Toni Morrison has died. This is inexpressibly sad news, though perhaps not entirely unexpected. The Nobel laureate, and author of Beloved, Song of Solomon, God Bless the Child, and so many other trenchant, deeply-felt commentaries on the human condition was 88 years old. It was a full life, capped with the release by Knopf earlier this year of The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of essays and literary miscellanea.
Having come from another country, I was not exposed to Morrison’s fiction to the extent that my American friends, family, and colleagues had been in school and the media. Since my arrival in the United States, I have read Beloved and I have read Jazz; but above all, I read her brilliant and often wry essays and commentaries.
The run of her last three essays for the New Yorker, a mixed bag of autobiographical wisdom and penetrating analysis of America’s obsession with race, began with “Making America White Again.” This is a brief, incisive critique of the politics of white supremacy, a short sharp shock, published in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Rereading it today, Morrison’s words are chillingly prescient:
“These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.”
We all suspected this at the time; we certainly talked about it. But reading Morrison’s words the day following her death, after this weekend of horrors, they resonate as prophecy. “Making America White Again,” and the historical rupture it documents, is a temporal dividing line between what has passed and what has come, a dark stroke across the calendar. The loss of such a perceptive, human, eloquent writer this week only emphasizes the contrast.
A photograph of Morrison receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012 that has been circulating in social media makes that contrast almost unbearable. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is America’s highest civilian honor. In all respects, it is the American equivalent of a British knighthood or France’s Legion d’Honneur.
That was the point. President John F. Kennedy established the award to recognize especially meritorious contributions “to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” in 1963. Kennedy had a vision of the United States as a great force of global culture. While this was all part of Cold War gamesmanship, it also reflected both the hope and some of the reality of a postwar American golden age.
The first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 included the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, painter Andrew Wyeth, the authors E,B. White, Thornton Wilder, and Edmund Wilson, the great singer Marian Anderson, whose glorious contralto marked a moment of profound hope on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 25 years before. They included the cellist Pablo Casals, and pianist Rudolph Serkin, photographer Edward Steichen, and Navaho leader Annie Wauneka.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was meant from the beginning to recognize what was best in America, and every successive president has used this opportunity to honor those Americans who embody the best of who we want to be, who we should be. The list of recipients is a highwater mark for each succeeding presidency. Richard Nixon recognized the composer Duke Ellington and the great conductor Eugene Ormandy; Jimmy Carter honored authors Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams; George W. Bush awarded the medal to Vinton Cerf and Roger Kahn, the architects of the Internet.
In the year that President Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around Morrison’s neck, he also honored Bob Dylan, John Glenn, William Foege, the American physician who led the effort to eradicate smallpox, Gordon Hirabashi, and Dolores Huerta. That moment, immortalized in the photograph of Morrison smiling broadly as the president solemnly presents the medal, says everything about what America and Americans aspired to seven years ago. For all of its problems and challenges, which persist to this day, the United States of 2012 saw fit to celebrate Americans whose brilliance and contributions to the nation and to the world can never be gainsaid.
Morrison’s death has cast a bleak, and unsparing light on what America has become since she wrote “Making America White Again.” The photo only underlines how degraded this country has become. One need only look at whose “significant public or private endeavors” the current president has chosen to recognize with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They are Elvis, Orrin Hatch, Miriam Adelson, Arthur Laffer, Tiger Woods.
These are the times in which we live, when the best of America is embodied in a dead pop star, a reactionary bigot, the wife of one of the president’s political bagmen, a quack right-wing economist whose ideas were discredited long ago, and an adulterous has-been golfer.
We must mourn the loss of one of our greatest authors; we may never see her kind again. And we must mourn the debased, spiritually impoverished culture that we have become.