Toni Morrison: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches,and Meditations.

By Toni Morrison

Alfred A. Knopf | 2019

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

On Reading Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

ortunately, I had almost finished reading The Source of Self-Regard before Namwali Serpell’s “On Black Difficulty: Toni Morrison and the Thrill of Imperiousness” (SLATE, March 26, 2019) came to my attention.

The words "difficult" and "imperiousness" themselves possess a degree of difficulty, and they can enlighten and obscure at the same moment.  Serpell contends, “Toni Morrison is difficult.  She's difficult to read.  She's difficult to teach.  She's difficult to interview.  Notwithstanding, the voluminous train of profiles, reviews and scholarly analysis that she drags behind her, she's difficult to write about.  But more to the point, she is our only truly canonical black, female writer, and her work is complex. This, it seems, is difficult to swallow.” 

Like Lady Macbeth, Serpell protests a bit too much.  She is imperious in her yearning "for that specific human, black, female freedom to feel at ease to be difficult." She is at once right and wrong.

To be sure, Morrison's fictions and non-fictions are not easy nor transparent. Her novels demand as much interpretive work as, for example, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Octavia Butler's Kindred. And her inscription of positions and perspectives in Playing in the Dark, The Origin of Others, and The Source of Self-Regard call for a kind of sweating provoked by engaging the moral meditations which Marilyn Robinson and Martha Nussbaum write.  

And behind all the effort one hears a snide, accusatory, very American question: Is it worth it after all?  Readers answer in accord with their degrees of cultural literacy. Whether they are thrilled or enthralled by imperiousness is a difficult question. Whatever the case, readers who lack genuine intellectual curiosity ought to leave the game and have the bravery to admit defeat.  But imperiousness or arrogant assurance is a far cry from the blessed assurance readers can purchase with tears from James Baldwin's fiction and non-fiction and Ta-Nehisi Coates's non-fiction or with laughter from Maurice Carlos Ruffin's much-acclaimed We Cast A Shadow.

Serpell’s phrasing “she drags behind her” threatens to toss Morrison into “mules of the world” briar patch, and it serves to remind astute readers that Zora Neale Hurston is truly as canonical, black, female, and complex as Morrison.  The implication that the world can afford only one canonical woman writer at a time is unmitigated, Eurocentric cows’ shit.

The Source of Self-Regard is Morrison’s debatably honest effort to specify her own limits and possibilities; it’s her confession that she’s a human being, not a mythological goddess who writes; her admission that no writer, female or male, is immune to debate. There’s indeed, as Morrison suggests at one point in the book, a difficult difference between a fact and a truth.  Reading The Source of Self-Regard is a worthwhile exercise in discovering the ontology of such difference. 

Jerry Ward is sometimes writer for the Neworld Review

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