Missing Toni Morrison: raceAhead

August 6, 2019, 9:35 PM UTC

Toni Morrison, a giant of literature and a towering voice for black lives and identities, died today at 88. She was a novelist, essayist, and teacher; she was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature; she was a guiding light for many black writers, including this one.

She used her art and platform to hold a mirror to a troubled world to show us our true selves. It is a monumental loss.

No doubt your feeds are filled with tributes, clips, and quotes, I hope you take time to enjoy them all. I’ll add my own in the form of two relevant passages from her more recent essays, in which she addresses the turbulent times in which we live and presciently diagnoses the toxic rot that is white supremacy.

In 2016, Morrison wrote an essay for The New Yorker as part of a series on the election of President Donald Trump. “Mourning for Whiteness,” reminds us that nothing we’re experiencing is new. 

“This is a serious project,” she begins. “All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.”

White Americans are taking reluctant action, she explains, to stave off the collapse of white privilege by justifying the full embrace of “a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength.”

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

In 2015, facing a different existential threat, Morrison wrote an essay for The Nation’s 150th anniversary issue. She recalled the advice she got when she confessed to a friend a moment of paralyzing dread at the state of the world in 2004. It was a different election, but an eerily similar time. Instead, she got a different shock to her system. “I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!’”

In this contemporary world of violent protests, internecine war, cries for food and peace, in which whole desert cities are thrown up to shelter the dispossessed, abandoned, terrified populations running for their lives and the breath of their children, what are we (the so-called civilized) to do…?

Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.

Rest in power, Ms. Morrison. The rest of us, let’s go to work.

Editor’s note: Want to do some of the work together? We would appreciate your confidential feedback on our products and platforms as we build the new Fortune. Join our Global Advisory Panel here.

On Point

Vigils to mark the Voting Rights Act of 1965 scheduled for across the country today Honestly, the vigils could be for a host of important reasons at this point. But roughly four dozen are scheduled in some 17 states to both commemorate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and to protest the elimination of a provision that has allowed racially discriminatory voting districts and voting practices to proliferate. "Since the VRA was gutted in 2013, 20 states have passed discriminatory voting laws including gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and voter purges that have put up barriers to voting and suppressed the voices of entire communities," the Action Network, a collation of progressive groups, said in encouraging attendance at the candle-lit vigils. "Tell Congress that enough is enough—it's time to restore the Voting Rights Act. Find a list of all the events here. The Fulcrum

Donald Trump has run over 2,000 Facebook ads describing immigration as an 'invasion' since May 2018 This was reported by extremism and social media researcher/reporter Natalie Martinez of Media Matters on Sunday, after two deadly mass shootings occurred over the weekend. Martinez got the data from Facebook’s archives. “Scrolling through, all of them seem to be about immigration,” she tweeted. She also posted screenshots of some of the ads. The 21-year-old white man who is accused of opening fire in an El Paso Walmart echoed the president’s language in a manifesto he appears to have posted before he began his rampage: “[T]his attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” A Twitter account that is believed to belong to the shooter liked an image of guns arranged to spell out "Trump." Natalie Martinez for Media Matters

Black drivers still disproportionately targeted in traffic stops in Ferguson This week marks the fifth anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Five years later, despite protests, town meetings, two full-time and three interim police chiefs, a federal consent decree mandating changes to policing and court procedures, and a new state law demanding the same, black motorists are still being targeted by police at much higher rates than white ones. In fact, reports John Eligon, the disparity has only grown. “I can’t say things have gotten better,” the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization that has fought ticketing practices told the New York Times. “I understand the status quo to be one of structural racism, poverty, overinvestment in the carceral system, and policing and prosecution. That is as real today in 2019 as it was five years ago in 2014.” New York Times

Corporations may have a role to play in curbing youth summer unemployment Despite a jittery stock market and fears of a weakening economy, the labor market remains strong. But only if you’re over 18. Today, only 35.4% of teens are participating in the labor market, a steady decline since 2001. Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, ticks through a number of clear benefits of summer employment programs for teens—crime, accidents, and incarceration rates down, academic performance up—but the city programs that offer them are being curtailed, and federal funding was eliminated in the 1990s. So, who’s left? Fortune

On Background

Addressing violent events: Best practices for teachers and parents It’s a nightmarish conundrum. Talk about what’s happened and risk frightening children. Don’t talk about what’s happened and risk normalizing terror, or worse, teaching kids that they can’t talk about difficult or scary things. Facing History, a nonprofit educational and professional development organization has a guide to help you sort out your own feelings on the issue, designed specifically for terroristic violence aimed at people based on their identity. It offers good advice on declaring and maintaining safety in the classroom, a method for unpacking the nature of hate crimes, and a discussion on healthy community responses. One question they recommend for students about media consumption works for everyone else, too: “How can you stay informed about the event while at the same time ensuring that you are taking care of yourself and your peers?” Facing History

The attack of the racist tomatoes This breakdown of tomato farming in the U.S. is here to remind us that most American tomatoes don’t taste great. The reason being “about 20% science and 80% racism.” When most American farmers left for World War II, the bracero program brought in Mexican migrant workers to fill the farming gap. When anti-immigrant sentiment contributed to the program’s end, Gordie C. Hanna offered a solution: a farming machine. Hanna’s machine would pick the “processing tomatoes,” those that go into ketchup, and the tomatoes sold at the supermarket would continue to be picked by hand. And who would gather the picked-too-soon-to-save-costs tomatoes? Mainly immigrants and black farmers who work in extremely harsh conditions for essentially no pay. Cracked

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead.


"The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas."

Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 7, 1993

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