‘The Source of Self-Regard’ by Toni Morrison was published by Alfred Knopf in 2019. COURTESY PHOTO

The Source of Self-Regard
Selected Essays, Speeches & Meditations
by Toni Morrison
Published by Alfred Knopf 2019
Pages 350 Price $28.95

Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, died this summer on August 5, 2019. She wrote eleven books on black culture and showed America the pain of being an outsider from the mainstream of American society. She established dignity and self- respect for people of color in her books. A professor emerita at Princeton University, she was an outspoken leader in equal rights for all people and for especially for black women.

Toni Morrison was born in 1931 as Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children in an African American family. Morrison’s parents, although very poor, instilled in her a sense of pride for her heritage and the beauty of language through telling of traditional African American folktales and songs. As a child, Morrison also read many books by herself. She was a spiritual person and became Catholic at the age of twelve and took a baptismal name Anthony (after Anthony of Padua) which led to her nickname,“Toni.” As a teenager she went to Lorain High School and was on the debating team, worked on the year book, and was involved in the drama club.

In 1940 she went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a B.A. in English in 1953 and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She taught English at Howard University and met Harold Morrison, an architect, and married him in 1958. After her second child they were divorced in 1964.

In 1965 Toni became an editor for Random House textbook division in Syracuse, New York. Two years later she was transferred to New York City and became the first black woman senior editor of Random House’s fiction department. She played   a vital role in making black literature and its writers enter the mainstream of American literature.

Her first book, titled “The Bluest Eye,” was written in 1970 when she was 39. Her style in terms of range of topics in her novels includes history, sociology, and folklore. That is one of the reasons why her works are so important. In addition, her works speak to people of color with dignity and reflect their culture, experiences, and desperate needs.

Her second novel, “Sula,” about a friendship between two black women was written in 1973. Morrison went on to write 11 books including “Beloved,” the  first of three novels she wrote about African American history and love. It won the Nobel Prize in 1987.

In this book, “The Source of Self- Regard,” her valuable ideas are preserved and collected in her outstanding essays, speeches and meditations. It is a moving book to read because it unites her ideas on the importance of equal rights for people of color as well as all people from different minorities, and the importance of education. It shows that her narrative writing is eloquent, clear and moving.Topics which are covered in this book educate the general public on basic issues of freedom for people of color, respect for individual artists, and the importance  of recognition of black artists and writers in mainstream museums, text books, anthologies and literature.

Essays include specific topics such as, “Racism and Fascism,””The Role of the Individual Artist,””Harlem on My Mind,” “Black Matters,” “The Habit of Art,”  “Academic Whispers Within the Study of African American Literature,” “The Beloved,” “Romare Beardon” and “The Source of Self- Regard,” to name only a few of over 40 essays.

Morrison states in her book, “Authoritarian regimes, dictators, and 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. Writers, journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, and playwrights can awaken a population.” Morrison wakens our population in her collected essays in this book.

In the essay titled “The Individual Artist,” Morrison states, ”The individual artist is by nature a questioner and a critic and is frequently in conflict with the status quo.” She continues,”I can live without material security but I cannot live without my art. I come from a group of people who have always created art historically in visual art, music, writing, story telling, poetry, and theater.”

In her essay on Women, Race, and Memory, Morrison recalls that it took 30 years for Harriet Tubman to be paid for her service  when she was 45, for working for the U.S. Senate during the Civil War as a nurse, cook, and commander of several men. She was 75 before the U.S. Senate agreed to give her $20 a month for her lifetime. Morrison explores, racism, class, gender abuse, and mistreatment of women of color in this chapter.

Morrison states, “American women fall into one of three general categories: feminists, anti-feminists, and non- aligned humanists. Each of these groups contain sub groups and have competed with each other. However, all groups seek respect and human dignity for women.

In her essay on Romare Bearden, a famous African American artist, she states, “The 1960’s brought an explosion of creative energy. Criticism of black art involved whether it could be considered “universal,” meaning mainstream, race transcendent, and agenda free. The heart of the argument implied that if what was produced was merely political it was not art, if it was merely beautiful it was not relevant.Thus mainstream, (conventional) art critics, pondered on the value of work by African American artists.”

Romare Bearden, a famous black artist, was working before the 1960’s. His art and philosophy changed the attitude of critics. Morrison quotes Bearden, concerning mainstream art critics, as saying,”While my responses to certain human elements is as obvious as it is inevitable, I am also pleased to note that upon reflection many persons have found my works as much concerned with the aesthetic implications of my paintings, as with what may possibly be my human compassion.”Morrison supports Bearden’s work by saying,”He takes from humanity his subject matter, but his aesthetic implications are clear dealing with truth, power, and beauty in his choice of color, forms, structural placement of images, and in his fragments built up from flat surfaces.” Morrison states “This is the appropriate language to evaluate Bearden’s work.” She implies that mainstream art critics did not (historically) appreciate Bearden and the universality of his work. Fortunately we know today that Romare Bearden is considered one of the most outstanding contemporary American artists of our century.

These essays establish Toni Morrison as a leading spokeswoman of black culture of the 21st Century. This volume belongs in every library across the state and in the homes of all people interested in equal rights for all people. It reveals many insights that mainstream America has not been aware of because text book scholars in America historically have not included black artists and writers in their volumes. Morrison’s writings make us aware  of the need for more recognition of black artists and writers in mainstream literature and mainstream museums.

This book conveys that self- regard comes from within, but it also comes from recognition from outside. Self- regard is built through an appreciation of a whole culture’s contribution to a civilization by including it in its mainstream literature. Morrison is saying inclusion is respect and builds self- regard. Exclusion is a form of rejection and racism and lowers self- regard.

More black artists and writers need to be included in mainstream literature for the education of all in order for us to become a true democracy. I recommend the book highly for all public libraries, high school teachers of history and social studies, college faculties interested in teaching black culture, and all people interest in equal rights in America.

— Pat Davidson Reef is a graduate of Emerson College in Boston. She received her Masters Degree at the University of Southern Maine. She taught English and Art History at Catherine McAuley High for many years. She now teaches at the University of Southern Maine in Portland in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Classic Films. She recently wrote a children’s book,”Dahlov Ipcar Artist,” and has now completed another children’s book “Bernard Langlais Revisited.”

Comments are not available on this story.