Toni Morrison died.
I was so lucky that my friend, Roshi Pat O’Hara, told me to go see the documentary Toni Morrison: Pieces of Me, which I did some two weeks ago. If you haven’t seen it, see it.
When I was in Teachers College, the renowned education professor, Maxine Green, told all her students to read The Bluest Eye and Sula. She said that the country hadn’t seen anything quite like these books before. I did, and followed a year or so later with Song of Solomon.
Morrison refused to make victims of her characters. She knew darn well that abstractions like victims and perpetrators lack the personal. They lack story. They may make sense for police work, but they capture very little of what matters.
White people didn’t get much play in her books. They were out there, of course. Hate was out there, racism, heartlessness, and oppression were out there, but that’s not what she wrote about. She wrote about what was in here, inside her characters’ lives. She gave them choices, she gave them moral autonomy. In doing so, she freed them.
Which brings me to the epithet racist, and specifically to the question of who’s a racist and who is not.
After Donald Trump won election in 2016 I had coffee with a lovely woman who’d helped take care of Bernie on Saturday mornings when I was in the zendo. I’ll call her Julia. I knew Julia had voted for Donald Trump.
“I am not a racist,” she told me a couple of times during our conversation.
Towards the end of our coffee together she told me that her son loved country music. “You know what bothers him?” she said. “Why aren’t they allowed to fly the Confederate flag during country music concerts? I mean, what’s the harm in doing that?”
“Julia,” I said, “does he understand what the flag stands for?”
“I think so, but that was so long in the past, Eve, what’s the harm of flying it now?”
Is Julia a racist? Is Donald Trump a racist? What information are we trying to winnow out by asking that question? A sense of their ethics and values, their social awareness? Whatever it is, it’s getting impossible to get at any of that anymore, everything gets blurred in the cacophony of name-calling.
In one of our retreats at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a German man suggested that in addition to chanting the names of those who died, we should also chant the names of the camp guards whose deluded actions brought on so much suffering. The suggestion brought on a near-riot. “Absolutely not!” someone yelled. “Never! Never! Never!” someone else said.
Then Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi asked to speak. He said that in old Israel, a rabbinical court was empowered to issue judgments, including for crimes that called for the death penalty. But when death was at stake, the Talmud added an injunction. Unlike what’s done in our juries, where unanimity is required for conviction, the Talmud demanded that in capital cases, if all judges agreed that the accused was guilty and should be put to death, the verdict was put aside and the accused had the right to another rabbinical trial.
Why? Because life is not unanimous. Life is not black and white, pure evil or pure goodness. Life is decisions made within social and economic contexts; life is story and history.
Toni Morrison understood that so well. “What kind of person are you,” she asked, “if you need someone else to kneel so that you could feel tall?”
Racism permeates our society, those people asked to kneel and those who raise themselves above them. Who’s not part of that machinery? But Toni Morrison didn’t idealize and didn’t villainize. She used words to get at whatever is behind words.