“A Lightness of Being: Toni Morrison’s theology”
Living a life of “lightness” in a world that wants to weigh you down. Weight=binary thinking. Lightness=intersectionality. UU expression of faith seeks lightness of being, much like Toni Morrison’s characters such as Sula lived in a world beyond the binary, freely imagining new possibilities for existence, beyond life vs. death, black vs. white, enslaved vs. free.
From Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature:
Once upon a time, there was an old woman. Blind, but wise. Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures. Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise. In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town.
Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.” She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?” Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender, or homeland.
She only knows their motive. The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Her answer can be taken to mean: If it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.
For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims.
The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.” – Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture in Literature
Morrison goes on to speculate the bird in the hand is writing, and she the blind woman.
Reading this passage, I felt a strong sense that Unitarian Universalism, and liberal religion is the bird, and it is you who hold its tender fate in your hands. Will you let it live?
Toni Morrison said famously, the function of freedom is to free somebody else.
Do you feel free? I don’t mean happy, I don’t mean satisfied, I mean, are you free?
Many of us feel free, and yet are still enslaved by systems that are not always visible to us,
keeping us caged into assumptions of how we must respond or behave. Keeping us from our full human potential, our full capacity for empathy and community. Because we cannot always see ways we are still not free, we do not always treat each other with equal dignity, even in religious community where that is our sacred covenant. Many of us, despite our efforts, continue to commit microagressions. This is what it feels like to be on the receiving end.
Have you ever burned yourself on steam? I did, just this last week, while frantically cooking a hurried weeknight family dinner, cauldrons bubbling like a modern-day house witch. It is strange to be burned by steam, because it is but vapor, barely visible to the eye. In fact, the pain arrives after the burn itself, just a momentary switch of disorientation and attention before the body responds and acts, snatching one’s arm away from the offending spot in air. I feel silly, embarrassed with myself, I shouldn’t have been in the steam’s path.
Just as fast, the pain follows, searing into skin, the homemaker’s brand, I suppose. Pain blooms with haste, like a rose unfurling at the speed of light. The burn was an utter surprise, I was caught off guard, I didn’t even see the steam, and yet, there it was all along. Days later, the attack by invisible weaponry remains.
The sensation has abated, but it looks like it will leave a scar, and every so often, a dull reminder throbs and pulses in my arms nerves, reminding me of my mistake of placing myself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the path of an invisible predator, designed to scald and then disappear slickly back into the atmosphere once again, like it was never there at all.
Micro-aggressions are like this. Someone says something that feels at first just a bit off, and you wonder, disoriented, if it hurts, then all at once it stings, it burns, it leaves an angry mark on your sense of legitimacy as a person.
It comes out of nowhere, there is no way to prepare other than a nostalgic feeling of shame for being in that person’s path at all. The steam does not mean to scald the chef, and yet that is steam’s purpose: to bring heat. It meant well. No one can see my burn anymore except me, unless, that is, I show it to people. (SHOW BURN) You see? I can say. I was burned. I hope you’ll trust me that I was burned, though the steam was just doing what steam does.
A lot of us have moments of our lives when we can pinpoint an awakening to insidious structures of power and the damage they inflict on intimate relationships and our own sense of identity in the world. Maybe it was the first time you realized other kids with different parents had college funds, or trust funds. Maybe it was the first time you learned about government cheese. Perhaps it was the first time you felt completely helpless, after a lifetime of feeling in control.
I remember my awakening well.
It happened in an undergraduate English course called Black Women Writers. Taught by the formidable professor Dr. Carolyn Beard-Whitlow, the enrolled students were women only, roughly 50% of us white, and 50% of us black. That semester was life opening and eruptive and disruptive and painful. We read literary giants such as Danticat, Sapphire, Naylor, Gayle Jones, and of course, Toni Morrison. I remember my best friend at the time, a Christian white girl from middle Tennessee, sitting stunned throughout the class discussions, blue eyes as big as saucers, just looking back and forth, back and forth like someone sitting in the front row of a tennis match of emotions.
I still believe that if you want to understand the experience of people who did not grow up with your experience, you must make the effort to read novels by writers who share that experience. I would love for UUCA to start an Empathy Book Club, where each month we read novels like Beloved, Stone Butch Blues, Middlesex, The Fire Next Time, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and so many others. I don’t know how else to really try to learn empathy, to understand someone else’s experience and their identity and their struggles without reading about them.
And I don’t mean historical fiction. I believe in the art form of the novel: being immersed in an artistic rendering of someone’s story is an all-encompassing, mystical experience. It’s like listening to music, hiking up a mountain, worshipping at the altar of creation. And no one’s novels open my heart and my spirit more than Toni Morrison.
In The Christian Century, Amy Frykhom writes:
In Toni Morrison’s 2012 novel Home, Frank Money and his sister, Cee, are physically and spiritually broken when they return to the rural Georgia town where they were raised. They have come home to try to save their lives. Key to their eventual salvation are the women of the town, who receive Frank and Cee in a way that recognizes the couple as in one sense nothing special and in another sense more precious than anything in the world.
The women offer what Morrison calls a “demanding love,” a love that can heal what has been broken while helping the two tell the truth about their lives. They harshly criticize the choices Cee has made in her life.
Almost every Morrison novel contains women like these: straight-talking, hardworking, and nurturing to a degree that is holy, perhaps divine. These kind of women are at the heart of Morrison’s religious vision.
To locate Morrison’s understanding of the sacred, you have to sit for a while with these women.
She objects to any religious vocabulary that is inauthentic to her subjects or that fits easily into a consumer culture. Morrison seeks to communicate through her characters a religious life that is at once mystical, practical, and communal—and that leads above all to spiritual freedom.
Frykholm explains, Spiritual freedom is my term, not Morrison’s. Her term is simply freedom, and I assume that this is because freedom for her is never extricable from its social aspects. In America, slavery always hangs in the background in discussions of freedom; and slavery, like freedom, has both personal and societal aspects.
In the novel Home, after Cee has gone through a long regimen of prescribed healing, Miss Ethel talks to her about freedom. “Look to yourself. You free. Nothing and nobody is obliged to save you but you.
Seed your own land. You young and a woman and there’s serious limitation in both, but you a person too. Don’t let Lenore or some trifling boyfriend and certainly no devil doctor decide who you are. That’s slavery. Somewhere inside you is that free person I’m talking about. Locate her and let her do some good in the world.”
The fact that Miss Ethel is the daughter of sharecroppers who were the children of slaves cannot be forgotten when she tells Cee to “seed [her] own land.” The land is a mystical place, but it is also a physical place. A person who is fundamentally free has to be “located” physically and spiritually; the identity has to be claimed to find full expression.
In response to Miss Ethel, “Cee put her finger in the blackberry jar. She licked it. ‘I ain’t going nowhere, Miss Ethel. This is where I belong.’”
In putting her finger in the blackberry jar, Cee claims the goodness of the world for herself and claims her connection to others and to a particular place on earth. The place where she belongs is the place where she can learn to be free. Religion can have this elevating and liberating effect, allowing a person to claim the free person inside themselves. Morrison suggests that God is the source of this dignity.
In the essay “Race Matters,” collected first in Playing in the Dark (1992), Morrison envisions the kind of home that might offer both location and freedom: “an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors,” one in which people can be both “free and situated.” She is trying to describe what might remain of racial identity once one is freed from racist reality. But the image might also be applied to other kinds of identities, including religious ones.
A religious identity might also be open but grounded, “generous in its supply of windows and doors”—providing entry and exit points, and views on the wider world.
Or to draw on another metaphor from Morrison’s fiction, being free and situated means living life the way a musician plays a piece of jazz. The musician is tied to an underlying melody or chord progression but is also creating something new. -Amy Frykholm
Our UU faith is wrestling with belonging. I want to be clear: you all belong here. This is your place, and when you join, you join into a holy covenant with one another, to treat each other with dignity, and to help each other get free.
The love we must bring to one another is the demanding love of Morrison’s women. Our work together is not only to connect with those who you like, but to offer a demanding love to one another. To nurture one another, love one another, and then challenge each other to do better. I believe each of us are capable of evolving, growing, changing into people who know how to share the blackberry jar. Do you? Do you believe that about each other? Do you believe that even you are capable of radical transformation into someone who will honor the worth and dignity of those of us who cannot always count on it?
Our faith is a fragile bird in your hand. Will you allow it’s tender life to continue? Will you do the hard work on yourself, to understand and eventually free yourself from the legacies of whiteness, or maleness, or privilege, if that applies to you? Can you lovingly become not only free, but spiritually free? I do. That is my faith statement. Through a demanding love, through claiming the good for ourselves and sharing it always with others, we can all become free, and let the bird not only live, but fly.