Putting Difference on the Table: A Civity Tribute to Toni Morrison
The word most frequently used to describe a group of people who are linked in some way is “community.” Community asserts similarity: These people have something in common, and they become a group.
Civity recognizes that similarity is only half the story. Civity acknowledges that difference within a group creates energy, creativity, and ultimately resilience. Difference allows for groups to adapt, to evolve, and to grow. As long as the different members of the group are connected, ideas and innovations can spark and flow.
In the United States, racism has been called our original sin. Racism – a system of advantage and disadvantage based on the socially constructed characteristic called “race” – separates us, blinds us, deafens us, and keeps us hamstrung.
Toni Morrison put that difference on the table.
Morrison’s work – referred to by Cornel West as her “magisterial corpus” – offers to readers stories of the U.S. seen through the eyes of Black Americans. She does not shy away from race. Instead, she puts it on the table and explores it – carefully, thoughtfully, with imagination, and with love.
Author Jesmyn Ward, who is herself African American, wrote in tribute to Morrison:
Toni Morrison wrote to us again and again, exhorting our beauty, making us grapple with our pain, reaffirming our humanity. Her every word a caress, her every sentence an embrace, her every paragraph, a cupping of her hands around our faces that said: I know you, I see you, we are together. She loved us…
For White readers and other readers who are not African American, Morrison’s stories invite us into the Black American experience – into Black American experiences – in a way that does not feel voyeuristic, that feels genuine to its core.
Morrison’s stories are offered to us not with a grudge or to score points. They are offered as an opportunity to step into different human experiences with our hearts as well as our heads.
In talks delivered at Harvard in Spring 2016 on “the literature of belonging,” captured in her small book The Origins of Others, Morrison shared her insights about the genesis of the human response to Others - those who are deemed different:
There are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known—although unacknowledged—selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes—especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.
The paradox of putting difference on the table is that once a difference is named, it loses its talismanic power. Once a difference is named, once stories are told and listened to, the individuality, the infinity, and the personhood of another person become clear. And with recognition of another’s personhood comes awareness that in fact, alongside difference, there are many similarities.
By putting race on the table in a way that is accessible to all of us, Morrison helped mark the path toward an alignment of community and of civity, especially in the U. S. Here, we are all members of a larger community, what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as the Beloved Community. We are connected within this community through civity, which acknowledges our differences with respect and empathy.
Cornel West wrote of Morrison’s work in Democracy Matters:
Morrison’s fundamental democratic insight is that there can be democratic dialogue only when one is open to the humanity of individuals and to the interiority of their personalities. Building on that insight, she puts forth a vision of black democratic identity rooted in a love that embraces all…
When we connect through difference at the individual level, we grow our capacity for being together as local communities – and as a nation.