A new collection of essays and speeches from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison solidifies her legacy as one of America’s most thoughtful and important writers.
Toni Morrison is such a peerless, masterful storyteller that it is easy to forget she is also one of our most engaged and engaging public intellectuals. Her new collection of essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard, reminds us of the breadth and depth of her concerns. Morrison ruminates on and illuminates the political, racial, social and literary issues that have long informed her work with a singular combination of curiosity and confidence.
Because many of the 40-plus pieces Morrison gathers here were first delivered as speeches at conferences and commencements, they tend to be short, yet brevity does not preclude remarkable expansiveness of thought. This volume is divided into three sections: The first explores political and moral realities through the lens of globalism, racism and the sources and meanings of identity. The second section, anchored by the longest and weightiest pieces in the book, is self-explanatorily called “Black Matter(s).” The final section, “God’s Language,” offers meditations on art and literature (both Morrison’s own and others’). These organizing divisions can prove imprecise, however—it is impossible for this deep-seeing writer to stop the seepage of her vast and broad concerns between one section and the next. And we would not want her to.
Morrison considers the work of a disparate array of fellow writers, including James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Chinua Achebe and Toni Cade Bambara. She parses works such as Beowulf, Cinderella and American slave narratives. Yet it is in the moments when she offers glimpses into the genesis of her own remarkable fiction that the magic of what might be called Morrison’s “reverse prism” takes hold, as she reveals how all of the scattered rays from her pursuit of understanding converge into the laser point of her narratives. “We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom,” she writes in the title essay. “And if we agree that purposeful progression exists, then you’ll see at once how dispiriting this project of drawing or building or constructing fiction out of history can be . . . how quickly we can forget that wisdom without knowledge, wisdom without data, is just a hunch.”
As with any such collection of pieces spanning decades, The Source of Self-Regard contains repetitions, and interest may ebb and flow with a reader’s individual concerns. But ever-present in this collection is the consistency of vision and the powerful writing that readers have come to expect from the inestimable talent of this American original as she continues to navigate the thorny task of integrating history, of creating art, of learning to belong.