Toni Morrison Had No Use for the ‘Paralyzing Emotion’ of Anger
‘There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,’ she wrote. ‘We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.’
Toni Morrison warned us about anger from the very beginning.
A pivotal scene in The Bluest Eye — her debut novel — sees its protagonist, the tiny and vulnerable Pecola, recognize a kinship with the dandelions that spring from sidewalk cracks. Through Pecola’s child eyes, we see the beautiful yellow flowers afflicted by the arbitrary designation of their wrongness. They’re ugly, Pecola scolds them. They’re weeds. Similarly, she sees herself as ugly, feeling that without resembling the “smiling white face” of the blonde and blue-eyed Mary Jane cartoon, she — Pecola — can only be a weed, not a flower.
It’s then that Pecola becomes angry. Morrison described the feeling of anger as “a reality and presence. An awareness of worth.” This anger is preferable to the shame that preceded it; it’s described as a “lovely surging.” But the gravitas borne by anger is illusory and quickly turns corrosive. Turned inward, it becomes her tender protagonist’s undoing.
“I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers… and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”
Toni Morrison had many good reasons to be angry. But the greatest American novelist of the 20th century refused to surrender to that feeling’s sway, recognizing the risk of anger turning inward as an agent of self-destruction and self-defeat.
“Anger… it’s a paralyzing emotion… you can’t get anything done,” Morrison told CBS radio host Don Swaim in a 1987 interview. “People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless… it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers… and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”
Morrison’s lesson on anger resonates powerfully today. The literary titan left the physical realm on Monday at age 88, two days after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, left 22 people dead and more than two dozen wounded, signaling to the world that the United States has a “domestic white nationalist terrorism crisis.” The next day, another shooting in Dayton left 10 dead.
As America grieves and hurts, it also angers. We ask: Why do we keep letting this happen?
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, a black baby girl in the age of Jim Crow — an institutionalized version of America’s white nationalist terrorism.
She was a 39-year-old single mother of two when she published The Bluest Eye in 1970, amid the “Black Is Beautiful” afterglow of the 1960s civil rights movement. The emotional nakedness of Morrison’s writing immediately distinguished it from the work of her contemporaries. She didn’t want to perform anger, Morrison told the Guardian 42 years later, because she didn’t want to be a writer who tried to “explain” black life to a white audience:
All the books that were being published by African American guys were saying “screw whitey” or some variation of that. Not the scholars but the pop books. And the other thing they said was, “You have to confront the oppressor.” I understand that. But you don’t have to look at the world through his eyes. I’m not a stereotype; I’m not somebody else’s version of who I am.
Morrison recognized the power in honoring hard truths, validating pain for what it was instead of sublimating hurt into the exhilaration of anger. From interviews and essays, it’s clear that she saw this as a strategy for spiritual sustainability. But there was an ethical imperative, too.
“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,” she wrote for the Nation in 2015.
I’ve recently examined my own corrosive, seemingly bottomless well of anger. As a mixed-race person with Central American and European American heritage, I can’t speak from the experience of being black in America, but I can say that the science bears out Morrison’s warning, in universal terms, about the dangers of succumbing to anger’s pull. Chronic anger has been linked to a laundry list of physical maladies: depression, substance abuse, increased risk of heart attacks. It can weaken the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to sickness or infection. And, as Morrison pointed out, anger can have a paralyzing effect on a person’s ability to think clearly — and to act. Anger hampers concentration, feeds anxiety, and robs sleep.
Anger also breeds more anger. Part of this may have to do with a conscious and subconscious human tendency to mirror those around us. We’re social creatures and susceptible to social influences. But scientists also believe that we’ve evolved to transfer negative emotions more easily and quickly than positive ones. This evolutionary instinct is all about survival; if a group of people is under threat, then it’s in that group’s best interest to switch into defensive mode and become poised to attack potential aggressors. The trouble is that this behavior, while useful to our prehistoric ancestors, isn’t necessarily well-suited to life in the modern world — even a modern world as aggressive as ours has become.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
Individuals’ physical and emotional well-being depends on finding some degree of social harmony. In this aggressive world, we need each other. Reports of the rising scourge of loneliness remind us of the urgency of community and having ties to others. According to a recent survey, nearly half of Americans report being lonely some or all of the time, with social media and a lack of work-life balance cited among many potential causes. One in five millennials in another study told researchers they had zero friends. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration warns that this sense of isolation can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
But the thing about social harmony is that it requires cooperation. And in order to get along, we have to commit to communication. Honoring that commitment is difficult, especially when it’s clear that not everyone is treating one another with dignity and respect. It’s difficult in the face of injustice, cruelty, and brutality. And it lacks the “lovely surging” of the righteous anger that Pecola felt.
Morrison recalled, in that 2015 essay on the role of the artist in the Nation, an instance after a painful presidential reelection where she let herself slip into a feeling of defeat, anger, paralysis. The writer describes a friend’s response, articulating an ethos that Morrison herself strove to live by: “No! No, no, no!” she recalled her friend telling her. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
Morrison’s work did not deal in easy themes or uncomplicated emotions. She chronicled the painful American legacy of racial injustice, while making room for the human spirit to bloom, like those dandelions, from beneath the hurt.
With her typical nuance, Morrison’s warning against anger was not an argument for inaction — far from it. Instead, we should hear it as a galvanizing call to action:
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” she wrote. “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”