Invisible colours: review of Toni Morrison's 'The Origin of Others'

The Origin of Others
Toni Morrison
Harvard University Press

The Origin of Others Toni Morrison Harvard University Press ₹599  

A writer explains the language of race and identity

What makes a person American? In her talk ‘The Colour Fetish’, part of her Norton Lectures at Harvard University compiled in The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison deals with an illusory question that is a preoccupation of the current American President. “When a citizen of Italy… immigrates to the United States… she keeps much or some of the language and customs of her home country,” she says. “But if she wishes to be American… she must become white…. It lasts and has advantages and certain freedoms. Africans and their descendants never had that choice.”

As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in the foreword, it is natural to read the book in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy, which clearly defines the self in order to differentiate it from the Other (scientific racism), forms the crux of Morrison’s book, though her lectures were delivered much before, in the hope-filled spring of 2016 when Barack Obama was still in power. Where does the process of becoming the Other begin and how does it take shape, she wonders. Through a personal anecdote, she answers this herself: it is “not through lecture or instruction, but by example.”

Morrison examines the portrayal of race in literature in order to reflect on her own writings over the years. The scientific racism of Samuel Cartwright and Thomas Thistlewood are contrasted with works that romanticise slavery — Uncle Tom’s Cabin being one of the best known. While in the first kind, blacks are seen as those who ought to be controlled in order to develop their own mental faculties, in the latter they are seen as wanting to serve. The first justifies exploitation; the second is intended to soothe the whites, so they can “relish this romance.”

Through the works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and others, what Morrison is really addressing is the novelist’s task and responsibility. Why provide racial markers for characters? While some may argue that erasing a black person’s identity would be a form of “literary white-washing,” Morrison ruminates on her struggle with whether or not to provide these details. Literature has almost always focussed not on the enslaved but the enslavers, she says: “When they [the whites] rest, exhausted, between bouts of lashing [the slaves], the punishment is more sadistic than corrective.”

Morrison’s ideas are not new, the book can even be underwhelming, but they need retelling. What stands out most are her self-reflections — she recounts how she once created an ‘Other’ too. In other words, racism is not only about white supremacy.

Her final talk on the mass movements of people and the effects of globalisation on the construction and erasure of identity give us an idea of how we came here, to a moment where racism still matters. What we need to ask is, how do we get to a better place from here?

The Origin of Others; Toni Morrison, Harvard University Press, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 9:15:42 AM |

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