Morrison understood that the future is animated and expressed through us.
This is Watchword, a monthly literary column by Mensah Demary on culture, events current and past, and writers living and dead.
Attacking affirmative action, Dole declared: “This is America. It ought to be based on merit. That's what the United States is all about.”
It seemed to me, at the time a Black teenager a few years away from applying to college, an unwise position to support the end of affirmative-action programs. And I had a growing skepticism of anything “based on merit.” Politics in 1996 appeared steady and banal, dependable really; in retrospect, my innocence, fading by the day, transforming into foolishness, and eventually ignorance, shielded me from certain truths as I watched yet one more presidential campaign.
Of course, in 1996, there were no smartphones, and no social media; but there were, as you can still see, Democrats and Republicans. Old habits die hard, as do myths; one might say myths and habits do not die at all but change into new appearances. It’s why, among other reasons, we tend to repeat cycles; we do not pay attention to time, to where we are, to what we’re doing, and with an idea of what should happen next.
Speaking of the future and its nature, while it is understood that anything can happen and often does, it is helpful to have an idea of the future in mind. This idea is a map you can realize for yourself, and it can hold up unconditional trust. At a certain age, perhaps to avoid bitterness, feeling its burn and nausea approach, you recognize the need to let things go; to see for yourself a fundamental truth, deceptively simple: There’s no one way set up before us, waiting for us to discover it, master it, follow it to some predestined conclusion. The work of imagining the future underscores the importance in finding people willing to dream with you, to be, as Amiri Baraka wrote, “that dream in purpose and device.” The future is an active project, an ongoing experiment, and it is a truth that points directly to how we influence one another, our interdependency.
Two weeks ago, I sat at my kitchen table one afternoon, typing on my laptop, when I heard a thud from my front door, the subtle announcement of a package left on my welcome mat. I opened the door and knelt down to pick up the Priority Mail envelope; a hardcover book was sealed inside. I forgot I had ordered The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison, published by Knopf. (And for some reason, I expected a paperback.) Fed up with my own writing, and the general state of my overall work described at best as “literary,” Morrison’s new collection arrived literally when I most needed it. I closed my laptop and opened the book.
Morrison was speaking about how we think of ourselves relative to time, and about the business of being truly futuristic, not merely anxiously present.
Later, perhaps the next night, or the night after, I read the essay, “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations.” Morrison delivered this speech on March 25, 1996, in Washington, DC. The National Endowment for the Humanities established in 1972 the Jefferson Lecture, “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement.” Morrison was invited to participate as the Twenty-Fifth Jefferson Lecturer. “Time, it seems,” Morrison began that night, “has no future. That is, time no longer seems to be an endless stream through which the human species moves with confidence in its own increasing consequences and value.” She later said:
Our contemporary prophecies look back, behind themselves, post, after, what has gone before. It is true, of course, that all knowledge requires a grasp of its precedents. Still it is remarkable how often imaginative forays into the far and distant future have been solely and simple opportunities to reimagine or alter the present as past. And this looking back, though enabled by technology’s future, offers no solace whatsoever for humanity’s future. Surrounding the platform from which the backward glance is cast is a dire, repulsive landscape.
I suggest you find and read for yourself the speech in its entirety. Morrison recounted in her lecture the broad and bloody history of the twentieth century, four years before its conclusion, and pointed to what she saw as a narrow future, one increasingly diminished and impoverished. Particularly valuable for those of us who call ourselves writers, she eschewed hope and progress for a steady view of the future of time, pointing us, naturally, to literature: “sensitive as a tuning fork,” “an unblinking witness to the light and shade of the world we live in.”
Morrison’s words, like history and news reports, speak for themselves, so I have no analysis to offer. But I do feel now, as I did when I first read the speech, a connection across time to the prescience and wisdom espoused that night in Washington, because it is difficult now to ignore reality—a difficulty that is, in my mind, a final warning against ignorance itself.
I should apologize here and claim rustiness; it’s been some time since I’ve written for the public eye, and I fear I am allowing others to speak for me, rather than saying something of my own. Spirit works as a dialogue between voices, past and present, linkedtogether in convergence toward a singular point. Understanding that the future is animated and expressed through us, Morrison was, of course, speaking about people; about how we think of ourselves relative to time, and the unfinished business of being futuristic, not just anxiously present, which brings me back to the aforementioned difficulty and final warning.
As the world turns and warms, the escape ignorance once provided is exhausted and closed, and one has to reckon with the likelihood that the future, on human terms, has been sold out on all fronts. Visions proffered by politicians of a conditionally improved world is not the same as each of us reconciling the future on present terms, to think and build as things are seen now with our own eyes. Morrison saw this truth and delivered it in 1996 just as presidential candidates once again communicated for the record what the United States, and the world at large, was “all about.”
I struggle to imagine the future for daily realization; any future I could draw for you would be a simple, flat portrait, a fantasy. Strictly speaking, ecological disaster is on my mind, but there are other, if lesser matters that all, in aggregate, create a sketch of a murky, incomplete future either in development or depression. It’s hard for me to see through the fog and my writing is not quite clear, though it remains the project I should pursue, angled away from me as the future orientates itself to the next generation, and the next. “Time does have a future,” Morrison said. “Longer than its past and infinitely more hospitable—to the human race.” If so, there’s no more time to waste.