A Tribute to Toni Morrison's Healing Vision
Remarks by Diana Chapman Walsh at
The National Black Women's Health Project

May 9, 1998

Diana Chapman Walsh
Wellesley College

This has been a special week for me -- it began and it now ends in the company of Toni Morrison. Last Monday night, Professor Morrison was in Boston to deliver an endowed lecture at Wellesley College -- our most important intellectual event of the year.

We had dinner at my home first and then went to the lecture. Normally we hold it in our largest auditorium -- which seats over 1,500. But everyone wanted to hear Toni Morrison, so we had to use the field house, which was filled to overflowing and electric with excitement.

One student spoke for many when she wrote the next day that she will never forget the evening. "There were several times during the lecture," she said, "when I closed my eyes, blocking out visual input, and simply listened to this woman's overwhelming gift. The way she uses and luxuriates in language is absolutely hypnotic. I was listening, as Maya Angelou once said 'as if my entire body was an ear'... listening to complexities in words that form intricate webs of meaning."

So to be back in this powerful presence again so soon is a particular pleasure for me, and I feel especially privileged to join the National Black Women's Health Project and this line-up of luminaries to celebrate Toni Morrison and her new book, Paradise. I have the greatest respect, admiration and love for the Project, whose work I have followed for many years. And I have the greatest respect, admiration, and love for its founder, Byllye Avery, who has been my friend for many years. It's such a joy to be here with you tonight to honor Toni Morrison and what she represents for all women.

As my short contribution (we are all limited to five minutes) I thought I would hark back to the theme of healing in some of Toni Morrison's earlier work, leading up to Paradise, since I know many others will speak directly about Paradise.

Healing is a strong theme in Beloved, where Baby Suggs speaks of an American predicament: "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief," she says and means that all Americans -- all of us -- are haunted by the legacy of slavery.

There is no running away from this problem, no moving to an "unhaunted" house. Healing the still open wound of slavery (manifest today in the many forms of racism about of Angela Davis just spoke) requires confronting our shameful race history and acknowledging the ways in which that past is not fully past.

We have, as Toni Morrison has said, a national amnesia about slavery. Her work links the possibility of healing to a process of reclamation, the recovery of a history we have distorted and erased.

In an interview with the novelist Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison speaks about a "dead girl" she needs to rescue from the grave. This is the unnamed daughter of Margaret Garner, the slave woman who killed her child rather than see her returned to slavery.

Beloved, of course, takes off from this actual incident. But Toni Morrison makes clear in the interview that her entire fictional opus, not just Beloved, can be seen as the recovery of this lost girl:

"About the 'dead girl' ... that bit by bit I had been rescuing her from the grave of time and inattention. Her fingernails may be in the first book; face and legs, perhaps, the second time. Little by little bringing her back into living life."

This is an extraordinary way to understand a life's work -- as the reassembling of a lost, dead slave body, which fiction breathes into life.

There's a wonderful scene in Beloved when Baby Suggs leads her congregation in a healing ceremony, exhorting the men, women, and children present -- many former slaves -- to reclaim and to love their bodies as their own -- bit by bit, part by part (feet, liver, hands, face).

This process of healing parallels Toni Morrison's gradual reclamation of the parts of the dead slave girl. It also parallels the important work of the National Black Women's Health Project ... enabling women to reclaim and love their bodies as their own -- bit by bit, part by part.

Healing is a painful process in Toni Morrison's work. But, as she has said, "All important things are hard."

Healing means embracing rather than evading the past. It means assessing with a clear eye how the past affects the present. This is hard.

It is hard, too -- heartbreaking really -- to face up to one's own responsibility. And yet no healing takes place in Toni Morrison's fiction without the taking of responsibility.

Sethe is not exorcised of the daughter-ghost tormenting her until a group of women representing the community that had given her up to the slave-catcher years earlier rights this ancient wrong by embracing her as their own, implicitly acknowledging their guilt.

And then there is the powerful scene of healing between Sethe and Paul D, whose head is hurting because "There are too many things to feel about this women." Suddenly he remembers Sixo saying of his feelings for the Thirty-Mile Woman:

"She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind." Paul D realizes that Sethe is such a friend to him.

And Toni Morrison is such a friend -- a friend of the mind -- to us, to women, to women everywhere, young and old, broken and whole, black and white. That's why all of Wellesley College came out to cheer her in our sports stadium.

She give meaningful order to the fragments of the past, and through language and narrative, helps us connect to one another, helps heal the wounds that drive us apart, the wounds of historical trauma.

She reclaims and reassembles the pieces of the past and gives them back to us in the right order. She does it again in Paradise and what a gift it is. She gives us back our lives.

"Each of our lives is about finding a way to deserve to be here," Toni Morrison has said. "The only thing I can do, and have done, and will do is somehow to incorporate into the world that horror you feel when something awful happens, to redistribute the moral problem so other people can have this connection with another's pain. That's what art does. It manages that kind of horror, it makes it possible for the person to go on." (Boston Globe 5/10/98).

And, I would add (again) that's what the National Black Women's Health Project does too -- redistributes the moral problem, connecting us with each other's pain, managing the terrors and horrors of life, making it possible to for us to go on.

It's a great honor for me to join you tonight in saluting Toni Morrison -- celebrating the healing vision in her work -- and saluting this powerful grassroots organization that has supported so much healing for women across this country and around the world.


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Mary Ann Hill mhill@wellesley.edu
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Date Created: June 24, 1998
Last Updated: March 17, 1999