Beauty & Purpose : Celebrating Toni Morrison / Text Nii Ayikwei Parkes

In SWAG high profiles issue 1
Nii Ayikwei Parkes

When I heard Toni Morrison had died, I wrote a short, barely coherent message in three of the languages I speak – Ga, English and French – because no one language was sufficient to express what I felt. What I really wanted to do was scream like I used to as a kid when I was frustrated. That words are inadequate to fully express feelings is a fact; it is one of the reasons that we writers have jobs. In the quest to express feelings with words, we are perhaps the most evolved, writing ‘approximations’ that allow people to point or quote and say, “that’s it – that’s how I felt”

Toni Morisson © the artist

Yet even that certainty with which they say “that’s it”, is a half-lie. That is how they would like it to be. That’s the tidy room version of their childhood bedroom, the version without the mess that made it their room. Our feelings are messy in the ways our rooms were; writing is the many different ways we talk about the room. No version is complete. That’s why I wrote about Toni Morrison in three languages – each version original, rather than a translation, none perfect – and this is what I wrote:

Bianɛ wiemɔ ko bɛ ni maniɛ n’kɛ i’naabu a’wie. Mi djeŋ wiemɔi fɛɛ nyɛɛ n’amɛ susu tsuimli lala ni djeshishi yɛ gbekɛnuu ko saa mli yɛ Ga beni ekane “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly…”. Wiemɔ bɛ, shi hewolo n’kpokpo kɛ’n yi bo gbɛ. #Toni, wɔ djogbaŋ

Right now I feel so keenly the poverty of language. None of my many languages have the right combination of words to embrace the enmeshed feelings that begin in Accra, in the unmade bed of a flight dreamer, a boy’s heart slowing at the words “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly…” There are no words, but there are goosebumps braille-ing a dirge no ear shall hear. Rest in Peace, gifter-of-wings, Toni Morrison

A ce moment précis je sens à fond la pauvreté de langage. Nulle de mes plusieurs langues possède l’idéal juxtaposition de mots pour encapsuler les complexes sentiments qui se naissent à Accra, dans le lit de quelqu’un qui rêve des ailes, le coeur d’un petit gar qui ralentit aux mots “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly…” Les mots nous manque, mais il y a, dans le froid du vent, la chair de poule nous signalant un chant funèbre, une chanson inouïe.

What remains in all versions, in its own original form, is the opening to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which was my introduction to her work. A boy who often flew in his dreams, I was drawn to it like a winged thing to a flickering thing – I didn’t read the book; I lived the book. My reactions where tangible, imperceptible movements inside me, my feet hovering above ground, still with the confidence that I could float anywhere but I didn’t need to prove it.

I sought out more of Toni Morrison’s work, and as I devoured The Bluest Eye and Sula, I had the distinct feeling that I had reached a new frontier in my leisure reading – unlike the writers such as Len Deighton, Barbara Cartland and Mickey Spillane who had been entertaining me until then, this person knew something about me, there was an intimacy to the work that reached beneath the skin, this person knew the day of the week you were born on was important. As a Ga boy, a Monday born boy, a boy whose names all wired him to the world around him, this was important.

It was only later that I had the context of Toni Morrison’s activism and her work as an editor, her rootedness in Blackness – in the African. I don’t consider it coincidence that one of the first books that she worked on when she became senior editor at Random House in New York (the first black woman to hold such a position with them) was Contemporary African Literature, an anthology published in 1972 that included an essay from my recent co-tutor for the Writers’ Project of Ghana’s annual Mo Issa Writing Workshop Chinweizu entitled ‘Towards a Liberated African Culture’. The publication of that book signalled a recognition of the importance of the African continent and its perspectives, but it also set a marker – Toni Morrison would not be limited by fashion or convention, because – believe me – African writing was not a fashionable pursuit for American publishers at the time. The commercial decade from Chinua Achebe’s 1958 Things Fall Apart to Ayi Kwei Armah’s 1968 The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born had come and gone. This was Toni Morrision bravely shifting the centre. Beyond the political space the book occupied, like many of the writers she published during her career with Random House, contributors such as Chinweizu had not been published by a major press prior. She was building careers. The book wasn’t just a beautiful result of finely-tuned production values; like her prose, it had purpose too – beauty and purpose. It had to be rooted.

The reason I love rereading Toni Morrison’s work is that with each new reading I’m slightly less dazzled by the beauty and see more of the purpose, and the more I see of the purpose, the more the beauty returns. The relationship is as non-linear as her stories themselves. And alive in every one of those readings is the beating heart of human existence; not human existence sanitised to privilege the notion of civilisation over instincts, but muddy, quirky life that we rarely want to admit but recognise: Sula’s selfishness, Cholly Breedlove’s unfettered cruelty, Sethe’s murderous love, The Street’s simmering secrets… Morrison’s prose tells us that we are not above these things, that we have as much capacity for kindness as we do for cruelty, that a mother can burn her son alive to save him from addiction, that when pushed to the limit we reach for whatever part of us will help us face ourselves in the morning and it is not always our most wholesome part. Toni Morrison writes as much as the untidy room as anyone can – it’s not pleasant to sit with, yet we know it intimately. But I always return for the beauty: here’s an excerpt from Jazz – “in the space between two buildings, a girl talks earnestly to a man in a straw hat. He touches her lip to remove a bit of something there. Suddenly she is quiet. He tilts her chin up. They stand there. Her grip on her purse slackens and her neck makes a nice curve. The man puts his hand on the stone wall above her head. By the way his jaw moves and the turn of his head I know he has a golden tongue. The sun sneaks into the alley behind them. It makes a pretty picture on its way down.” How can you read something so playful, yet so layered and not go back?

So for me, paying tribute to Toni Morrision has to be more than a few words; it’s a rededication to my work as an editor, the championing of authors such as Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, Henry Dumas and Toni Cade Bambara who she published, and – ultimately – a celebration of her own work, which I got to do at a reading that I organised for the new eAnanse Library at Osu in Accra. In a circular hut with a few dozen fans of Toni Morrison, sitting alongside fellow Ghanaian authors, we opened the pages of Sula, Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and let them spread like butterfly wings, their words patterns to dazzle the night… and we spoke the words and felt her spirit, her intellect, her beauty and purpose fill us. And at the end of that evening we could say, like Toni Morrison herself did at the end of her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, “How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”

In SWAG high profiles issue 1
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
August 2019