Goodness and the Literary Imagination

October 17, 2019
Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison at HDS in 2012. Photo: Justin Knight

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison created many memorable characters—from Sula and Beloved to Frank Money. Her notions of goodness and mercy shown in these characters also reflect her understanding of the sacred and the human spirit.

The religious dimensions of Morrison’s work are explored in a new book released this month and coedited by HDS Professors Stephanie Paulsell and Davíd Carrasco, along with Boston College Professor Mara Willard, MDiv ‘04.

Goodness and the Literary Imagination publishes for the first time in book form Morrison’s 2012 Ingersoll Lecture at HDS. It also includes an interview with Morrison by Carrasco, and features essays from HDS Professors Jacob Olupona, Matthew Potts, former Pusey Minister Jonathan Walton, Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies, Tiya Miles, Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Jay Williams, PhD ‘17, and Josslyn Luckett, MDiv ‘12. Their contributions engage the religious orientation in Morrison’s novels.

A discussion of the moral and religious vision of Morrison and a celebration of the book will be held Monday, October 21, at 5:30 pm, in the Chapel in Divinity Hall.

HDS will also host a screening of the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on Thursday, October 24, at 4 pm, at Paine Hall, 3 Oxford St. Carrasco will give an introduction and have a discussion with film editor Johanna Giebelhaus after the screening. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required and will be available at the door.

Below, Paulsell and Willard discuss their book project and offer some insight from their work.

Harvard Divinity School: In the introduction to the book you write that the aim of the contributions contained within it are to “both illuminate the religious dimensions of Morrison’s writing and to seek in it some wisdom for living in these days.” What wisdom from her writing do you think is most important for living in these days?

Stephanie Paulsell: Toni Morrison says in her Ingersoll Lecture that her understanding of goodness is grounded in the acquisition of self-knowledge. Morrison illuminates our history as a nation better than any other writer I know. Without facing the hard truths about the history of slavery and its ongoing legacy, we will never able to change. That’s part of the inheritance she leaves us:  that any real change will have to be born from people willing to stay turned toward the truth of our shared history.

Mara Willard: Toni Morrison does indeed keep us turned toward the harrowing truths of American history. But she also shows her readers the mercies and affirmations that people shared with one another, even while living history’s terrors. Morrison's literary imagination also turns our attention to the humanity, the acts of kindness, trust, and mercy practiced by people subjected to injustice, but refusing to be defined by it. As she says in her interview with Davíd Carrasco, the people who were treated with such violence and inhumanity did not choose to respond in kind; “they chose,” as she says, “creation”—“jazz, the blues, schools, ideas.”

HDS: The people who author essays in your book are not Morrison specialists, as you say, but are instead scholars of religion, history, theology, and ethics and are “readers who have felt profoundly addressed by the work of Toni Morrison.” Why did you take that approach for this book?

SP: We wanted this book to be accessible to a wide range of readers, not just specialists in literary criticism or religious studies. We wanted to open a conversation about Morrison’s religious vision in which all readers of Morrison could participate and to write in a way that would help our readers feel the claim of that work on their lives, as we have felt it on ours.

MW: Each of us, as scholars and as citizens, lives out the conviction that scholarship is a conversation with the "how" of human life. How do we treat one another, how do we fulfill or remake the heritages handed down to us?  We wanted to honor her gifts to us by illuminating her literary and theoretical work with insights from our corners of study and practice.

HDS: Along those lines, you also write something striking about those who have contributed essays to your book, including yourself. “All of us have had our understanding of American history shaped by Morrison’s work.” How does Morrison’s work, you think, help shape people’s understanding of American history?

MW: As a white American, Morrison’s refusal of fantasies of white American innocence is very important to me. She makes visible a lot of intimate human suffering that was produced by white supremacy. But she also does not allow the destructiveness of white fantasies and projections to take center stage in her work. Many womanist and literary scholars of color have
reflected recently, with her passing, that a gift that she gave to them was her clarity that she would write as a black American woman of black American worlds.

SP: Morrison has populated our sense of American history with characters of complexity, depth, and creativity. Reading Morrison trains our capacity for imagination—a necessary capacity both for understanding history and for ethical living.

Goodness and the Literary Imagination book cover

HDS: You write that these essays reveal the power of Morrison’s work in fresh ways by experimenting with the religious forms reflected in Morrison’s work themselves. “Without them, too much would have gone unsaid about the religious work Morrison’s writing has done and continues to do.” Why do you think the religious dimensions of Morrison’s work have been overlooked and why is it important not to overlook that?

MW: There's an unfortunate allergy in the modern university as we know it to thinking with or about religious forms—a prejudice that most scholars would not tolerate of other subfields. Discussion of religion is presumed, wrongly, to be didactic or naive or coercive. Morrison's writing is a great demonstration of how short-sighted that reaction is, especially in these days when we have so much to learn about death and dying and the vulnerability of the planet. The "flight" of Milkman that ends Song of Solomon needs to be considered with African and African-American myths about flights of the spirit. The dueling sermons of ministers in a black community in Paradise illuminate the ways that a community tries to work out how its next generation is to live. The narrator of Love speaks from beyond the grave. Morrison’s religious imagination makes visible practices of meaning making, mourning and living toward new possibilities that are part of the lives of many communities of color in America.

SP: As Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah put it in her 2015 article about Morrison, her attention to black life throughout American history in her work constitutes a kind of liturgy:  “This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on.” With racist ideologies finding voice in the halls of power in these days, Morrison’s liturgy is more important than ever. Her attention to the ways in which her characters create, in even the most desperate circumstances, rituals with the power to heal what has been broken, holy spaces in the space at hand, and genuine encounters with both the living and the dead invites us to imagine new forms of community marked by creativity and resistance, goodness and mercy.

HDS: In Professor Carrasco’s 2017 interview with Morrison, published at the end of the book, he asks her about her “moral imagination” as a writer. Can you explain what you mean by “moral imagination” and how you see it in Morrison’s work?

MW: One way to answer that is to look to Morrison’s Ingersoll Lecture that began this set of conversations. Toni Morrison was exploring, in her talk on "immortality," how readily American writers can enchant us with stories of greed, evil, mayhem. In that talk she made claims, sometimes tentative, about her interest in laying down some constructive vision in her novels of showing how people care for one another in ways small as well as big. In Beloved, for example, we have a son laboring for 20 years to buy his mother’s freedom from slavery at the end of her life. And we have that same freed black woman preach to the people of her community to love themselves. Morrison's theory and literary imagination is certainly attentive to the destructive, the self-destructive, and maniacal. But she also clearly wanted to remind her readers that she is working upon them through her writing in ways that might make them open their arms, their homes, for a person in need and to remind us that one generation might give tenderness to others in harm's way, or foster their dreams of living in freedom and love.

SP: I can’t say it any better than that!

—by Michael Naughton