I am ecstatic to share my review for Bitch Media on Toni Morrison’s stunning collection of speeches, essays and meditations, out today, The Source of Self-Regard. I inhaled it and underlined entire paragraphs over the last two months. I went to the Schomburg for something else entirely and found an annotated bibliography that informed a lot of this piece. These glimpses and pieces of her are the nation’s greatest living novelist at the top of her form and the most intimate look we are likely to get at her most closely guarded feelings and emotions — especially as it relates to the writing process.
The third section of the book, “God’s Language,” begins with the most beautiful piece of writing I have ever read—the eulogy Morrison delivered at James Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987. It is also the closest glimpse we’ve had into Morrison’s personal relationships. Morrison lays her heart bare for a friend in a short poetic jubilee that’s reminiscent of Smokey Robinson’s recent speech at his childhood friend Aretha Franklin’s homegoing service.
“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” Morrison might as well be speaking about herself. For me and many other writers, Morrison demonstrates how to be in a world that’s committed to your destruction. “You gave me a language to dwell in—a gift so perfect it seems my own invention,” she continues.
Throughout the book, Morrison reveals herself to be a teacher-student who is not just giving readers information that they’re expected to take in and regurgitate. Instead, she’s a “literary homegirl” (a phrase that she actually uses in the text). Referring to a friend as a “homegirl” implies a sense of ease in the presence of someone who knows and loves us, who evokes in us the joy, relaxation, comfort, and depth we typically only associate with home. Home is where we learn who we are, if not who we will become. Home is the starting point. In the title essay, delivered in Portland in 1992, Morrison explains how she viewed self-regard while writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Morrison’s lecture deeply resonates with me because it gives context for arguably her most famous work, which at its heart, offers Black women an artistic vision of our liberation.