As of late, I’ve been pondering, and carrying troubling thoughts, on whether or not my identity, and how white America sees me as a black man, is permanent. If it is, racism will never end. My identity, in the eyes of white people is imperative to moving forward with race relations in the U.S. Other questions have lingered as well: other than me, who shapes my identity? How much control do I have over my identity? As possible answers to these questions circulated within my mind, esteemed author, thinker, and former professor, Toni Morrison provided a springboard for me to further explore this issue with the publication of her new work, The Origin of Others (Harvard University Press).
As Ta-Nehisi Coates states in the book’s forward, this brief read — only 111 pages — tackles questions that are based on Morrison’s Norton lectures at Harvard University titled, “The Literature of Belonging.” Thanks to hip-hop and literature penned by black authors, and my insatiable love of academically researched books on the black experience, I’ve always marveled at the astounding feats that black men and women across the U.S. have accomplished in the face of insurmountable oppression. Whether it was my experiences with drug addiction, my grandmother’s ignorance toward the meaning of me getting accepted into graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in U.S. history, or my personal ties to the streets, all of the former are enmeshed into and can be connected to the history of black America. From slavery, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow and the civil rights era — my view on life stems from black history. Yes, my definition of what it means to be black may differ from my next door neighbor’s definition, or the black families in the Hamptons, but one thing that connects black people is our identity to white America.
“The Origin of Others” isn’t about the race — Morrison states her position by saying that there’s only the human race. But Morrison also questions the role literature plays in shaping our identities. She starts by unearthing supposed findings from the “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851). Here, Dr. Samuel Cartwright outlined two illnesses in a long chain of “research” that helped shape black identity: Drapetomania — which caused slaves to run away, and Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, “a kind of mental lethargy that caused the negro to be like a person half-asleep.” With this, Morrison shows how the idea of race or “otherness” became embedded into the psyche of working class whites.
Morrison begins The Origins of Others by recounting her first encounter with racial impurity. As a child, in 1932 or 1933, Morrison’s great-grandmother visited the family. Morrison said her great-grandmother looked at “my sister and me, she frowned, pointed her cane, and said, ‘These children have been tampered with.’” Not old enough to put all of the pieces together as to what her great-grandmother meant by singling her out, Morrison knew that she and her sister were polluted with otherness. Something outside of what it meant to be human. When Morrison’s otherness was addressed, it came with a frown, which also denotes that her otherness was something negative.
Morrison continues to analyze the position of otherness within literature like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here, Morrison says that Stowe’s esteemed work romances slavery by humanizing it. Morrison also suggests that Stowe paints slaves as docile, and happy to serve. As an example, she describes the relationship between Eva and Topsy — the Other child. Topsy is an unruly young girl who learns how to act civilized by the white and respectable young girl, Eva. Morrison also points out that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written for white people. Additionally, Morrison recognizes works by Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway and how their descriptions of black characters assisted in creating white America’s definition of the identities of blacks.
This realization makes Morrison’s publications that much more important, especially to black readers. In the chapter titled “Narrating the Other,” Morrison recalls working for Random House publishing company as a senior editor. There, she was responsible for the autobiographies of historic figures like the Black Panther Party’s co-founder, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, and others. During a regional sales conference, a salesman announced that only a few black consumers purchased books. This conference inspired the award-winning author to go on a trailblazing path to create literature that black people would want to read.
“I imagined a reverse dystopia — a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white…,’” Morrison writes of her decision to pen novels.
Her first novel, “Beloved,” was based on the life of Margaret Garner, a slave mother who killed her children to save them from suffocating the pangs of slavery. By loosely telling Garner’s story, Morrison shows the extreme consequences of what happens when power is abused, countering the narratives that slaves are docile and submissive, and the need for the white man’s paternalism. Morrison also recounts how literature has identified Africa as a dark, corrupt continent filled with savagery.
The autobiographical moments in The Origin of Others are the most interesting paragraphs within this book. Peeking into the life of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s personal life to understand her concerns for black America, provides a logical solution in shaping black identity — control our narrative. But honestly, how many white supremacists or KKK members are actually paying attention to our stories, with the hopes of bridging the gap between black and white relations? And I’m guilty, too. I don’t buy white supremacist literature, although it would help my understanding of their thought process.
While I have yet to come up with answers on whether or not my identity as a black man is permanent, however, The Origins of Others moved me to be more conscious of what type of language and behavior I, a hip-hop journalist and aspiring historian, put into the world.