‘Freeing yourself was one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self was another.’
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
Who am I? Who gets to decide who I am if not myself? The philosophy of personal identity is among many philosophical issues that philosophers have attempted to resolve since the beginning of human existence.
While some believed that the self is nothing more than an immaterial thinking mind, some other stressed on our existence in the external world and that it is through perception and experience that we create our own identity.
Especially in the view of the existentialists, freedom is fundamental to human existence. Each of us is an individual self that is responsible for giving meaning or purpose in life. As 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.’
Sadly, often in real life, our identity seems to be defined by others rather than ourselves. We let people tell us who we are and how we should act based on their perception of us.
‘Who is the foreigner? Am I the foreigner in my own home?’
– Toni Morrison, The Foreigner’s Home (2018)
Many people in history did not get to decide who they were. Their identities were often decided by the dominant groups in a society.
In search for identity, the film ‘The Foreigner’s Home’ explores the Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s vision on the two main themes of her works – ‘identity’ and ‘home’. The film is a documentary on Morrison’s guest-curated exhibit at the Louvre in Paris in 2006.
With an emphasis on the mission of art, Morrison seems to share the existentialists’ views on freedom and human experiences. Morrison believed there is a close relation between freedom and identity, and this relation is embodied in the form of art. It is through art that one takes control of their emotions and actions, and communicates them in a way that realises their identity.
‘There is no civilisation that did not begin with art, whether it was drawing a line in the sand, painting a cave or dancing,’ Morrison said in the film.
Just like our quest for identity, art has existed in this world from the very beginning. Whether it’s in the form of words, sound or images, art has played an important role in human’s lives. People connect with each other and get to learn and embrace each other’s identities through drawings, sculptures, music, dance, songs and narratives. Art reminds us of our very existence in this world.
‘Your life is already artful-waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.’
– Toni Morrison
It is through the power of art that our identity is redeemed.
For Morrison, that form of art was language. Her literature.
As an African American author, Morrison often wrote about the plight of African Americans. Her novels primarily focus on slavery history, gender identity and racism. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She was the first African American woman to receive the award. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. Through her masterworks like Beloved (1987), Song of Solomon (1977) and The Bluest Eye (1970), Morrison had made a significant contribution to American literature.
Morrison passed away on this day two years ago, on 5 August 2019, at the age of 88. But her legacy lives on. Not only in the literary world, but in her profound wisdom about life and humanity. Just like all forms of art, Morrison’s works will continue to stand the test of time and resonate with us, like a mirror, showing us to ourselves who we are in this world full of chaos.
‘Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last.’
– Toni Morrison