The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison


Four stars, read in December 2017.

When I think back on this book, the anecdote I remember is the one Morrison shares about coming across a woman near the fence on her property. The scene of their meeting is peaceful and friendly (because fences are “where the most interesting things always happen”), and Morrison’s thoughts on the subsequent events are insightful and sharply self-aware. But the part I needed to share is this, in which she discusses the brutality with which American slaves were beaten:

As fascinatingly repulsive as these incidents of violence are, to my mind the question that surfaces, one that is far more revealing than the severity of the punishment, is, who are these people? How hard they work to define the slave as inhuman, savage, when in fact the definition of the inhuman describes overwhelmingly the punisher. When they rest, exhausted, between bouts of lashing, the punishment is more sadistic than corrective. If sustained whipping tires the lasher, and he or she must take a series of breaks before continuing, what good does its duration do to the whipped? Such extreme pain seems to be designed for the pleasure of the one with the lash. The necessity of rendering the slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal. The urgency of distinguishing between those who belong to the human race and those who are decidedly non-human is so powerful the spotlight turns away and shines not on the object of degradation but on its creator. Even assuming exaggeration by the slaves, the sensibility of slave owners is gothic. It’s as though they are shouting, “I am not a beast! I’m not a beast! I torture the helpless to prove I am not weak.” The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger.

In his foreword, Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to that same passage (the quote below is also from his foreword). Although here Morrison was referring to “enslavers and the enslaved,” Coates points out that this is relevant today in the way police treat black Americans. It’s been particularly visible since Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012. For six years now, we’ve watched video after video of American police officers, usually white, “beating, tasing, choking, and shooting black people for relatively mild infractions or no infraction at all.” And following their savage behavior, we see justification after justification, as the media, both mainstream and social, goes hunting for reasons why it’s actually the attackers we’re supposed to side with, not their unarmed victims. When innocent black people are murdered, we come up with reasons why they weren’t innocent; when white people murder, we come up with reasons why they were.

Racism matters. To be an Other in this country matters—and the disheartening truth is that it will likely continue to matter. Human communities rarely cede privileges out of altruism, and thus the only world in which one can imagine the subscribers of whiteness renouncing their religion is a world in which its privileges become a luxury they can ill afford. We have seen moments like this in American history. A prolonged civil war led whites to conclude that blacks were fit to die in their ranks. A cold war with the Soviet Union turned the Jim Crow South into a global embarrassment and a propaganda boon for the country’s enemies. And the governance of George W. Bush, the quagmire of war on two fronts, an economy in free fall, and the federal government’s massive failure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina paved the way for its first black president. A wave of hope greeted each of these cases, a sense that the country had somehow defeated history. And in each of these cases that hope was ultimately frustrated.


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