The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Misremembered Lines: Toni Morrison on Creating the Self through Community

I first read Toni Morrison’s novel Sula in high school, for my AP English class. About to leave my suburban town for college in NYC and heady with the thrill of that near-freedom, I identified with the free-wheeling, convention-bucking Sula. What stuck with me above all, at a time when self-creation was paramount and procreation a very distant abstraction, was this one line from the novel:

Why would I make someone else before I’ve made myself?

Except that this was not the quote. As I discovered fifteen years later, when I was in graduate school and teaching the novel in a “Reading Women Writers” course.

Sula had made a more startling, more radical assertion, at least for her 1920s context:

I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.

Sula’s line, in other words, was not a deferral of motherhood but a wholesale rejection of it.

 First edition cover.

First edition cover.

Partly, I begin with this misquotation to poke fun at my teenage naiveté. How could I ever think that the self was a fixed entity, that we matured into some kind of stable identity that would prepare us to have children? That the self was something earned with age and experience, like a college degree or a merit badge, rather than a fickle thing in constant process of being revised and remade?

Mostly, though, I begin with this anecdote because I feel some trepidation about venturing into the parenting biography of a Living Legend. And, well, because it’s not my story to tell.

So, instead, I’m going to focus this post around the lessons that Morrison’s early years as a writer might offer us. Then, I’ll link you to some further reading on Morrison and motherhood.

Images: Many of the most-circulated photos of Morrison portray her as a gray-haired doyenne of American letters. I like these snapshots of her life as a mother and of her female friendships. From left: Oprah, Maya Angelou, et al. laughing as Morrison dances (out of the picture) at her Nobel Prize party. Second from left: Morrison with sons Ford and Slade.  Second from right: Morrison with June Jordan Alice Walker, Nana Maynard, Ntzoke Shange, Vertamae Grosvenor, and others. Right: Morrison with Slade, who died in 2010.  

In her forward to Sula, Morrison recalls the formation of her own creative community as a single, working mother writing her first novel (The Bluest Eye):

The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory—and daring. Daring especially, because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore…. Write a play, form a theater company, design clothes, write fiction unencumbered by other people’s expectations. Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves.

I love how “minding” in the last line borrows from the language of caregiving – encumbered by so much adult responsibility, Morrison and her crew nonetheless were able to nurture in each other a childlike sense of possibility and play. They became parents to each other's creative selves.

This experience as part of a group of “single/separated female parents” shaped some of the central questions and themes in Sula, her second novel:

In that atmosphere of “What would you be doing or thinking if there was no gaze or hand to stop you?” I began to think about just what that kind of license would have been like for us black women forty years earlier. We were being encouraged to think of ourselves as our own salvation, to be our own best friends. What could that mean in 1969 that it had not meant in the 1920s?

Sula is (among many other things) an argument against insularity, against the white, hetero, and gendered mores of nuclear family. It chronicles the disappearance of community as a result of corporate greed and gentrification. It tells the story of a female friendship that transcends boundaries of self and other.

I’ve often thought of creativity, of the creative urge, as ruthlessly individualistic. An impractical, superfluous pursuit that serves my own inner daemon while doing nothing for my family or the world.

Morrison’s example and Sula’s text offer an alternative vision, one in which the artist and activist, the writer and her community, are not so alienated from each other. Creativity while raising children, as Morrison defines it in her forward, involves resisting the shutting of doors, the severing of ties. Her forward to Sula invites us to think about how, as we recreate the self as new parents, we do so without becoming inward-turning, without losing those ties that might sustain us – and our communities – not just personally but also creatively.

Further reading:

  • This interview in The Guardian covers personal topics like beginning a writing career as a single mother and the premature death of her son Slade:

When she started The Bluest Eye she was the single mother of two boys, living in Syracuse, New York. She rose at 4am every morning to write before work. If she felt discouraged, she thought about her grandmother, who had fled the south with seven children and no means of support. Any existential panic – about her income, her prospects as a writer, her availability as a mother – evaporated in the face of daily necessity.

  • This NPR interview with Teri Gross touches on parenting regrets:

When I had [my kids], when I, you know, lived among my family and then just myself and my children, when they went to school, I never did think that I would hurt them in any way while it was going on. Afterwards, I remember every error, every word I spoke that was wrong or incontinent, every form of when I did not protect them properly (laughter).

  • If you want to really nerd out, there's an academic book on themes of motherhood in Morrison's novels:

Motherhood, in Morrison’s view, is fundamentally and profoundly an act of resistance, essential and integral to black women’s fight against racism (and sexism) and their ability to achieve well-being for themselves and their culture.

 

 

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