Nobel laureate Toni Morrison won global acclaim for her ability to tell the story of the black American experience — and specifically the damaging effects of racism — when few authors with national platforms were addressing the issue.
Her death on Monday at 88 coincided with national conversations about the role President Trump has played in stoking white nationalism. Many fans of Morrison are reflecting on her words criticizing the consuming nature of dismantling racism.
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Morrison wrote “Making America White Again,” an essay for the New Yorker about the cultural anxiety that she said motivated most of the white Americans who voted for Trump. She wrote:
“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.
On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.”
The “terror” that Morrison mentioned when describing some Trump supporters has revealed itself in recent days following a mass shooting in El Paso where police believe the suspect probably posted an online rant using language that mirrors rhetoric used by President Trump. The posting is still under investigation.
Fear led many voters to choose a president whose vision of America resembled the days of decades past — a period that Morrison often featured in her work.
While largely known for her fiction, Morrison was not afraid to wade into the very real world of national politics. She made headlines for referring to President Bill Clinton as “the first black president” because of how his political enemies treated him during his impeachment.
She told Time magazine in 2008: “People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-a-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.”
That year, she endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who four years later presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison, who often wrote about how cruel America had been to its black citizens, spoke of a newfound affection for the United States with the election of Obama, the country’s first black president.
“I felt very powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama,” she told the Guardian. “I felt like a kid. The Marines and the flag, which I never look at — all of a sudden it looked … nice. Worthy. It only lasted a couple of hours. But I was amazed, that music that I really don’t like — ‘God Bless America’ is a dumb song; I mean it’s not beautiful. But I really felt that, for that little moment.”
One of things Morrison also felt was that how racism functions keeps people — especially people of color — from focusing on far more important things. In one her most quoted statements from a 1975 speech at Portland State University, she said:
“The real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being.”
“None of that is necessary,” she added. “There will always be one more thing.”