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Toni Morrison’s Democracy of Vision

Michael Ondaatje
When has a voice been this intimate, and versatile? Affectionate, far-reaching, self-aware, and also severe, dismissive of fools?

Valerie Gerrard Browne/Chicago History Museum/Bridgeman Images

Archibald Motley: Nightlife, 1943

When has a voice been this intimate, and versatile? Affectionate, far-reaching, self-aware, and also severe, dismissive of fools?

There’s this range in the manner of Toni Morrison’s voice. She is always full of swerves—from humor, to anger, to music. We see all that in the narrator of Jazz who holds this remarkable novel together.

“I like the feeling of a told story,” Morrison has said, “where you can hear a voice but you can’t identify it. It’s a comfortable, guiding voice, alarmed by the same things that the reader is alarmed by, and it doesn’t know what’s going to happen either… To have the reader work with the author in the construction of the book—is what’s important.”

We are always participating when we read Toni Morrison. During a quiet lull, the Narrator will remember—“And another damn thing.” Or in the middle of a flashback, she will parse a gesture—“That is what makes me worry about him. How he thinks first of his clothes, and not the woman… But then he scrapes the mud from his Baltimore soles before he enters a cabin with a dirt floor and I don’t hate him much anymore.” It’s those Baltimore soles, and the precision of “much anymore.” And besides, who else but Toni Morrison will interrupt a flashback?

There is this constant switching of the formal and colloquial, of perspective and vocabulary, so that her stories feel gathered from everywhere. Where does this voice, this language, come from? Is it American Homeric?

There’s a documentary on Charlie Parker that has a famous moment when he is asked what he thought set him apart from all the other saxophone players. His reply was simply, “The octave, man, just the octave.”


“Do you have your audience in mind when you sit down to write,” Toni Morrison was once asked. “Only me,” she replied.  

I love the faith she has in her own craft. This is her talking to students in Mississippi. “As I write I don’t imagine a reader or listener, ever. I am the reader and the listener myself, and I think I am an excellent reader… I mean I really know what’s going on… I have to assume that I am also this very critical, very fastidious, and not-easily-taken-in reader who is smart enough to participate in the text—a lot.”

And she speaks often of loving the rewrite—“The best part of all, the absolutely most delicious part… I try to make it look like I never touched it.” It is her care for the gradually discovered story that makes us fully trust her. It is how we are intimately altered by her books, and it was why Beloved would change everything.

I did get to meet and know Toni Morrison now and then, over the years, and what I remember most is her great humor. But I am really an intimate of hers as a reader. So I speak as one of many writers who love the skill of her craft, her moral voice, some of whom grew up in Pakistan, in Nigeria, Trinidad, Bogota, or Tripoli. She is much more than “an American Writer.” She is universal. Sometimes, we find our true ancestors in other countries and become enlarged because we know their essays, their novels, those paragraphs that becalm us or devastate us, and so no longer remain solitary in the distance. 

I read Jazz for the first time in June of 1992, dazzled by its choreography: how she drew us with ease from 1926 Harlem back into the history of its characters; how she constructed and then reconsidered the story—until there was this fully lit diorama where we could witness the past while we remained in the intimacy of the present. All that done by the guiding voice of a Narrator, who is, in a way, the most essential character in the book.

But here is the long-range octave, or what Morrison would call “the kick.” 

Toward the end of Jazz, the narrator realizes that what is happening in the novel is not what she claimed so confidently would happen in the opening pages. She discovers, in fact, that there is more complexity in her invented characters than she imagined. There is this moment when Morrison, in the voice of the Narrator, allows her to confess to this misinterpretation of those in the story:

I missed the people altogether. I thought I knew them… Now it’s clear why they contradicted me at every turn… they knew how little I could be counted on; how poorly, how shabbily, my know-it-all self covered helplessness. That when I invented stories about them—and doing it seemed to me so fine—I was completely in their hands…  

So I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle… I was the predictable one, confused in my solitude into arrogance…

It never occurred to me that they were thinking other thoughts, feeling other feelings, putting their lives together in ways I never dreamed of.

It is this confession, made with craft and voice, that reveals the vast democracy of vision and humanity in Toni Morrison herself.


Adapted from a speech delivered at the memorial service for Toni Morrison in New York City on November 21, 2019.

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