Toni Morrison lit the way to guide us out of our troubles

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On Tuesday, May 29th, 2012, President Barack Obama delivered remarks about Toni Morrison at a ceremony awarding her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Posted: Aug 6, 2019 2:00 PM
Updated: Aug 6, 2019 2:00 PM

Toni Morrison's death this week at 88 comes at a fraught moment, when the country feels trapped in a hornets' nest of racist rage and violence. America is being summoned, yet again, to atone for its original sin, white supremacy.

But the horrors of recent days remind us that Morrison made art that was urgently political. Her work signifies the social and cultural transfigurations dominating the American landscape at the hinge binding two centuries.

If poets, as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then perhaps novelists are the advocates. They are the petitioners for people's right to be as complex and distinctive and strange as they can be. The greater and more ambitious the novelist, the more demanding she is of her readers' understanding, not just of how words fit together, but of how much the characters remind readers of people they know -- and how much those characters' struggles intersect with their own, no matter their differences in age, class, race or sex.

Morrison was a committed and persuasive advocate for human complexity. She was an African American woman writing from the perspective of her culture and background. Yet, as with her fellow Nobel laureates William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Saul Bellow, she magnified her experience and the history of her people through language and imagery that made it impossible for all but the most blinkered skeptics to see something of themselves in her books.

Whether it was the young black girl in Morrison's 1970 debut, "The Bluest Eye," psychically deformed by her yearning for blond hair and white skin; the title character in "Sula," who fights for the right to be her own person despite what her own community demands; the desperate enslaved woman in "Beloved," who murders her own daughter as salvation from bondage; Milkman Dead, the daring young hero of "Song of Solomon," whose ability to fly only goads him toward a deeper transcendence from racism and dread, Morrison made them all live in readers' hearts through an alchemy of music, magic and mood.

But she didn't stop with giving people dreams, to paraphrase what the late critic John Leonard, her friend and greatest advocate, said about her. Morrison wanted to share her sense of her people's possibilities for growth and change. In doing so, she hoped to make the whole world change its perceptions of black Americans and acknowledge both its complicity in their oppression and its obligation to transform itself into a community as generous, spirited and empathetic as the one that raised her. First you imagine, she seemed to say. Then you act.

"I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams," she wrote. "It seems to me that the best art is political and you ought to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time."

Her books will outlast the present moment, even with its traumatic violence and divisive rhetoric, because of that irrevocable beauty she cites above.

It's sad that Morrison won't be here to guide us out of our current catastrophe. But if more and greater books from the countless authors she inspired follow in her wake -- and they have -- it will be because she lighted the way for them.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 145636

Reported Deaths: 3745
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto963299
Hinds9584195
Harrison6848109
Jackson6124118
Rankin528598
Lee484295
Madison4633105
Forrest368186
Jones345287
Lauderdale3350143
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Washington3097107
Lamar281849
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Marshall208350
Leflore200890
Pontotoc194728
Monroe190277
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Lincoln186165
Warren172257
Tate164251
Union160925
Pike160458
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Scott150229
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Coahoma147443
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Simpson144253
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Prentiss140429
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Leake131843
Holmes124961
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Wayne115823
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Tishomingo106142
Newton102729
Chickasaw102432
Tallahatchie95527
Clarke88553
Clay87027
Jasper81122
Walthall75028
Stone72414
Montgomery71925
Calhoun71613
Carroll70614
Lawrence70214
Yalobusha69427
Noxubee69217
Smith68816
Perry65225
Tunica59619
Greene58422
Claiborne57416
Jefferson Davis54217
Humphreys52618
Amite51214
Benton48417
Quitman4796
Webster42014
Kemper40917
Wilkinson38622
Jefferson33811
Franklin3235
Choctaw3077
Sharkey30617
Issaquena1114
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 236865

Reported Deaths: 3472
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson31043491
Mobile19446360
Tuscaloosa12684150
Madison12528146
Montgomery12122235
Shelby992276
Baldwin837684
Lee759765
Morgan626247
Calhoun6049113
Etowah600564
Marshall596153
Houston510838
DeKalb469635
Cullman421136
Limestone408844
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Elmore398961
Lauderdale387253
Walker356199
Talladega339044
Jackson302524
Colbert297641
Blount282236
Autauga266139
Franklin246233
Coffee236615
Dale228454
Dallas222331
Russell21923
Chilton218537
Covington215933
Escambia196931
Tallapoosa171790
Chambers171448
Pike156014
Clarke155319
Marion135535
Winston126623
Lawrence123936
Geneva11848
Pickens117618
Marengo117424
Barbour116710
Bibb115717
Butler114341
Randolph100321
Cherokee99624
Hale93231
Washington89918
Clay89623
Fayette86216
Henry8436
Lowndes78929
Monroe77911
Cleburne75614
Macon71720
Crenshaw70330
Bullock69019
Conecuh68214
Perry6726
Lamar6337
Wilcox62818
Sumter56222
Choctaw41813
Greene41317
Coosa3144
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