Beyond the Books: Toni Morrison’s Essays and Criticism

Toni Morrison, who died Monday at 88, is best known for her literary fiction, starting with her 1970 debut, “The Bluest Eye,” and continuing through her 2015 novel, “God Help the Child.” But she was an incisive cultural critic and essayist as well, putting her mind to everything from black feminism to Disneyland. Below are some of her reviews and writing for The New York Times.

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‘The kindest words, the sweetest euphemisms’

In her 1971 review of “To Be a Black Woman: Portraits in Fact and Fiction,” edited by Mel Watkins and Jay David, Morrison wrote:

“Somewhere there is, or will be, an in‐depth portrait of the black woman. At the moment, it resides outside the pages of this book. She is somewhere, though, some place, just as she always has been, up to her pelvis in myth, asking those sad, sad questions: When I was brave, was it only because I was masculine? When I was human, was it only because I was passive? When I survived, was it only because my man was dead? And when ship loads of slaves became a race of 30 million was that really only because I was fecund?”

[How did Toni Morrison’s words touch your life? Tell us.]

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‘The winds are changing, and when they blow, new things move’

In her 1971 essay “What the Black Woman Thinks About Women’s Lib,” Morrison wrote:

“They look at white women and see them as the enemy — for they know that racism is not confined to white men, and that there are more white women than men in this country, and that 53 percent of the population sustained an eloquent silence during times of greatest stress. The faces of those white women hovering behind that black girl at the Little Rock school in 1957 do not soon leave the retina of the mind.”

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‘Delicate in its bitterness and tough in its joy’

In 1972, Morrison reviewed Albert Murray’s memoir of growing up in Alabama, “South to a Very Old Place,” writing:

“Murray’s going home, like the return of any black born in the South, takes on a special dimension. Along with an intimacy with its people and ties to its land, there is a separateness from both the people and the land — since some of the people are white and the land is not really his. This feeling of tender familiarity and brutish alienation provides tension and makes the trip down home delicate in its bitterness and tough in its joy.”

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‘A wholly useless biography, somehow offensive in its one‐eyed stare’

Morrison could be a scathing book critic. Reviewing Regina Nadelson’s biography of Angela Davis in 1972, Morrison described it as “a Cyclopean view of Angela Davis that leaves the reader with a wholly useless biography, somehow offensive in its one‐eyed stare. Maybe because the other thing about Cyclops was that he too had a taste for human flesh.”

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‘All of us, bound by something we could not name’

For the 1973 summer reading issue, Morrison wrote an essay about the pleasures of cooking out, describing the scene so vividly you can almost smell the potatoes frying and taste the syrupy-sweet peach cobbler.

“Mama stood and put her jealousy into the paper bag with the egg shells and began to whip the eggs with a slow, wide and generous beat. Aunt Millie turned the fried potatoes over, saying a little splash of beer over the frying ham would be good. Green always liked it that way.

He brought us together. He meddled in the cooking and baiting of hooks. Told the older girls how to bile the coffee proper and to get them roastin’ ears out of the sun. He directed the boys to the coolest part of the lake to sink the beer in.

The day moved then into its splendid parts: a ham, fried-potatoes, scrambled-egg, breakfast in the morning air; fried fish and pan-cooked biscuits on the hind side of noon, and by the time Mama — who had never heard of Gerber’s — was grinding a piece of supper ham with her own teeth to slip into the baby’s mouth, and the Blue Gums had unveiled their incredible peach cobbler, the first stars were glittering through the blue light of Turkeyfoot Lake.

We were all there. All of us, bound by something we could not name. Cooking, honey, cooking under the stars.”

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‘I want to go to Disneyland where the deceptions are genuine’

“Too tired? I’ve never been more exhausted in my life,” Morrison wrote in her 1973 essay “On to Disneyland and the Real Unreality.” “Not just the numbness of watching hundreds of Mexicans — naturalized and otherwise — being kicked back across the U.S. border. Not just the bone‐marrow fatigue of reading about the latest outrage in outrageous South Africa. Not just the weight of old anger, but an inability to contain the new. Mine is a tiredness of perception, of strafed ganglia. Anchors float. Bread won’t mold. Children’s brains splatter on the walls of ‘very good’ homes.”

[Toni Morrison left behind a powerful literary legacy. These are her most essential books.]

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‘With the whole world as its couch and white America as its pillow, it dreams of colored people’

In her 1974 essay “Rediscovering Black History,” Morrison describes what it was like to work on “The Black Book,” an acclaimed folk history that she edited at Random House. “‘The Black Book’ is unconventional history told from the point of view of everyday people. With the whole world as its couch and white America as its pillow, it dreams of colored people. It is indeed an excellent dream.”

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