Toni Morrison

The Origin of Others

“To lose one's racial-ized rank is to lose one's own valued and enshrined difference.”

One penetrating theory of humanity from German psychoanalysist Erich Fromm is that our deepest human desire is to overcome our separateness. If that is true, how does it fit with the extraordinary means by which humans actively separate themselves from one another?1

In The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019) directs her gentle voice and considerable intellect to the understanding and reconfiguring of racism, the beating heart of human separateness.

But for humans as an advanced species, our tendency to separate and judge those not in our clan as the enemy, as the vulnerable and the deficient needing control, has a long history not limited to the animal world or prehistoric man. Race has been a constant arbiter of difference, as have wealthy, class and gender – each of which is about power and the necessity of control.

Martin Luther King's mugshot, 1963 featured in Martin Luther King Jr.s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in the Examined Life Library.
Martin Luther King’s incarceration photo for protesting the abuse of civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama 1963.

Morrison argues we create separateness as a means to galvanize our power and the power of our tribe.

Thus in human history most societies will be found guilty of “othering”, but in America the act became institutionalized – in law, in religion, in economic practices – not to mention the building of cities, schools and in daily interactions. The “other” was instrumental to our own personal narratives of self, and in it we are all complicit.

The necessity of rendering a slave a foreign species appears to be a desperate attempt to confirm one’s own self as normal. The urgency of distinguishing between those who belong to the human race and those who are decidedly nonhuman is so powerful the spotlight turns away and shines not on the object of degradation but on its creator. […] The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s racial-ized rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference. I have rendered and explored this conundrum in almost every book I have written.

Morrison echoes something James Baldwin wrote decades earlier; “It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society.”

Baldwin continues:

Our dehumanization of the Negro is inseparable from the dehumanization of ourselves: the loss of our own identity is the price we pay for our annulment of his. Time and our own force act as our allies, creating an impossible, a fruitless tension between the traditional master and slave. Impossible and fruitless because, literal and visible as this tension has become, it has nothing to do with reality.

From James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son

Morrison reconfigures this “impossible tension” into reality by ushering us into the foul space that racism creates.

Once blackness is accepted as socially, politically, and medically defined, how does that definition affect black people? We have noticed the growth of black towns, harbors of safety and prosperity as far away as possible from white people. What must life have been like for those black inhabitants, living in a world surrounded by hostility and threats of death?

American author and mentee of Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, tells us exactly how that felt. “The greater world was obsessed over Challenger and the S&L scandal,” Coates remembers, “But we were another country, fraying at our seams. All the old rules were crumbling around us. The statistics were dire and oft recited—1 in 21 killed by 1 in 21, more of us in jail than in college.”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Buddhist teacher (and mentor to Morrison), Pema Chödrön, reckons the most deleterious aspect of society is when “people become poisoned by self-doubt and become cowards.” Such deficiency was realized in the absolute tragedy of jazz singer Billie Holiday, a Black woman who mesmerized her audience on stages across America… but was always forced to enter through the back door.

We must choose the role we will play in this institutionalized “otherness.” But our action must come from the same feelings of love we give to our children; it must be embedded in the same imagination that once believed in magic; it must be rooted in the self-suspending empathy that we get from our parents.2

I have empathy for white people, for the loss of safety, privilege and self-perceived goodness. I have empathy for everyone who is not white, empathy which is beyond my ability to express.

Toni Morrison in 2013 speaking at West Point. Source: West Point Military Academy.

Morrison’s gentle, clear writing is open to every eager mind not cloaked by cowardice and even to some that are. I found the most impactful part to be her personal experience with “othering” another.3

It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provides – especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance.. we deny her personhood,4 the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.

My quest on The Examined Life is to provide a means for us to overcome our separateness. To bring you, beloved reader, face to face with individuals who think (and fear, hope, and fail) quite the same as you do. As I do. Those similarities exist apart from our race, age etc.

That does not mean we ignore the things that do separate us.

When we enhance our consciousness we expand it to others. Morrison, whom we lost (literally, she left and I seek her still) in 2019, spent her life using her gift of “turning wordlessness into symbols” as John Steinbeck called the process of writing, to share her expanded consciousness on what it means to be Black, and much more, what it means to be human.

Circle your arms around Morrison and these beloved artists who exist, as Morrison notes, as human necessity: poet Ocean Vuong, Native American Joy Harjo, George Mikes, and Maya Angelou who has done more expand my consciousness of the “Other” than anyone.

Illustration of Toni Morrison. © The Examined Life