James Baldwin said, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
These words became a spiritual proverb about the universality of our experience. We all crave a mother’s kiss, a lover’s eye, and a father’s hug. But, in our neglect, we forget that we are not the only sufferers. This recognition for the desire to build community. And close the distance between each others humanity rings throughout Toni Morrison work. On Trusting Love a collection of essays found inside What moves at the margins centers us.
Through story-telling, book reviews, and almost diary-like intimacy Morrison encourages the readers to release our tendency to dehumanize. One of her most eloquent, and lovely attempts to instruct us is found in an essay titled The Fisher Woman. Which was an introduction to A Kind of Rapture. A story about a woman looking for community from our culturally expected community holders. Black women have always played the role of our guardian angels. They’ve been our collective mothers, sisters, warriors, and revolutionaries.
The narrator is swarmed with feelings with welcome. Meeting the fisherwoman at the fence that separates her place from her neighbors. We develop a deeper trust for the people that remind us of the people we have loved. Fifteen minutes after meeting this stranger the narrator says, “She is witty and full of the wisdom that older women always seem to have a lock on.” She goes on to make a statement about the nature of assumptions. Our tendency to impose an idealized future on the people we love, and connections we make saying:
When we part, it is with an understanding that she will be there the next day or very soon after and we will visit again. I imagine more conversations with her. I will invite her into my house for coffee, for tales, for laughter. She reminds me of someone, something. I imagine a friendship, casual, effortless, delightful.
While our narrator dreamed of coffee, tales, and laughter. There was nothing in her mind that considered that was the last moment she would see the fisherwoman. As summer passed our narrator continually looked to the edge of the garden. But as the leaves began to fill the ground and the cool air caused for thicker clothes. The fisherwoman never sat with her hand made rod arched into the water. To her surprise, she approached her neighbor and discovered that she had no knowledge of the fisherwoman.
She asked around town. Even found herself looking for answers in nearby villages. But the fisherwoman seemed to have vanished or completely lied about her existence. She questioned her mind about the validity of that experience at the fence. But there was no denying the feeling of being cheated. When our lives grow more and more quiet. When the romance fades, after a first argument with a lover. As our image of people fades. Only then we can hear everything happening inside us. And feel, authentically, the pain of wanting someone to love. Morrison speaks on the bitterness of this moment saying:
Still. Little by little, annoyance then bitterness takes the place of my original bewilderment. A certain view from my windows is now devoid of her. Reminding me every morning of her deceit and my disappointment. What was she doing in that neighborhood anyway. She didn’t drive, had to walk four miles if indeed she lived where she said she did. How could she be missed on the road in that hat, those awful shoes. I try to understand the intensity of my chagrin. And why I am missing a woman I spoke to for fifteen minutes. I get nowhere except for the stingy explanation that she had come into my space, and had implied promises of female comradery, of opportunities for me to be generous, of protection, and protecting.
When lovers come into our lives there is a sense of renewal like the beginning of fall as the fresh air breezes against our body causing a little shiver. We imply, rather haphazardly, that our insecurities will be kissed, and our loneliness subdued by these former strangers. However, when we begin to fall in love the fears of heartbreak, betrayal, and unrequited love rise from their dormant depths. And often times, when these emotions ring as premonitions, we are left questioning our image of ourselves. Was I lovable enough? Was my body not good enough? Why love if I continually end up alone? Will anyone accept my insecurities or will I have to become perfect in order to be loved? Morrison reflects on the reality of what we feared coming true saying:
Disturb? Betray. Prove they are not like us? That is why it is so hard to know what to do with them. The love that prophets have urged us to offer the stranger is the same love which Jean-Paul could reveal as the very mendacity of hell. The signal line of No Exit raises the possibility that other people are responsible for turning a personal world into a public hell.
Morrison leaves the narrator behind and begins speaking to us directly and lays out the few avenues of connection at our disposal. There are so few spaces to reach one another, but these spaces are being created and daring us to run the risk of meeting the world. Moving people beyond those trapped in the same routines, and creating spaces of love, communion, and trust that make life bearable. Toni Morrison believed language, images, and experience fostered our willingness to connect; conversations around the dynamics of relationships seem to rule the day, but are doing nothing more than revealing the trauma, fear, and hesitancy of the speaker.
Instead of encouraging a evolving dialogue the conversations are redolent of a time that exaggerated the differences of the sexes and forced people into positions they assumed were noble for the gender but caused much unhappiness. The conversations seem more about maintaining a fanbase rather than enlightening and encouraging people to move beyond assumptions; a decision has to be made whether we will continue with a language that offers a fragmented image of each others complexity, or expand our experience by expanding our language–Morrison speaking on how language and image form our experience:
Language (saying, listening, reading) can encourage, even mandate, surrender, the breach of distances among us, whether they are continental or on the same pillow, whether they are distances of culture of the distinctions and indistinctions of age or gender, whether they are the consequences of social invention or biology. Image increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, often contaminating, knowledge. Provoking language or eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what know and feel, but also what we believe is worth knowing and feeling. These two godlings, language and image, feed and form experience.
Our lovers often remind us of the people that kissed us, held us, or read to us in our early years, and this causes a deep romanticizing or sentimentalizing of the relationship. Believing our fantasy lovers will save us from the insecurities that limit us, the fears that trap us, and even from ourselves neglects the beautiful independence of a lover; I do not personally believe anyone comes to us with the key to our hearts, but the lover acts as a Bladesmith and molds the key through all those gestures that demonstrate love.
We cannot have these images of our lovers, for they are dangerous; however, the release of this image of the world will foster an openness that encourages the humanization of other. Morrison understood both mistakes of the narrator: assuming this strange woman at the edge of a garden would be an immediate friend, and growing bitter at her departure knowing the importance of maintaining the faith saying:
I immediately sentimentalized her and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, and control. Forgot too their capacity to help us to pursue the human project–which is to remain human and black the dehumanization of others. If we are lazy the godlings can hinder us in that project; if we are alert they can foster it.
What Moves at the Margin collects three decades of Toni Morrison’s writings about her work, her life, literature, and American society every essay exemplifies her literary reputation. She challenged writers to become revolutionaries saying, “[W]e don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers’ movement—assertive, militant, pugnacious.” Continue reading Toni Morrison on how the media narrows our self-view.