RECAP: “Imagining Freedom: Toni Morrison and the Work of Words,” 11/17 Colloquium w/ UVA Prof. Lawrie Balfour

A term both inspiring and misunderstood, ‘freedom’ holds a particular place in the historical and lexical narrative of the United States, where its meaning is rooted as much in a right to enslave as it is in a defense of liberty. What would it take, UVA James Hart Professor of Politics Lawrie Balfour asked in opening her November 17 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, to imagine forms of individual and collective liberty that are decoupled from the enslavement and dispossession of others? Where do we look for conceptions of freedom that aren’t reducible to white freedom? As she outlined over the course of her talk, by veering off the paths laid by canonical political theorists, and toward those laid by “philosophical outsiders” such as Toni Morrison, we can find a mode of democratic inquiry hospitable to answering these pressing questions because of how it eschews irrelevant mediations on what freedom means abstractly and reorients our attention to its lived meaning in the shadow of racial slavery and settler colonialism. Specifically, and drawing from the first chapter and afterword of her recent Oxford University Press monograph, Prof. Balfour explored how it is through word work—through the creative use of language—that Morrison vivifies the experience of freedom and un-freedom from the vantage of figures who history rarely inquires of and who have never taken their liberty for granted and, in doing so, inspires commitment to the operations of the imagination as an alternative means of or landscape for getting free.

Part of this emancipatory project requires defending writers’ essential place within a flourishing democracy or, conversely, defending writers against authoritarian encroachment on their work of translating trauma, cruelty, and exploitation into the vision of a shareable world. For Morrison, this defense of writers is equally a defense of readers. For narrative fiction to function as a space in which serious ethical debates can happen, it must be egalitarian, placing readers on equal footing with the novel’s narrator and population so that they play a role other than passive consumers of words. The language and images of storytelling can, in this, grant us “access to each other” and thus serve as a way to experience the public without coercion or submission. To fully realize literature’s potential, however, the writer must save language from itself, from the violence done both to and by it. In Morrison’s case, this means grappling with the imperial tongue of American English and the racist assumptions that it always carries and, more importantly, bending language to engender a different American English: one, as Prof. Balfour described, that carves away the deceit, blindness, and malevolence of racism so that other forms of perception aren’t simply available but inevitable. In her attunement to the rhythms and cadences of African-American communities and her careful presentation of ideas otherwise dismissed as lore, gossip, magic, or sentiment, Morrison’s goal, then, is to find a language capacious enough to articulate the complexity of Black history and to inspire in others a desire to transform language from a tool of unfreedom into a medium of liberation. In this, she echoes Aimé Césaire who “wanted to create an Antillean French, a Black French that while still being French had a Black character.” Which is to say that Morrison’s challenge, like Césaire’s, is to find in language a medium for crafting stories that are unquestionably political, irrevocably beautiful, and capable of inciting readers and speakers of English to conceive of new ways of being free that base themselves in the experiences of Black communities rather than reproduce the enslaver’s and settler’s perspectives as norms.

But what does Morrison’s alternative language—a language that eliminates the potency of racist constructions and emphasizes racial specificity minus racial hierarchy—look like and where does it come from? Interestingly, Prof. Balfour showed, it is a language that centers the contested concept of ‘sovereignty.’ Contested because of its long being associated with state power, masculinity, and freedom as a form of mastery—as Hanna Arendt wrote, “if men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.” If sovereignty is a contested signifier, it is also, as Elizabeth Wingrove remarked and as Morrison believed, a “roomy” one. For Morrison, the author’s sovereignty manifested in writing that could respond to the incredible violence that shapes the world by gathering the contradictory elements of history and experience and giving them new order. Take, for example, her commentary on comic Flip Wilson’s caricature of Geraldine in her 1971 New York Times Magazine essay, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib.” “The most unflattering stereotypes that male minds have concocted about black women,” she wrote, “contain under the stupidity and hostility the sweet smell of truth.” Of Geraldine: “Like any stereotype she is a gross distortion of reality and as such highly offensive to many black women and endearing to many whites. Geraldine is defensive, cunning, sexy…But that’s not all she is. A shift in semantics and we find the accuracy: for defensive read survivalist; for cunning read clever; for sexy read a natural unembarrassed acceptance of her sexuality.” In other words, in acknowledging the oppressive work of stereotypes, Morrison exposes the more complex truths underlying them, truths that both the eager white consumer and the black critic were likely to miss as they sought confirmation for extant assumptions. This in many ways defines Morrison’s fictional practice as well. Beginning with the image or the shard of memory, she plumbs the complex interior dimensions of lives that, when not forgotten or ignored altogether, are typically rendered only at their surface, wielding a writerly sovereignty within the willfulness of her characters that detaches them and her from racist, sexist, and nationalist projects. Sovereignty, for her, was thus an act of interpretation, of forging a sense of relationality that was antagonistic to the policing politics of the nation-state and that persistently strove to connect the actual with the possible.

“It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.” This was the quote from Laura Murphy used in an ad by Glenn Youngkin during his 2021 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. Years before, Murphy had promoted legislation, known as “The Beloved Bill,” requiring parental notification before students were exposed to explicit literary content. Unspoken in the ad, though, was that Beloved started the furor, that Murphy’s child was 18 when he encountered the novel in an AP English curriculum, and how a story that counters distortion of the narrative of chattel slavery in America could harm high school students. Explicit, within this construction of condemning without naming, required no explication. It existed only to safeguard and empower white freedom by reducing freedom itself to a substitute language where real issues related to it were closed to public debate. If this speaks to the seemingly omnipresent threat that literature faces today—and the threat that we all face when literature is so threatened—it also underscores the power of and need for Morrison’s gift. By exploring what freedom has meant within the lives of those disremembered and unaccounted for, she discredits the mythologies of race, nation, and manhood that uphold white supremacist systems and, in their place, kindles a tradition of freedom-seeking whose beauty inheres in a refusal to rely on the enslavement of others. “Word work is sublime,” she wrote, “because it is generative. It makes meaning that secures our difference, out human difference—the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That might be the measure of our lives.”