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The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison

The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison (2017). French title: L’origine des autres. Translated by Christine Laferrière.

I have one rule on my blog: I write a billet about every book I read, even if I didn’t like it or couldn’t finish it. This rule is a problem when it comes to The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. It’s a collection of six conferences that she did at Harvard University in 2016. I have read them in French and frankly, I don’t have the vocabulary to write properly about them in English.

They are all about using the concept of race as a way to dominate other people. Her explanations are based on history, on psychology and literature.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Connor, The Sound and the Fury and Absalon, Absalon! by William Faulkner, To Have and Have Not or The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye are part of her demonstrations. She shares her own experience of racism, explains what she meant in some of her novels like Beloved.

These essays are fascinating. It’s only 92 pages, it’s thought provoking and clear. I’m not able to discuss them here or to quote them since I have read them in translation. So instead of doing a poor job of it, I will only recommend you to get this little gem and read these conferences. I truly envy those who had the chance to attend them. It doesn’t seem to be available in audiobook but it would be worth it.

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier for Télérama

  1. April 18, 2018 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for writing this. There’s a good analysis of Morrison’s work by Nell Irvin Painter, as well: https://newrepublic.com/article/144972/toni-morrisons-radical-vision-otherness-history-racism-exclusion-whiteness

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    • April 18, 2018 at 9:00 pm

      Thanks a lot for the link to this article. Having a real writer write about it is what Morrison’s essay deserves.

      Romain Gary wrote that racism is when people don’t matter, have no value, are “other”, not like you so what you do to them doesn’t matter, doesn’t count as a wrong. Here’s the quote:

      Le racisme, c’est quand ça ne compte pas. Quand ils ne comptent pas. Quand on peut faire n’importe quoi avec eux, ça ne compte pas, parce qu’ils ne sont pas comme nous. Tu comprends ? Ils ne sont pas des nôtres. On peut s’en servir sans déchoir. On ne perd pas sa dignité, son honneur. Ils sont tellement différents de nous qu’il n’y a pas à se gêner, il ne peut y avoir… il ne peut y avoir jugement voilà. On peut leur faire faire n’importe quelle vile besogne parce que de toute façon, le jugement qu’ils portent sur nous, ça n’existe pas, ça ne peut pas salir… C’est ça, le racisme.

      I’m not sure but here’s my suggestion of a translation (even if you don’t need it)

      Racism is when it doesn’t matter. When they don’t matter. When you can do anything to them, and it doesn’t count because they’re not like us. You understand? They don’t belong. We can use them without demeaning ourselves. We don’t lose our dignity, our honour. They’re so different from us that there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no…there’s no question of them judging us, that’s it. We can have them do whatever lowly task we want because the judgment they pass on us doesn’t exist anyway. It can’t sully us…This is what racism is.

      I’m currently reading a novel set in the convict era in Australia and it’s the same sort of concept: you can flog the prisoners and it doesn’t matter, there’s no stain on you from it because they’re “other”, not like you, not acknowledged as your equal. And somewhat, the novel The Murderess by Papadiamantis seems like a cousin to Morrison’s Beloved.

      America has problems with the color black and that’s what Toni Morrison points out.

      James Baldwin wrote in his short-story This Morning, This Evening, So Soon that the French treat immigrants from the Maghreb countries the way white Americans treat black people. It horrified me and it made me think.
      And you know what? He’s right. They are victim of the same deep and irrational racism. They have recognizable features, like hair and different names. And no matter how long their family has been in France, they are “Arabs”, which is a term I hate because it doesn’t mean anything.

      In French, you have a very effective way to make someone feel their “otherness” : you say “tu” to them instead of “vous”. As you know, you’re not supposed to say “tu” to an adult you’ve never met before. And I remember as a child seeing adults say a condescending “tu” to immigrants from North Africa, just because they felt they could, that this person was not their equal, was below them. And I was shocked then just I am shocked now to hear someone being called “Arab” because she has curly brown hair. As if they had to be branded as immigrants for eternity because someone on their family tree left his country in search of a better life. And it’s often used with a veiled contempt.

      And like white Americans conveniently forget that they brought black people in America, French people conveniently forget that they invited these workers in France at the time. We’d need a James Baldwin or a Toni Morrison to explore how we treat people with origins from North Africa. I think it’s a different racism, more frequent and differently rooted than the one towards black people. It’s probably because, like Americans have the shameful past of slavery, we have a shameful past of colonization, especially in Algeria.

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  2. April 18, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    I should read the Papadiamantis novel — I’ve now heard about it from several people, so I think the evidence is mounting that it’s worth putting on my list. And yes, it seems to be a relative of Beloved.
    Baldwin is still almost shocking to read, and certainly to see in his television appearances. He restates in different ways the same fact: that in the context of white America, making black people the Other has narrowed and damaged the idea and the experience of being human. It harms everyone when some parts of humanity are excluded from what any of us can be.
    In that passage you translated, there’s that phrase “Il ne peut y avoir jugement”, which means, as you said, that “they” can’t judge “us”. But it seems to me that it also means those committing the acts of violence can’t judge, they can’t see their own actions, and therefore they don’t fully exist as moral beings. Everyone is diminished.

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    • April 26, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      Sorry for the very late answer, lots on things going on at the same time.
      The Papadiamantis is very good.

      I never thought about Morrison’s point of how non-WASP whites used their “whiteness” to speed up their integration in America during the big wave of immigration at the end of the 19th century / beginning of the 20th C. It comforted black people as being “Other” and it’s a very good point.

      She makes it quite clear that the treatment of black people negates them as humanbeings but it does the same to the white people who behave that way. As you say, they lose some part of their humanity.
      It’s also true for the masters who reign on the convicts in Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life. That’s fuel for my upcoming billet about it, if I manage to finish the book.

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  1. June 17, 2018 at 9:48 am

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