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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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
"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
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.