toni morrison and the cultivation of goodness

February 18, 2019
1.7K Picks

The quote that has captured the internet using public’s imagination by Toni Morrison seems to be, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

This quote has been turned into a meme and for good reason: It succinctly names that white supremacy isn’t based in anything, but the manipulation of realities and public discourse to establish whiteness as always being regarded as supreme and things that fail whiteness — namely Blackness — as always in question of its true worthiness. This dance has wasted time. It has made it so that brilliant Black people who have expansive imaginations and incredible ability using these tools to disprove fallacies about Blackness that were designed to support the brutal fantasy of white supremacy.

However, the entirety of Morrison’s comments, pulled from a keynote at Portland State in 1975, is often removed from the work I believe she intended to be done with naming the truth around the function of white supremacy. It served as a type of cheat code to remind the Black public that often the narratives and arguments crafted by white supremacist media, usually just seen as the mainstream media, are designed to distract Black liberation and creative initiatives by offering — as both news and gossip fodder — anti-Black myths that nobody with critical thinking skills believes has any intellectual or moral integrity.  The work that it does do is have a oppressed people more concerned with explaining the self than freeing the self. More concerned with proving the existence of a self, rather than reimagining the self. And often when it comes to Black people in America, being engaged as a self instead of an object.

Too often this quote is appropriated to correct white supremacist ideas and motivations that come up in media. For instance, conservative pundit, Tomi Lohren, may express ridiculous (and racist) ideas about Black men, how they dress, and how they are inherently dangerous. We know it is ridiculous to think that danger and skin color have any correlation, but because of the magnitude of her voice and our need to reestablish our humanity, we might engage these comments for hours — even days — in attempt to prove Black men are not inherently dangerous. A distraction and lie we should never believe to begin with, let alone engage. Because as we’re engaging this distraction, we put down the serious discourse of how it is we’re going to liberate the Black male from the white supremacist patriarchy that both creates toxic (too often lethal) behavior in Black men and makes Black men specifically vulnerable to toxic (and too often lethal) acts on his life, body, and mind. There are various other examples of how this manifests outside of the Black male identity, but this example is closest to the societal location I inhabit in America.

Toni Morrison once told The Guardian, “I just think goodness is more interesting,” Morrison continues, “Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.”

If there was something I wished would newly go viral and be turned into a digital phenomenon, it would be Morrison’s meditations on goodness. The idea that goodness is the more sophisticated and interesting choice in life, and bargaining and debating with evil can often distract us from the work of creating new ways, more interesting ways to be good and make righteousness, as well as revolution, irresistible as Morrison’s late friend, Toni Cade Bambara, once said. It’s only when we refuse to be distracted by evil that the focus can be cultivating goodness.