The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Synopsis

“America’s foremost novelist reflects on the themes that preoccupy her work and increasingly dominate national and world politics: race, fear, borders, the mass movement of peoples, the desire for belonging. What is race and why does it matter? What motivates the human tendency to construct Others? Why does the presence of Others make us so afraid?

Drawing on her Norton Lectures, Toni Morrison takes up these and other vital questions bearing on identity in The Origin of Others. In her search for answers, the novelist considers her own memories as well as history, politics, and especially literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Camara Laye are among the authors she examines. Readers of Morrison’s fiction will welcome her discussions of some of her most celebrated books–BelovedParadise, and A Mercy.

If we learn racism by example, then literature plays an important part in the history of race in America, both negatively and positively. Morrison writes about nineteenth-century literary efforts to romance slavery, contrasting them with the scientific racism of Samuel Cartwright and the banal diaries of the plantation overseer and slaveholder Thomas Thistlewood. She looks at configurations of blackness, notions of racial purity, and the ways in which literature employs skin color to reveal character or drive narrative. Expanding the scope of her concern, she also addresses globalization and the mass movement of peoples in this century. National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates provides a foreword to Morrison’s most personal work of nonfiction to date.”

-Synopsis from StoryGraph

Review

Cover of The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
Cover image from StoryGraph

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison, with foreword by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is just under one hundred pages, making it a book you can read in a day, or even in one sitting. The length of the book does not correlate with how strong the subject matter is, or the fact that it will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading.

The book is divided into six chapters: Romancing Slavery, Being or Becoming the Stranger, the Color Fetish, Configurations of Blackness, Narrating the Other, and The Foreigner’s Home. Each examines a different aspect of race, belonging, being the Other, and more.

I took a class on Postcolonial Literature in college and was introduced to some of the topics that Morrison writes about here. That class dramatically changed my perspective of both American literature and American history.

I would love to see books such as The Origin of Others being taught as supplementary readings in public high schools, a time when teens are typically studying classic literature, so much of which we know now to be problematic. Morrison discusses this in the book, and I think her analyses would have a profound impact on teens who are at such formative times in their lives.

I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to educate themselves about racism, race, and why it is so important. I would also recommend reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me which is another profound examination of American history and the current racial crises.

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