Melissa Harris-Perry: It's the Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. In August 2019 the world lost Toni Morrison the Nobel laureate whose work explored the inner lives of Black people and communities. In many ways, Morrison's own inner life was unknown to the millions who devoured her novels. Indeed Toni Morrison began life not as Toni but as Chloe. Here she is speaking on NPR's Fresh Air in 2015 about how she went from Chloe to Toni.
Toni Morrison: There's a wing of my family who are all Catholics. I got baptized et cetera and I chose St. Anthony of Padua as the baptismal name. Then I go away and the people in Washington, they don't know how to pronounce C-H-L-O-E. Somebody mistakenly called me Toni because she couldn't hear Chloe. I said, "Uh-huh." [laughs] I don't care. Call me Toni. It's easy you don't have to mispronounce my name.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now it may have been mere happenstance that her eventual chosen name so closely echoed her baptismal name but her work shows the many ways that faith purposefully influenced Morrison's work. I talked with Nadra Nittle about her new book, Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision which analyzes how religion and spirituality shaped both Morrison and her work.
Nadra Nittle: She was interested in centering the divine feminine. The divinity of Black women but also the ways that Black women are persecuted much like Jesus was as well. You can find both in her literature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nittle talks about Toni Morrison's spiritual life. We began by discussing how Catholicism figured into her world.
Nadra Nittle: Morrison had some family members who were Catholic. Even though her parents were Protestant she was really drawn to what she called the aesthetics of Catholicism and also the rituals of Catholicism. I think in her work, Catholicism isn't always explicit. Then later on in her book, Paradise, she really made Catholicism the front and center of that book. She has a group of outcast women who find refuge at what pretty much functioned as a convent but actually used to be a Catholic boarding school.
Because all of these women are troubled and have lots of problems, some of the more traditional people in their area start to label this convent as a coven. The women are pretty much-deemed witches.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Which brings us to magic. Maybe you can connect for us that not only this, what some folks would recognize as the Western traditions of Christianity, of Catholicism, of Protestantism but also of magic and of a particular version of Black women's embodied magic that shows up in her writings.
Nadra Nittle: That was personal for her. She was very against the term magical realism. Using magic as a literary device she believed that this wasn't a literary device, that she was reflecting the actual experiences of the Black women and men she grew up with. In her family, in particular, she believed at her mother had the gift of foresight, that her mother had visitations from ghosts.
She also found some of these other similarities in other relatives. Whether it was her grandmother, great grandparents, or even her father, they all told ghost stories to her as she was growing up. She continued to practice the telling of ghost stories which you can find actually in Bluest Eye and obviously in a book like Beloved which is entirely a ghost story.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk about beloved for a moment because in both having taught the book, written about the book, and of course learned about it, I do encounter folks who see it in different ways. There are those who do not think she is writing in a literal sense about the ghost and others who are like, "Oh, yes, no that ghost is a real no, Precious is there really? Tell me how your insights about Morrison's own understanding of the spiritual and of not magical realism but of the embodied reality of magic in that sense helps us to maybe navigate this question of what's happening in Beloved.
Nadra Nittle: There is the argument that she literally meant a ghost story. That Beloved was a ghost. That Beloved is not just a metaphor for slavery and how it haunts African Americans. The reason I came to that conclusion is because in the Yoruba tradition out of west Africa there is this belief and so-called spirit children. These were children that died at very young ages and some would also argue it includes miscarried children who come back to life as ghosts and haunt their parents.
That's part of west African folklore and Morrison would've been familiar with that because she was influenced by West African authors such as Soyinka and Achebe. She went out of her way to learn about these West African traditions and some of the language she uses in Beloved indicates that Beloved does have a lot of similarities to these ghost children in West African folklore
Melissa Harris-Perry: Anyone who's read Morrison, who's encountered her as a writer clearly understands that she is not writing exclusively. That's that narrative of write what you know is only a beginning point for her and she is clearly writing many things that she could not personally have experienced but instead is also an extraordinary researcher and perhaps unmatched creative. How does that creativity and that research connect with personal faith commitments or personal spiritual understandings for understanding how they show up together in Morrison's work?
Nadra Nittle: We've talked about West African folklore, Catholicism, the other tradition that she features in all of her books is Hoodoo. Now she never said personally that she practiced Hoodoo, this African American folk tradition that also originated from West African practices but she likely grew up being familiar with it to some degree with two African American parents from the South who were born around the turn of the century when Hoodoo would've been more widely practiced.
I think in her characters you can find people who were very much different from her who were guided by these folk traditions that she never publicly admitted to practicing. We see women healers, we see women herbalists and as they apply their knowledge whether it's of herbs, different healing methods, midwifery, we also see that she's framing these women as holy women in a sense and this was not her own personal experience but I think these women have elements as some of the elders that she encountered as a youth whether they were family members or not but they also would've likely required some research as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: My last question for you, just what do you hope that people take from your text, from your book from your vision on Morrison's spiritual vision?
Nadra Nittle: I hope people take from the book that African American Spirituality is very complicated. That we often hear how African Americans were "beaten" into Christianity, that it was a religion that was forced down our throats as a result of enslavement. I think Morrison's literature shows how African Americans made Christianity their own and also how West African religious traditions influenced the Black church and continue to do so today that was
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Nadra Nittle, author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision.
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