Morrison became an issue in the recent governor’s race in Virginia. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved,” caused a high school student to have bad dreams after it was assigned reading for an advanced-placement literature class. The student’s mother wanted the book removed from the curriculum.
Earlier this month, a Kansas school district removed 29 books from circulation, including Morrison’s debut novel, “The Bluest Eye.” That ban has since been lifted, at least temporarily.
In May, the governor of Tennessee signed a new law that bans public-school lesson plans that cause students to “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.”
Toni Morrison teaches us to sing, even in the most difficult circumstances. Morrison learned this from her people and from the songs of slaves, who sang as they toiled, not because they were happy but because singing opened for them an alternate reality, one they hoped for their children and their children’s children. Morrison’s novel, “The Song of Solomon,” is studded with song.
One critic, writing for the L.A. Times, wrote: “The great achievement of ‘Song of Solomon’ is that it asks readers to rethink American history, to have an argument with it, and to wrest its unsavory details from the comfortable erasure that makes American life what it is today.”
Reading books that cause us to “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish” can challenge the “comfortable erasure” that we desperately pursue in order to distract ourselves from acknowledging the harsh cruelties of our lives. Reading books that cause us to “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish” can prompt us to examine our history and “to have an argument with it,” so that we might learn something about ourselves, uncomfortable as it might be. Reading books that cause us to “feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish” can help us to construct a more just and compassionate society.
Socrates stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” They killed him. Our own Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”
When we start banning books that make us uncomfortable, we must begin with the Bible. If you dispute that, I would posit that you haven’t read it.
My first sermon as a pastor was based on the prophet Amos: “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory … but who are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Woe to all of us at ease and untroubled, who never know the nightmares of those whose desperate eyes we avoid at all costs.
The Rev. David Tryggestad of Duluth is a retired pastor and a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.