Origin of Others provides educational value for readers

Origin of Others provides educational value for readers

Maddie Muszynski, Staff Writer

Reading is a great way to occupy yourself while staying inside. Not only does it allow you to focus on something other than the outside world, but it can also educate and inspire you. That’s what the book Origin of Others by Toni Morrison did for me.

Toni Morrison, one of the most prominent and well-received authors of our time, spoke at the Mahindra Humanities Center in Harvard, with her Norton lecture titled, “Romancing Slavery” in 2016. That lecture was transcribed into the aforementioned book and analyzed the idea of “othering”: how humans use race as a way to distinguish their own identity and value, disregard, romanticize or dehumanize others.

It took me a while to start reading this book because I knew the topic was going to be heavy and make me think critically about my own experiences, which may not be the best thing to do amidst a pandemic. But this book may have been one of my favorite reads in a long time.

I am a huge fan of Morrison. Through this book, she talks about other literature and how different authors of different eras and races utilize certain ideas surrounding othering. She mentions Ernest Hemingway’s oversexualized portrayal of an empty, colonizer-ready Africa, though obviously Africa was and is very much full. She also brought attention to how Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin tried to calm her and her reader’s own fear of “others” by beautifying their horrid situation. Morrison said, “How, for example, do you make it safe in the nineteenth century to enter Black Space? Do you simply knock and enter? If unarmed, do you enter at all?”

Stowe’s portrayal of the “Black Space” is what Morrison described as “cultivated, welcoming, seductive and excessive.” These examples opened my eyes to show how perception within literature matters more than one would think, especially books and authors that leave a lasting impression and how their literature ages overtime. Both Hemingway and Stowe have novels that have stuck with American culture for generations, but after reading Morrison’s take on them, how well they truly represent the world at those times is a question I will continue to ponder.

Morrison also connected this literary idea of othering to real life, describing the benefits slave owners had after being granted this idea of labeling their slaves as subhuman to her own anecdotal story of being told by a fellow salesman that no one could write a book that could sell “on both sides of the street.” He meant that most white people bought books, which led to Morrison publishing The Black Book, “an elegant scrapbook of photographs, lyrics, patents of inventions by black people, news clippings, advertising posters – everything about African American history and culture[,]” in order to attract the black audience.

The chapter names themselves are what really drew me into the ideas presented by Morrison. Chapter one, “Romancing Slavery,” named after the lecture she gave in 2016 is an automatic brain teaser. It makes the reader want to know immediately how one romances slavery; something so awful and tragic paired with a synonym for love and seduction is clearly a paradox waiting to be explained. Chapter two, “Being or Becoming the Stranger” describes the ways in which humans have used the idea of “othering” to keep themselves from feeling left out: by putting others down to keep themselves up, one may find a sense of security in pairing racial identification with one’s own humanity. Chapter three, “The Color Fetish” may have been one of the most provocative titles in this book when I first read it, but by far one of the most interesting. Here, Morrison talks about the sensualness that authors tend to pair with blackness. This is where she mentioned Hemingway’s trend of sexualizing Africa’s bareness or need to insert coloristic or racist language, when if not included, would not have changed the plot or message at all. The last three chapters, “Configurations of Blackness”, “Narrating the Other”, and “The Foreigner’s Home” all expand on and restructure what it means to be the “other.”

There is so much intrigue when it comes to literature like Origin of Others. Not only is it unraveling an idea that not many have realized exists, but it is also happened to interlace perfectly with impactful racially-charged moments that took place in 2016 and 2017, with the rise of Black Lives Matter movements with cases like the death of Eric Garner and the Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American author who wrote the critically acclaimed book Between the World and Me, wrote the forward for Origin of Others as well. Here he writes, “This is a work about the creation of aliens and the erection of fences, one that employs literary criticism, history and memoir in an attempt to understand how and why we have come to associate those fences with pigment.”

On Goodreads, the book is rated 4/5 stars but personally, I’d give it a 5/5. Though I may be a bit biased because of my immense love for Morrison’s work, it truly educated me in racial identification in America that other literature has failed to do for me. She brings examples of her personal life, her own pieces of fiction, other’s works and American history, ranging from the rancid diary entries of a slave owner to a list of victims of lynchings from 1906 to 1955. Every example she uses is purposeful, as well as mind-numbing in the most scholarly way possible. With only 111 pages, Morrison expresses complex ideas about race and identity that are seemingly timeless articulations.