Toni Morrison:
The Power of Fiction in the Arc of Progress

All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) by Erich Maria Remarque is one of the best-known anti-war novels ever written. Depicting the horrors of the First World War trenches from the perspective of a young German soldier, it was translated into more than 20 languages and adapted into a celebrated Hollywood film in 1930. The book spoke for a generation that had been, in Remarque’s words, “destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.” As proof of its impact, it was among the books banned and publicly burned by the Nazis.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) chronicles a penniless Oklahoma family’s journey Westward and highlighted the shocking Depression-era poverty and destitution of hundreds of thousands of migrants making the journey to California to find work. It was among the work that also earned Steinbeck a Nobel Prize and was considered an important factor in humanizing the victims of poverty and injustice.

Injustice is also the theme of To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. Written in 1960, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, it remains one of the most popular American novels ever written. Set in the south in the 1930s, the events, seen through the eyes of a young white girl trying to understand racism, put a personal face on the struggle that helped readers across the nation identify more personally with the issues. In the words of the main character’s father, Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Much as the book helped readers understand racial injustice, the African-American characters in Lee’s novel are secondary. And while the Civil Rights era helped usher in more equality between the races, when Morrison began writing a decade later, fully realized black characters were still rare. Just as the Civil War may have freed the slaves but did not deliver the equality promised to them, the Civil Rights era failed to fully vanquish prejudice and ensure that true equality prevailed.

Morrison is credited as one of the important figures that exposed these problems and ignited the spirit behind the Black Lives Matter movement still going on today. Michelle Obama said of her:

“Toni Morrison understood, you see, that people gravitate to what’s real. And in her writing, the truth was always right there on the dog-eared pages.

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions. And she didn’t just give us permission to share our own stories; she underlined our responsibility to do so. She showed how incomplete the world’s narrative was without ours in it.”

Morrison understood that true self-respect is a continuous struggle. She wrote in Beloved (1987), “Freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

She once wrote that while it is reasonable to adjust to your environment, she saw hers as an environment that she did not want to fit into, one that needed to change. “I am not reasonable,” she said. Her legacy remains in her great books, and her life will be remembered for her vision and courageous honesty.


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