One month after being invited as a Principal Discussant to the Toni Morrison Biennial organized by the Toni Morrison Society, I still cherish that experience.
My experience at the biennial reminded me of the importance of maintaining the balance between male and female energies. I was honored to meet the editor of Toni Morrison, Errol McDonald.
I thought I remembered reading that McDonald edited Beloved and Jazz. When I was able to ask him about this, he replied that he did not edit Beloved, but he edited Paradise and Love. I wanted to ask him more questions about what it was like to edit the fiction of Toni Morrison, but I was very conscious of my time and the time of the brilliant people and brilliant energies that I was around. Angela Davis was at this conference and shared that the book Morrison edited, Angela Davis: An Autobiography, was written in the hills of Santiago de Cuba. “She convinced me that the book she was going to publish was the book I wanted to write. I spent six weeks in the mountains of Santiago de Cuba…in virtual solitude with about 700 typewritten pages.”
I learned a lot in the breakout roundtable discussions on the second, third, and fourth days of the biennial. On the roundtable discussion on the first day, I learned a lot from Faraha Norton who, like Professor Morrison, worked at Random House and saw first hand the reality of “institutionalized racism,” which was a term coined by Morrison’s editing that gained credence in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation written by Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton. Norton said that while Morrison was very influential as an editor in selecting books for Random House to edit and publish, she was still less powerful than Jason Epstein who was editorial director at Random House. Morrison was still less powerful than Bob Bernstein who was president and CEO of Random House. In her book The Burglary, Betty Medsger writes about how J. Edgar Hoover up until his death made sure that authors who were even remotely sympathetic to communism were not published.
Both Epstein and Bernstein as publishers had supported the McCarthyist-J. Edgar Hoover-imposed dragnet against artists. They also supported the very destructive U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s that was carried out by Kissinger against Cambodia and Chile. By the time Morrison joined Random House, the purge against those who challenged the mainstream status quo had already taken place, so that any serious change brought about by ordinary citizens as a result of book reading would be minimal. More needs to be written on this.
I glanced at an important book by the Toni Morrison Society President Dr. Evelyn Schreiber called Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison, where she included a very powerful quote by Morrison who was interviewed by Angels Carabi: “there are certain things that are repressed because they are unthinkable, and the only way to come free of that is to go back and deal with them…And that makes it possible to live completely” (51). This quote really spoke to me and reminded me of what novelist Paule Marshall said in her 1979 interview Alexis DeVeaux: “you have to psychologically go through chaos to overcome it” (Hall & Hathaway, eds., p.49).
I appreciated learning from a book talk by Dr. Dana Williams about Morrison’s time at Random House. Dr. Williams shared her research from her upcoming book Toni at Random, and talked about Professor Morrison's efforts to promote, most memorably to me, They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima. Williams talked about the difficulty that Morrison had in finding Black historians and writers who would read and provide a favorable review of this book by Van Sertima that forcefully argued the presence of African people in the West centuries before Columbus. I was surprised but not so surprised to learn that Dr. John Hope Franklin was one of those scholars who declined to review Sertima’s book. This kind of decline reminds me of how historians can sometimes behave territorial when it comes to engaging the work of artists and authors.
I appreciated listening to the panel on the morning of Saturday July 23rd that featured novelists Edwidge Danticat and Tayari Jones, both of whom I talked to briefly in the hotel lobby about an hour before their panel. I appreciated Tayari’s point that efforts to retaliate against the Dallas police recalls groups in Morrison’s fiction, namely her third novel Song of Solomon, and the group she described as the Seven Days. There are a lot of similarities between Micah Xavier Johnson and Morrison’s Guitar in Song of Solomon. Danticat mentioned that Gavin Long’s life is very Morrisonian in the way that he wanted to publish a particular kind of book the way that Morrison was clear about publishing certain kinds of books while at Random House.
On the roundtable discussion on the second day, I learned a lot from readers of Morrison talking about how her fictional characters use violence as language. We mentioned specifically Pauline and Cholly Breedlove in The Bluest Eye. Lavinia Jennings who is author of the best review written on A Mercy, and author of Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa, said that in all of Morrison’s work, she shows that the three most destructive ideas in the human mind are: romantic beauty, romantic love, and possessive love. Marie Umeh said she asked Morrison her message in one of her novels and Morrison’s reply was “love nothing.” Here Morrison is challenging the notion of “love” as presented by the white mainstream. This kind of love is a verb that is based primarily on the amount of capital exchanged, and is ultimately shallow and materialistic.
I saw in person for the first time scholars of Morrison that I had not met before, especially Susan Neal Mayberry who wrote Can’t I Love What I Criticize: The Masculine in Morrison, which I appreciated. I especially appreciated what Mayberry said about Sula, and how she was punished by the Bottom community for daring to act “like a man.” This reminds me of how I think Amy Ashwood Garvey was treated by Marcus Garvey for taking sexual liberties that her time period restricted her from taking. Besides meeting Dr. Schreiber, Professor Mayberry, Tayari Jones, Edwidge Danticat, and Dr. Jennings, I had a brief yet interesting conversation with Juda Bennett about his book Toni Morrison and the Queer Pleasure of Ghosts. I also had an interesting conversation with Jaleel Akhtar, and was able to read select parts of his book Dismemberment in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. He gets the term “dismemberment” from the Frantz Fanon whom he quotes: “Morrison’s fiction is replete with moments of Fanonian dismemberment.” But I was most interested in the point Akhtar made about what Morrison was saying with her Peter Downes character in A Mercy: “Peter Downes sells the argument of Africans-selling-Africans under the garb of a disguised apology in order to convince Vaark: “Africans are interested in selling slaves…as an English planter is in buying them.” In my research, I found that this is something that Amy Ashwood Garvey discovers first hand in her 1947 trip to the Gold Coast when researching the descendants of her great grandmother, Grannie Dabas.
Part of this biennial included an authors and editors luncheon which included a very very inspiring talk by Chris Jackson, who is vice president and executive editor of One World/Random House. Jackson edited Between the World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and is editing his next book. He seems to replace the editorial role that Morrison played at Random House. When I read this, I immediately remembered the One World logo that was on a lot of books, especially The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told To Alex Haley and the important function of imprints. This also made me think of Elizabeth Nunez’s fictional exploration into the dynamics of imprints in her very important 2011 novel Boundaries, that I am now writing an article about. In Chris Jackson’s luncheon talk, he said that “Toni Morrison is the reason I do the work that I do.” He said that he grew up in New York raised by a single mother and deeply steeped in the religious tradition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also spent some time writing the publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. What I found interesting about his time writing their publications was how the funders ignored editorial staff and vice versa. This provides an amazing potential for the editorial staff to promote ideas that contradict and subvert the worldview of the funders. J. Edgar Hoover spent decades policing the editorial staff of all mainstream publishers so that the funders’ worldviews never contradicted the worldviews of the editorial staff. Jackson’s observation of how the editorial staff at the Jehovah’s Witness publications ignored the funders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reinforced his contempt for capitalism. He also said that book publishing is a business and part of the job is to be aware of the market. Even though one is aware of the market, the most important lesson I got from his lecture is that “one should never compromise one’s values for the values of the funders.” He said that the status quo is often a paper tiger, and that mission oriented book publishing is at the end of the day, despite the paper tiger, still sustainable.
I appreciated how Chris Jackson recognized Ishmael Reed as an institution builder. Jackson noted how Reed started the Before Columbus Foundation which gives the American Book Award. I was grateful to witness novelist Marlon James earn the 2015 American Book Award for his novel about the forgotten Jamaican youth called A Brief History of Seven Killings. I met Karen from the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award who told me that they awarded Marlon James with an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. This novel is a must read. Jackson finished his talk underscoring the reality that mission based publishing requires faith in the work and an understanding of the audience.
My entire experience I believe was embodied by what Morrison herself said in her essay “Rootedness: the Ancestor as Foundation” about the importance of maintaining the balance between male and female energies. At one point in this essay, she described the diminishing of one of her character’s, Reba’s abilities, because of “the absence of men in a nourishing way” in this character’s life. Morrison later says that her character Pilate represents “the best of that which is female and the best of that which is male” (1071). She was later asked about developing a specific Black feminist model of critical inquiry, to which she replied that she thinks “there is more danger in it than fruit, because any model of criticism or evaluation that excludes males from it is as hampered as any model of criticism of Black literature that excludes women from it.”
Attacks Against Nate Parker
The way I see the world after attending this biennial reminds me of the ways that white mainstream society continues to try to promote “a Black feminist model of inquiry” uniquely dedicated to silencing the artistic work of Black men. “A Black feminist model of inquiry” in and of itself does not normally silence the artistic work by Black men, however the shallow, flighty way it is being used by hack writers like Roxane Gay, Ibram Rogers, and most recently by Michael Arcenaux, to silence the work of Nate Parker is dangerous, destructive, only aids “the absence of men in a nourishing way” which ultimately empowers the white mainstream.
If these hack writers cared anything about the rape culture that they claim Parker promotes by his public response to his 1999 case, they would apply the same moral expectation and standard they expect from Nate Parker to Roger Ailes. To Jeffrey Epstein. To Bill Clinton. To Hillary Clinton.
The white mainstream will not enumerate the crimes against women and children that these wealthy men have committed, however these hack writers want Nate Parker to publicly address the verdict and settlement and within one day become a one man poster child for the immediate destruction of Western rape culture. The attacks against the character of Nate Parker is similar to the destruction of the work of Bill Cosby. Although Cosby is facing trial for allegations of rape, his work which promotes the opposite has literally been erased from network television and internet. Bill Cosby’s work did not promote a rape culture against women, however in the white mainstream’s court of public opinion, he was a certified rapist and entire younger generations should be denied the very important moral lessons of his work. They should suffer “the absence of men in a nourishing way.” Morrison edited George Jackson's book Blood In My Eye. In his other book Soledad Brother, Jackson called Cosby "a running dog with the fascist" for choosing to play an intelligence agent in "I Spy." Morrison's editing allowed us different perspectives of Jackson and Cosby "in a nourishing way."
At this biennial conference, attendees received a complimentary updated copy of The Black Book, which Morrison originally edited in 1974 and of which Morrison was inspired to write her memorable novel Beloved. Thank you to Lynne Simpson for making this complimentary copy possible. In this complimentary copy of The Black Book that the publisher Knopf provided however, the epigraph that was in a previous edition by Bill Cosby was removed from this complimentary updated copy. Toni Morrison herself spoke to the attendees and asked a simple question: “what happened?” The removal of Cosby’s epigraph speaks to the ways that the mainstream promotes an “absence of men in a nourishing way,” especially the absence of Black men whose work challenges the racist status quo.
This “absence of men in a nourishing way” is also being promoted by hack writers who choose to attack Nate Parker’s character.
These hack writers hold Parker to a moral standard that they would never hold to industrialists like the Clintons who promote and practice a rape culture that continues today in the form of U.S. imperialism.
The shallow application of this inquiry continues to, as Christopher Columbus did and as Bartolomeo de las Casas wrote about in Destruction of the Indies, divide the indigenous and their leaders like Hatuey in order to conquer us mentally to believe that the mainstream cares anything about changing its endemic rape culture.
Notice that all of these hack writers (Gay, Rogers, and Arcenaux) telling their readers not to support Parker’s upcoming film Birth of A Nation are all writers paid by capitalists, usually liberal capitalists, dividing-and-conquering in typical Columbus fashion. Each of these hack writers are paid by companies profiting from the same kind of imperialism that the work of Nat Turner was designed to destroy.
Gay wrote her piece for the New York Times which has made a daily practice out of promoting U.S. imperialism across the globe by feigning concern for women’s rights while refusing to cover the rape culture within the U.S. military (see “Colombian Report on U.S. Military Child Rapes Not Newsworthy to U.S. News Outlets: http://fair.org/home/colombian-report-on-us-militarys-child-rapes-not-newsworthy-to-us-news-outlets-2/).
Rogers wrote his hack piece against Parker just after publishing his latest book by NationBooks which, like the New York Times, promotes imperialist profit by silencing messages like Turner’s.
Arcenaux wrote his hack piece against Parker from complex.com, founded by the apolitical fashion designer Marc Ecko and styled by Business Insider as “Most Valuable Startups in New York.” Startups become startups by supporting the imperialist economy based on the chattel slavery Nat Turner’s work intended to demolish. Complex.com would only benefit from bashing the revolutionary message of a Nat Turner that was trying to destroy an economy based in chattel slavery. Arcenaux can dress his critique of Parker in fancy attire, however his critique is still a hack job that is trying to discourage the revolutionary message of Turner’s revolt the same way the state of Virginia was trying to do with Nat Turner. He mentioned Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, but does not tell his readers to stop supporting their work. He tells his readers not to support Parker’s. There is obvious bias in Arcenaux’s writing towards wealthy white males, like those who run complex.com. And like those who wanted Nat Turner and his memory destroyed.
In their faux concern for the U.S. rape culture that is mum on the rape culture of the U.S. military, Gay, Rogers, and Arcenaux in their attacks against Parker promote a shallow application of “a Black feminist model of inquiry” that promotes “the absence of men in a nourishing way.”
These hack writers who apply Black feminist inquiry in a shallow way and say they’re not supporting Parker’s film in the name of “ending rape culture,” are absolutely hypocritical. They are the same hack writers who tell you to support Hillary because “she is the lesser of two evils,” and promotes a rape culture in the U.S. military like Hillary and her supporter Arcenaux did when she turned a blind eye to the U.S. Sargeant Michael Coen’s rape of Colombian women. Arcenaux recently tweeted that shutting down the Clinton Foundation is “a stupid idea.” This is the same foundation that like Christopher Columbus has raped the Haitian people, stole money intended for earthquake relief, profited from promoting Henry Kissinger’s world order and desperately tries to convince the world that spreading “democracy” is not the same as spreading a lethal white supremacist capitalism that is killing the earth. These are the same hack writers who tell us that Julian Assange is a rapist, based on unsubstantiated evidence that was doctored by government agencies desperately seeking to discredit him. By attacking the character of Parker, these writers are encouraging specifically the absence of Black men “in a nourishing way,” and continue the divide and conquer strategy used by Columbus against our people. This is an attack that Morrison’s work is dedicated to exposing and ending.
This is an attack that is tired and should completely be ignored. –RF.