Toni Morrison on the Deepest Meaning of Freedom
By Maria Popova
“Everything can be taken from a man,” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Fourteen years later, at the apogee of the civil rights movement, James Baldwin observed: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given, freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.” It is a sentiment of piercing insight in Baldwin’s original context and one which Kanye West would echo in a completely different, completely inappropriate context half a century later — a difference both subtle and unsubtle, assaulting the meaning of freedom.
Four decades after Frankl, and midway in time between Baldwin and West, Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) examined the question of what freedom means for a human being in her 1987 novel Beloved (public library) — the book that became the cornerstone of Morrison’s Nobel Prize, making her the first African American woman to win the accolade — inspired by the true story of a woman’s escape from slavery and the unfathomable cost she had to pay for her freedom.
Painting the state of being unlatched in her protagonist after escaping from enslavement, Morrison considers the deepest meaning of freedom:
Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon — everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to. Men who knew their manhood lay in their guns and were not even embarrassed by the knowledge that without gunshot fox would laugh at them. And these “men” who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother — a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. He knew exactly what she meant: to get to a place where you could love anything you chose — not to need permission for desire — well now, that was freedom.
Complement this passage from Beloved, which remains one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking books I have ever read, with Simone de Beauvoir on what freedom really means, then revisit Morrison on the artist’s task in troubled times, how to be your own story, and her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the power of language.
Published September 10, 2018