“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are a necessity,” Toni Morrison writes in the prologue of her latest book, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, released on February 12 by Knopf. Over the course of nearly five decades, one might argue Morrison has proved herself to be both gift and necessity to our cultural consciousness. Her groundbreaking debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) changed the landscape of American literature, followed by a series of searing novels, nonfictional works, and even plays and children’s books that have garnered her Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, amongst her countless other accolades.
With The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison, who turns 88 today, Monday, February 18 (sharing a birthday with fellow iconoclast Audre Lorde), returns to reflect upon her own remarkable body of work as well as the state of our society, nation, race relations and the purpose of art and artistry itself—particularly by black artists like herself—and she has much to reflect upon. Proving Morrison to be one of our most incisive cultural critics as well as a creative force, her latest work is a nonfiction collection comprising four decades’ worth of thought on topics as seemingly diverse as feminism, colonization and the colonialist mentality, immigration, and Americanism vs. Africanism. It is equal parts analysis, musing, and eulogy—for Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin and the thousands killed on September 11, 2001.
Those who have spent hours ruminating over Morrison’s writing may most naturally gravitate to the dissection of her own famed works, including Sula, Tar Baby, Beloved and Song of Solomon. For readers and aspiring writers alike, Morrison’s willingness to share her sources of inspiration and strategic literary devices while championing the need for the writer’s voice belie her years as a professor, as she touches upon the process of crafting some of her most revered works.
What does it mean to reflect upon a life still lived—and how could our society benefit from the same self-reflection? Ultimately, this is the question that seems most often posed by The Source of Self-Regard. How can we—as people, cultures, artists and political machines—view equally our own histories, mistakes, motives, and purpose with an unflinching yet empathetic eye?
In Morrison’s hands, self-regard becomes the requirement for a life well lived; to remain curious about oneself and one’s place in the world. And at 88, she reminds us that the work of reflection is neverending.