Recognizing Structures of Genocide: Toni Morrison’s ‘The Origin of Others’

In these times, when hope can seem an empty concept, Toni Morrison reminds us that fiction is a laboratory for emerging philosophies and politics.

Toni Morrison’s latest collection of interconnected essays, The Origin of Others(2017), is a slim volume that contains multitudes. It can be read in one sitting, yet it’s a book that readers will likely return to frequently for its conceptual richness, catholic knowledge, and political imagination.

While the United States may wish to claim Morrison as a national treasure — her novels have become canonical to the US educational system, from middle school through graduate school, and every new publication is rightfully recognized as a major literary event —
The Origin of Others urges us to think beyond the framework of the nation. Morrison challenges all of us on the necessities to read and think on a global scale.

The Origin of Others is about the global past and the global present. More specifically, it’s about the politics of belonging in a world in which, as Morrison forcefully reminds us in the concluding chapter, more than 60 million people are currently refugees — half of whom are children — due to mass violence and wars. For Morrison, the medium that best helps us think critically and creatively about the globalizing present, in which multiple genocides are unfolding, is literature.

Literature, Morrison argues throughout
The Origin of Others, is central to shaping social imaginations of hate, and conversely, literature has the potential to help us envision better worlds and better futures.

The book’s form signifies Morrison’s ambitious scope. It begins with a powerful meditation on how American writing was central to enabling and perpetuating racialized slavery, and it concludes with a meditation on the current global refugee crisis. Whereas the beginning chapters focus on American literature, in the last chapter, Morrison carefully close reads Camara Laye’s anti-colonial
The Radiance of the King, a 1955 Guinean novel that Kwame Anthony Appiah called “one of the greatest of the African novels of the colonial period”. The book’s movement from the American institution of racialized chattel slavery to the global refugee crisis foregrounds the salient role of literature throughout modernity in enabling institutions and structures of colonial and racial genocide.

As the book progresses through six concise chapters, it details the multiple ways in which literature remains central to colonial and genocidal projects both in the past and present. But moreover, it also suggests ways in which literature — especially literature from the so-called “margins” — can help us see beyond pernicious frameworks such as “color-ism” (the focus of chapter 3) and the pernicious underside of national belonging (a central theme throughout the collection). As Morrison insists, national belonging is frequently a form of racial belonging, and in a world now divided by nation-states, to be excluded from national belonging is to be unseen and unheard by the dominant community of nation states.

One of Morrison’s many gifts is her ability to move cogently between multiple disciplines and genres which, in the dominant protocols of knowledge production, are frequently kept separate and distinct. Morrison deftly moves between literary analysis, personal memoir, historical research, critical theory, and politics. And moreover, she does so with incredible clarity and grace. Her intended audience is not specialists in narrow fields, but wide and broad publics. Tellingly, The Origin of Others has its roots in an open lecture series Morrison delivered at Harvard University in the spring of 2016.

To illustrate the book’s conceptual richness, I want to briefly focus on chapter three, “The Color Fetish”. In the chapter, Morrison details how canonical American literature uses skin color as an ideological shortcut that discloses characters and galvanizes narratives. To illustrate this point, Morrison carefully and illuminatingly reads William Faulkner’s
Absalom, Absalom and two Ernest Hemingway novels, To Have and Have Not and The Garden of Eden.

As the chapter develops, Morrison makes explicit how color-ism, which structures so much American literature, is inextricable from the political. Morrison moves from the literary to the legal in order to explore the ways in which “color” determines and defines social life. Turning to the
Black Laws of Virginia (edited by June Purcell Guild) as an example, Morrison reminds us that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, social life was determined by “color laws” which flourished at the level of the local, the state, and the nation. The Virginia criminal code of 1847, for example, asserted: “Any white person assembling with slaves or free Negroes for purpose of instructing them to read or write … Shall be confined in jail not exceeding six months and fined not exceeding $100.00”.

A century later, similar color laws flourished under the banner of Jim Crow. In 1944, the City of Birmingham made illegal the congress of whites and blacks from gathering in a public space to play “any game with cards, dice, dominoes, or checkers”. For three centuries, the nation-state has been defined by the formation and enforcement of “color laws” and this “color-ism”, as Morrison argues, is central to developing American literature. But how many of us today read and study American literature and the “color laws” together, as two interrelated discourses? This chapter exemplifies the book as a whole: It challenges the way we think about entire disciplinary fields and challenges the way we read specific texts.

Throughout the collection, Morrison reflects on her own aesthetic practices. In the chapter on color-ism, Morrison explains her intentional aesthetic strategy to refuse describing a character’s skin color, disrupting the “color fetish” that dominates the US imagination. As Morrison narrates, she first explored this “racial erasure” in the short story “Recitatif” and this aesthetic technique has been consistent throughout her writing career. In fiction where Morrison does label a character’s skin color, such becomes a dominant, damaging, and deadly theme. The violence of color-ism, for example, is at the center of Morrison’s first novel, the
The Bluest Eye (1971), about an 11-year-old who wishes that her black skin would become white, and more recently in God Help the Child (2015), about a light-skinned mother who rejects her daughter because she was born “midnight black, Sudanese black”. It is within the laboratory of literature that we can develop a new language that begins to capture the social complexities of race and racialization.

While literature can be used for pernicious purposes, Morrison shows us in every chapter the capacity of literature — including her own fiction — to educate and expand our social imagination for progressive purposes. In every chapter, Morrison’s measured, sagacious voice insists that another world is possible, and that the creation of this new world can be realized with the help of literature. At a political moment in which hope can seem an empty concept, Morrison reminds us that fiction is a space where our utopian imagination can be developed, that fiction is a laboratory for emerging philosophies and politics. For example, she describes her current “novel-in-progress” as an exploration of how a racist comes into being. She explains that she was “excited” to write the book because she wanted to “explore” and “understand” the “education of a racist”. How, she asks, “does one move from a non-racial womb to the womb of racism [. . .]?” Morrison’s fiction, as with all fiction, is a form of thinking, of understanding, of imagining possibilities that may seem impossible from the prism of the present.

Tellingly, Morrison’s book concludes by closely reading a novel from beyond the borders of the United States. This concluding gesture, this explicit turn to an international scale, gestures towards ways in which our reading practices must change. Morrison insists that we see the tragedies unfolding in the present, unfolding on a global scale in a world defined not by nation-states, but by forced mass migrations. Such forced mass migrations, of course, are not a new global phenomenon. The transatlantic slave trade, to make an obvious point, exemplifies that the modern world has always been transnational and that mass migration is the central narrative of modernity.

We live in a regime in which nation-states can blind us from seeing the tragedies and genocides unfolding beyond our artificial borders. Toni Morrison’s latest book challenges us in subtle and profound ways to see beyond such artifices.

We need literary fictions to see the many violences of our political fictions.