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The Source of Self-Regard

Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations

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Here is Toni Morrison in her own words: a rich gathering of her most important essays and speeches, spanning four decades.
 
These pages give us her searing prayer for the dead of 9/11, her Nobel lecture on the power of language, her searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr., her heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. She looks deeply into the fault lines of culture and freedom: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, “black matter(s),” human rights, the artist in society, the Afro-American presence in American literature. And she turns her incisive critical eye to her own work (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, Paradise) and that of others. An essential collection from an essential writer, The Source of Self-Regard shines with the literary elegance, intellectual prowess, spiritual depth, and moral compass that have made Toni Morrison our most cherished and enduring voice.
 

“Morrison is more than the standard bearer of American literature. She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.” —The New York Times

“Dazzlingly heady and deeply personal—a rumination on her literary career and artistic mission, which is to reveal and honor the aching beauty and unfolding drama of African American life.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“A piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race. . . . The book explodes into pure brilliance.” —The Boston Globe

“This book is a must.” —The Washington Post

“Profoundly insightful. . . . Speaks to today’s social and political moment as directly as this morning’s headlines.” —NPR

“Moving. . . . Magnificent. . . . It’s a large, rich, heterogeneous book, and hallelujah. . . . With this book, one is tempted to quote at length from her words: her acuity and moral clarity are dazzling, but so is her vision for how we might find our way towards a less unjust, less hateful future.” —The Guardian

“Her critical mind is as original as her literary vision. . . .  Morrison’s style is, for the most part, stately, not so much ornate as complex, not so much stentorian as insistent, authoritative, often fierce. . . . Morrison is not simply a narrative spellbinder. . . . She is also a thundering prophet for our time.” —Commonweal

The Source of Self-Regard is a must-read.” —Essence

“Altogether fantastic. . . . One of the deepest seers of our time.” —Brain Pickings 

“Give[s] insight into Morrison not just as a master of American folklore and the novel but also as a keen observer of humankind.” —Vogue

“A priceless record of an original thinker’s attempt to grapple with some of the hardest and most intractable questions of our time, of language, and of the human condition. . . . Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction.” —Christian Century

“Utterly timely. . . . The Nobel laureate and author of Beloved is fearless and insightful in essays on race, literature, love and more. . . . The Source of Self-Regard moves with courage and assurance.” —Tampa Bay Times

“Lucid, stunning . . . offers not just a glimpse at a master novelist’s and intellectual’s inner workings, but lays bare the mantle which those of us who write might pick up. . . . With this book, the Queen of American Letters has again blessed us with a work that is profound, soaring, intimate, and gives us permission to become the source of our self-regard.” —Bitch

“Morrison has proved herself to be both gift and necessity to our cultural consciousness. . . . [She is] one of our most incisive cultural critics.” —The Root
TONI MORRISON is the author of eleven novels and three essay collections. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2019. View titles by Toni Morrison
Peril

Part I THE FOREIGNER’S HOME
The Dead of September 11
The Foreigner’s Home
Racism and Fascism
Home
Wartalk
The War on Error
A Race in Mind: The Press in Deed
Moral Inhabitants
The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care
The Habit of Art
The Individual Artist
Arts Advocacy
Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address
The Slavebody and the Blackbody
Harlem on My Mind: Contesting Memory—
     Meditation on Museums, Culture, and Integration
Women, Race, and Memory
Literature and Public Life
The Nobel Lecture in Literature
Cinderella’s Stepsisters
The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations

Interlude BLACK MATTER(S)

Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Race Matters
Black Matter(s)
Unspeakable Things Unspoken:
      The Afro-American Presence in American Literature
Academic Whispers 
Gertrude Stein and the Difference She Makes 
Hard, True, and Lasting 

Part II GOD’S LANGUAGE

James Baldwin Eulogy
The Site of Memory
God’s Language
Grendel and His Mother
The Writer Before the Page
The Trouble with Paradise
On Beloved
Chinua Achebe
Introduction of Peter Sellars
Tribute to Romare Bearden
Faulkner and Women
The Source of Self-Regard
Rememory
Memory, Creation, and Fiction
Goodbye to All That: Race, Surrogacy, and Farewell
Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading

Sources
Peril

Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, call­ing into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppres­sion that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

That is their peril.

Ours is of another sort.

How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.

We all know nations that can be identified by the flight of writers from their shores. These are regimes whose fear of unmonitored writ­ing is justified because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unha­rassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to cen­sor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the “safe,” all but state-approved art.

I have been told that there are two human responses to the per­ception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly—a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible. Rational responses may be censure; incarceration in holding camps, prisons; or death, singly or in war. There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and countinghouses, writers who construct mean­ing in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is impera­tive not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.
“Morrison is more than the standard bearer of American literature. She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.” —The New York Times

“Dazzlingly heady and deeply personal—a rumination on her literary career and artistic mission, which is to reveal and honor the aching beauty and unfolding drama of African American life.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“A piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race. . . . The book explodes into pure brilliance.” —The Boston Globe

“This book is a must.” —The Washington Post

“Profoundly insightful. . . . Speaks to today’s social and political moment as directly as this morning’s headlines.” —NPR

“Moving. . . . Magnificent. . . . It’s a large, rich, heterogeneous book, and hallelujah. . . . With this book, one is tempted to quote at length from her words: her acuity and moral clarity are dazzling, but so is her vision for how we might find our way towards a less unjust, less hateful future.” —The Guardian

“Her critical mind is as original as her literary vision. . . .  Morrison’s style is, for the most part, stately, not so much ornate as complex, not so much stentorian as insistent, authoritative, often fierce. . . . Morrison is not simply a narrative spellbinder. . . . She is also a thundering prophet for our time.” —Commonweal

The Source of Self-Regard is a must-read.” —Essence

“Altogether fantastic. . . . One of the deepest seers of our time.” —Brain Pickings 

“Give[s] insight into Morrison not just as a master of American folklore and the novel but also as a keen observer of humankind.” —Vogue

“A priceless record of an original thinker’s attempt to grapple with some of the hardest and most intractable questions of our time, of language, and of the human condition. . . . Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction.” —Christian Century

“Utterly timely. . . . The Nobel laureate and author of Beloved is fearless and insightful in essays on race, literature, love and more. . . . The Source of Self-Regard moves with courage and assurance.” —Tampa Bay Times

“Lucid, stunning . . . offers not just a glimpse at a master novelist’s and intellectual’s inner workings, but lays bare the mantle which those of us who write might pick up. . . . With this book, the Queen of American Letters has again blessed us with a work that is profound, soaring, intimate, and gives us permission to become the source of our self-regard.” —Bitch

“Morrison has proved herself to be both gift and necessity to our cultural consciousness. . . . [She is] one of our most incisive cultural critics.” —The Root

“This staggeringly brilliant collection of nonfiction pieces on the creative process, race, and the role of the artist in society takes our breath away.” —Shondaland

About

Here is Toni Morrison in her own words: a rich gathering of her most important essays and speeches, spanning four decades.
 
These pages give us her searing prayer for the dead of 9/11, her Nobel lecture on the power of language, her searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr., her heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. She looks deeply into the fault lines of culture and freedom: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, “black matter(s),” human rights, the artist in society, the Afro-American presence in American literature. And she turns her incisive critical eye to her own work (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, Paradise) and that of others. An essential collection from an essential writer, The Source of Self-Regard shines with the literary elegance, intellectual prowess, spiritual depth, and moral compass that have made Toni Morrison our most cherished and enduring voice.
 

“Morrison is more than the standard bearer of American literature. She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.” —The New York Times

“Dazzlingly heady and deeply personal—a rumination on her literary career and artistic mission, which is to reveal and honor the aching beauty and unfolding drama of African American life.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“A piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race. . . . The book explodes into pure brilliance.” —The Boston Globe

“This book is a must.” —The Washington Post

“Profoundly insightful. . . . Speaks to today’s social and political moment as directly as this morning’s headlines.” —NPR

“Moving. . . . Magnificent. . . . It’s a large, rich, heterogeneous book, and hallelujah. . . . With this book, one is tempted to quote at length from her words: her acuity and moral clarity are dazzling, but so is her vision for how we might find our way towards a less unjust, less hateful future.” —The Guardian

“Her critical mind is as original as her literary vision. . . .  Morrison’s style is, for the most part, stately, not so much ornate as complex, not so much stentorian as insistent, authoritative, often fierce. . . . Morrison is not simply a narrative spellbinder. . . . She is also a thundering prophet for our time.” —Commonweal

The Source of Self-Regard is a must-read.” —Essence

“Altogether fantastic. . . . One of the deepest seers of our time.” —Brain Pickings 

“Give[s] insight into Morrison not just as a master of American folklore and the novel but also as a keen observer of humankind.” —Vogue

“A priceless record of an original thinker’s attempt to grapple with some of the hardest and most intractable questions of our time, of language, and of the human condition. . . . Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction.” —Christian Century

“Utterly timely. . . . The Nobel laureate and author of Beloved is fearless and insightful in essays on race, literature, love and more. . . . The Source of Self-Regard moves with courage and assurance.” —Tampa Bay Times

“Lucid, stunning . . . offers not just a glimpse at a master novelist’s and intellectual’s inner workings, but lays bare the mantle which those of us who write might pick up. . . . With this book, the Queen of American Letters has again blessed us with a work that is profound, soaring, intimate, and gives us permission to become the source of our self-regard.” —Bitch

“Morrison has proved herself to be both gift and necessity to our cultural consciousness. . . . [She is] one of our most incisive cultural critics.” —The Root

Author

TONI MORRISON is the author of eleven novels and three essay collections. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2019. View titles by Toni Morrison

Table of Contents

Peril

Part I THE FOREIGNER’S HOME
The Dead of September 11
The Foreigner’s Home
Racism and Fascism
Home
Wartalk
The War on Error
A Race in Mind: The Press in Deed
Moral Inhabitants
The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care
The Habit of Art
The Individual Artist
Arts Advocacy
Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address
The Slavebody and the Blackbody
Harlem on My Mind: Contesting Memory—
     Meditation on Museums, Culture, and Integration
Women, Race, and Memory
Literature and Public Life
The Nobel Lecture in Literature
Cinderella’s Stepsisters
The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations

Interlude BLACK MATTER(S)

Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Race Matters
Black Matter(s)
Unspeakable Things Unspoken:
      The Afro-American Presence in American Literature
Academic Whispers 
Gertrude Stein and the Difference She Makes 
Hard, True, and Lasting 

Part II GOD’S LANGUAGE

James Baldwin Eulogy
The Site of Memory
God’s Language
Grendel and His Mother
The Writer Before the Page
The Trouble with Paradise
On Beloved
Chinua Achebe
Introduction of Peter Sellars
Tribute to Romare Bearden
Faulkner and Women
The Source of Self-Regard
Rememory
Memory, Creation, and Fiction
Goodbye to All That: Race, Surrogacy, and Farewell
Invisible Ink: Reading the Writing and Writing the Reading

Sources

Excerpt

Peril

Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, call­ing into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers—journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights—can disturb the social oppres­sion that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

That is their peril.

Ours is of another sort.

How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.

We all know nations that can be identified by the flight of writers from their shores. These are regimes whose fear of unmonitored writ­ing is justified because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unha­rassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to cen­sor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the “safe,” all but state-approved art.

I have been told that there are two human responses to the per­ception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly—a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping, charting, or devising proper nouns for unnamed or stripped-of-names geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible. Rational responses may be censure; incarceration in holding camps, prisons; or death, singly or in war. There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and countinghouses, writers who construct mean­ing in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is right that such protection be initiated by other writers. And it is impera­tive not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Praise

“Morrison is more than the standard bearer of American literature. She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.” —The New York Times

“Dazzlingly heady and deeply personal—a rumination on her literary career and artistic mission, which is to reveal and honor the aching beauty and unfolding drama of African American life.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“A piercing and visionary analyst of history, society, literature, language, and, always, race. . . . The book explodes into pure brilliance.” —The Boston Globe

“This book is a must.” —The Washington Post

“Profoundly insightful. . . . Speaks to today’s social and political moment as directly as this morning’s headlines.” —NPR

“Moving. . . . Magnificent. . . . It’s a large, rich, heterogeneous book, and hallelujah. . . . With this book, one is tempted to quote at length from her words: her acuity and moral clarity are dazzling, but so is her vision for how we might find our way towards a less unjust, less hateful future.” —The Guardian

“Her critical mind is as original as her literary vision. . . .  Morrison’s style is, for the most part, stately, not so much ornate as complex, not so much stentorian as insistent, authoritative, often fierce. . . . Morrison is not simply a narrative spellbinder. . . . She is also a thundering prophet for our time.” —Commonweal

The Source of Self-Regard is a must-read.” —Essence

“Altogether fantastic. . . . One of the deepest seers of our time.” —Brain Pickings 

“Give[s] insight into Morrison not just as a master of American folklore and the novel but also as a keen observer of humankind.” —Vogue

“A priceless record of an original thinker’s attempt to grapple with some of the hardest and most intractable questions of our time, of language, and of the human condition. . . . Toni Morrison’s collection of nonfiction makes a striking contribution to American letters and to an understanding of her own rich and complicated fiction.” —Christian Century

“Utterly timely. . . . The Nobel laureate and author of Beloved is fearless and insightful in essays on race, literature, love and more. . . . The Source of Self-Regard moves with courage and assurance.” —Tampa Bay Times

“Lucid, stunning . . . offers not just a glimpse at a master novelist’s and intellectual’s inner workings, but lays bare the mantle which those of us who write might pick up. . . . With this book, the Queen of American Letters has again blessed us with a work that is profound, soaring, intimate, and gives us permission to become the source of our self-regard.” —Bitch

“Morrison has proved herself to be both gift and necessity to our cultural consciousness. . . . [She is] one of our most incisive cultural critics.” —The Root

“This staggeringly brilliant collection of nonfiction pieces on the creative process, race, and the role of the artist in society takes our breath away.” —Shondaland

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