What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction
by Toni Morrison
A review by Charlotte Kelly
What Moves at the Margins is the first substantial collection of Toni Morrison's powerful and articulate nonfiction work. The essays, speeches, reviews, and prefaces, selected by Carolyn C. Denard, were published between 1971 and 2002 and provide a more complete portrait of Morrison as scholar, cultural critic, historian, and public intellectual. Issues span from family to black history to politics and beyond. Along with the collection's emphasis on the public role of language -- that is, the writer's relationship with politics, history, and society -- the book provides a possible framework for those wishing to (re)consider Morrison's fictional work without turning to academic criticism. Although all of the pieces can stand alone, the collection as a whole is a particularly welcome companion to Morrison's fictional work, as it provides indications of what motivates, inspires, and moves the writer to employ language as she does.
The book is divided into three thematically related parts. The first, "Family and History," contains selections that give insight into Morrison's relationship with her personal familial legacy as well as her public identity as an African American and a woman in America. In the first essay, "A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say), Hopeless (as Grandfather would say)" originally published in 1976 in The New York Times Magazine, Morrison articulates how her grandparent's and parent's understanding of blackness in America shaped her and relates these conflicting stances to the larger experience of black people in America. She writes, "Like most black people of my generation, I suffer from racial vertigo that can be cured only by taking what one needs from one's ancestors". It is a candid and honest piece that reflects Morrison's serious contemplation of the reality of racism and the legacy of slavery in North America, themes to which she consistently returns. The emphasis on heritage resonates with Morrison's novels -- for example, the domestic environments in Song of Solomon and Beloved that reflect the often tense and conflicted relationship between family legacy and historical imperatives.
Although some of it is over thirty years old, much of this previously published commentary still feels fresh and relevant today. "What the Black Woman Thinks about Women's Lib" from 1971 is particularly fascinating to read in the context of recent dialogue surrounding identity politics. In this essay, Morrison offers a blunt critique of the burgeoning women's liberation movement, and articulates the desire for new spaces and new modes of communication. She sums up her relationship to the women's liberation movement in one word -- "distrust". Yet, she also notes "the air is shivery with possibilities". As in her novels, Morrison deftly articulates a marginalized experience and evaluates society in a way that still leaves room for progress and subversive expression.
The second section, "Writers and Writing," includes prefaces and reviews about a multitude of writers, including James Baldwin, Reynolds Price, and Guinean novelist Camara Laye. Most of these pieces are quite succinct and exhibit Morrison's enthusiasm for other writers. Although less emotionally arousing than the other two parts, this section allows the reader to experience Toni Morrison not just as a producer of literature, but also as a consumer; not just as a gifted teacher, but also as a perpetual student. In essays such as "On The Radiance of the Kin" and "James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered," Morrison exhibits her skills as a careful, respectful reader and literary critic.
In the essays and speeches included in the third and final section, "Politics and Society," Morrison directly applies her critiques and meditations to issues such as education, immigration, political scandal, and the diminishing literary community. "The Dead of September 11" from 2001 is particularly poignant, as Morrison acknowledges the impossibility of full communication about these tragic events, and yet masterfully articulates this difficulty in respectful homage: "I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say -- no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become". This part also includes the speeches "For a Heroic Writers Movement" and "The Dancing Mind," both of which address the need for consolidation of the literary community. These pieces are powerful and bittersweet rallying cries to unity, as Morrison mourns "the writer imperiled by the absence of a hospitable community". What writers need, Morrison suggests, is a community which is "assertive, militant, pugnacious".
The collection ends with Morrison's 1993 Nobel Lecture in Literature, in which she presents the parable of a group of children who approach an old woman and ask her whether the bird they hold in their hand is alive or dead. Eventually, Morrison arrives at the conclusion that the bird represents language, and the children represent the next generation. The old woman and the children must work together in order to make the bird mean anything at all. At a time when modes of communication allow for a constant barrage of language, the speech's gentle reminder of what words can actually mean (or attempt to mean) is acutely relevant.
Throughout the many pieces that What Moves at the Margins encompasses, Morrison is never preachy, nor is she aggressive; rather, her firm grasp and assertive style allow readers to feel as if they are in dialogue with her. Even when discussing the most disturbing details of slavery and incidences of human cruelty, Morrison is subtle and eloquent. What Moves at the Margins, as a whole, is not merely a glimpse into how Morrison writes -- the reader also gets a sense of why. Throughout the book, her reverence for language and her love of her craft are evident on each page.
Charlotte Kelly is a contributor to Rain Taxi.
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