On Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision: a Conversation with Nadra Nittle
In the last chapter of Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales and Feminism in Her Life and Literature (Fortress Press, 2021), Nadra Nittle writes that “[by] placing…Black women storytellers, seers, healers, and root workers in pivotal roles in her ‘village literature,’ Morrison demonstrated that the African-based cultural practices [that Black women] engaged in had real power too.” The journey to Nittle’s book’s final chapter is nothing short of a gift, the author taking meticulous inventory of the spiritual ingredients involved in enlivening Morrison’s vision. Nittle explores how these ingredients were developed, chosen, and put to literary use, thus situating Morrison within the pantheon of the world’s great Catholic writers. Nittle spoke to TASTEFUL RUDE about excavating familial traditions, egg cleanses, and the beauty of Black Madonnas.
Myriam Gurba: What prompted you to approach the spiritual dimensions of Morrison’s work? Was the subject a long-held interest or was it sparked by a specific incident?
Nadra Nittle: The latter. In 2017, America, a Catholic magazine, contacted me, asking me to write about religion in the books Song of Solomon and Beloved. They were written exactly 10 years apart, and it was their anniversary, Song of Solomon having come out in 1977 and Beloved in ‘87. As an undergraduate, I double majored in English and American studies and read most of Morrison’s books. I re-read her works when I worked toward my master’s degree in teaching.
When America reached out to me, I jumped at the opportunity. As a student, I hadn’t thought much about the religious dimensions of Morrison’s work. I didn’t know that she was a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic and working on that piece gave me an opportunity to delve into religious influence. At the time, I was more interested in learning about West African spirituality, paganism, and other religions, and the book united those interests.
MG: As I read Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision, I contemplated whether her work’s Catholicism had been apparent to me as a reader. And I did notice it! I picked up on Catholicism as one of Morrison’s sensibilities. That probably happened because I was raised to be a Catholic.
NKN: I read The Bluest Eye in high school and didn’t pick up on it. Yet even in that book, you have specific kinds of women, for example healers and medicine women, and these female archetypes continue to appear in the rest of her works. As I got older, I became more interested in different spiritual traditions. My mother is African American from Tennessee and she attended Baptist churches. My father is Nigerian and when Morrison writes about some religious practices, like those Paradise, there is Catholicism and Africa. Religion plays a fundamental role in Paradise and researching enabled me to explore the traditions of my ancestors as well as older people in family. Becoming more familiar with those traditions has made me be able to identify hoodoo for example. I can now name specific practices.
MG: I didn’t read The Bluest Eye until adulthood. The line “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” struck me as familiar because cempasùchil are a flower native to the Americas. Cempasùchil are associated with November 1, All Souls Day, and in parts of Mexico, ancestors are venerated on and around that date.
NKN: The Day of the Dead!
MG: Yes! To begin The Bluest Eye with marigold perfume seemed to me an invocation of other syncretic traditions. And Catholicism is well-known for its syncretic quality. For Morrison to receive her deserved recognition as a Catholic writer, what circumstances need to change?
NKN: Typically, Catholic writers are thought of as white novelists. Morrison is African American and so many readers overlook her Catholicism. When she really did try to go there with Paradise, the book didn’t receive good reviews. Morrison came to Catholicism on her own, converting at age 12. She was influenced by Catholic cousins. She grew up with Protestant traditions, too, her mother having belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
When religion comes up in Morrison’s prose, it isn’t always explicitly discussed. A scene in a church might unfold and the reader might think, “Okay, this seems like a Catholic service, not a Protestant one.” In The Bluest Eye, you have the passing mention of nuns. In Sula there appear representations of the Black Madonna. Typical African American church scenes blend with paintings featuring a Virgin Mary who is of color. Catholicism organizes how two different families are represented in Sula. The Catholic Creole family is portrayed as very rigid. Sula comes from a different tradition, one where family members interpret dreams. Sula’s grandmother, Eva Peace, and her family, are portrayed as more loosey-goosey.
MG: As you gave that analysis, I thought about duality, uncontained versus contained. To what physical and metaphysical places did your research take you?
NKN: My interest in spirituality developed before I started writing the book and I was asking more questions of my mother and about different family members. We started discussing dream interpretation and prophetic dreams. At one point I asked my mother if we have family with the gift of foresight, intuition, and I learned that, yes, we do. One branch of our family has those sorts of practitioners, and one cousin, who has passed away, gave readings. She lived in Tennessee and read for both Black and white people in a room in her house. My research led me to ask questions about the traditions in my own family. I also have a Mexican American friend who was in a car accident about 20 years ago. After the accident, she had an egg cleansing. When I mentioned that to my mother, she said that one of my cousins had done an egg cleansing on my aunt. The research has led me to ask questions about people who are alive and of my ancestors. My family who embraces these traditions all identify as Christian.
MG: I’m very familiar with egg cleanses! What is your favorite part of the book?
NKN: It seems that a lot of people like the Catholic chapter of the book and that may be because I’m exploring Black Catholic history in the Americas. I think the chapter on Paradise is interesting. I had not read Paradise in college. We were supposed to read it in a class on Morrison and Virginia Woolf, but we ran out of time. It’s interesting how Morrison juxtaposes covens and convents. Paradise is a hard book to read. It’s much longer than some of the other books, and there’s a lot of history on the towns she takes us to. Paradise is about traditions that are not patriarchal.
MG: I’m thankful for the feminine divine present in the Mexican Catholicism with which my parents raised me. That form of Catholicism exposed me to non-white incarnations of the feminine divine and you discuss the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa. It was very empowering to be offered those models as a child.
NKN: I loved learning about versions of the Black Madonna and the speculation surrounding her emergence. You have some who say that she was modeled after earth goddesses and others claiming that portraits of her have been darkened by candle soot. I quote bell hooks who asserts the importance of having these divine female figures within Black communities. They’re also absent from popular culture. In the book, I also explain how people like Beyoncé are trying to recover those figures. Morrison worried that younger generations of Black people had turned our backs on these traditions and were disinterested. It’s pretty heartening to know that more people know about these traditions today and that contrasted with 20 or 30 years ago, interest in these topics is growing.
MG: Absolutely. I recently had a conversation with another writer about spirituality and she mentioned that because the pandemic has caused our external worlds to shrink, our internal worlds have expanded. For many of us, that has provoked spiritual exploration.
NKN: My father is Yoruba and while I explored my heritage with him, he takes some pride in not engaging in some of the traditions I’ve written about. Still, he will talk about them. Having a parent from West Africa gives me the privilege of being able to explore and ask.
On another note, there is also a pandemic of loneliness and mental health problems are on the rise. People are being pushed to find different ways to cope.
MG: In Morrison’s world, ghosts and spirits are often presented as fact instead of fiction and I’m thinking of the ghostly muse who inspired Beloved, the apparition she witnessed while at home. Do you see Morrison’s work as embodying haunting? Do you see her work as a function of exorcism or, in a paradoxical way, as both haunting and exorcism?
NKN: I think both. A book like Beloved deals with a ghost in a very overt way. Ghosts are even present in The Bluest Eye. In Beloved I mean, the main character, Sethe, struggles with the ghost of a child whose throat she slashed. She is also struggling with separation from Africa and memory. Before the ghost can destroy her, the community unites to exorcise this spirit that’s threatening to overtake and destroy her. I see the novel as both haunting and exorcism. The end has this freedom. I think Beloved argues that we must find liberation on our own terms and with the help of her community, Sethe is able to do that.
MG: Beloved was the first Morrison book I read, and I remember being struck that infanticide was key to its plot. As I read, the Mexican legend of La Llorona, a weeping woman archetype, came to mind. There are myriad variations of that legend but as a child, I heard one where the woman engaged in infanticide for protective purposes, for merciful purposes, to shield her children from those who intended to harm them.
NKN: The real woman behind this story, Margaret Garner, wanted to protect her children. She had been repeatedly raped by the man who enslaved her, and she didn’t want her children to endure the same fate. She never regretted her actions, and so while what she did was an atrocious act, she did it to prevent her children from enduring what she did. It was also a way for her to exercise her power and disrupt the system of enslavement. In Sula, a mother also takes the life of an adult child after he returns from war. He’s shell shocked and addicted to drugs, and Eva Peace makes the decision to kill him. So, in Morrison’s work, there is infanticide and filicide.
MG: So few writers broach that subject and usually, when they do, they present a masculine figure killing his loved ones, one whose gender expression elicits sympathy. Meanwhile, feminine figures who kill loved ones are presented as ghouls. I love that Morrison recovers such feminine figures and casts them as religious figures.
NKN: I think that Morrison’s Catholicism, and the Seven Sorrows of Mary, inspired that treatment.
MG: Yes! And what are you currently reading?
NKN: High on the Hog, a book about African American culinary tradition by Dr. Jessica D. Harris.