EDITOR’S NOTE: “Justice looks like …” is a special series in the Voices column. Readers will have the opportunity to consider justice from numerous viewpoints. The series is based on each writer’s understanding of Scripture and relationship with Jesus Christ. Writers present their own views independent of any institution, unless otherwise noted in their bios.
You are encouraged to listen to each writer without prejudgment. Then, engage in conversation with others around you about what justice looks like to you.
Justice looks like the masterfully constructed, wonderfully fulfilling, yet strangely elusive plot of any novel from Toni Morrison’s rich and complex canon, which so deftly explores the depth and breadth of the African American experience.
During my junior year in high school, I was introduced to the riotous, revolutionary and redeeming literary imagination of one of our nation’s most gifted writers.
After 30 years of peering into the lives of her characters, traversing the grounds they walked, haunting the places they inhabited, and interpreting the meaning of their experiences—often fraught with tension caused by their individual and collective attempts to make a life in a violent, unfair and inhospitable society—a profoundly nuanced definition of justice has emerged.
Painting justice in words
In the “quiet as it’s kept” world Morrison envisions in The Bluest Eye, justice sounds like the whispered intercessory prayer of one Black girl, countering the silent but destructive wish of another who believes possessing the bluest eye might garner her the love and affection she craves.
Justice reverberates through Baby Suggs’ sermon in Beloved, preached at the clearing to the recently freed—by virtue of legal writ or personal declaration—as she admonishes them to love, honor and value themselves, for to do so is the “prize.” In so doing, she empowers them to reclaim the lives stolen from them and to see themselves as beloved.
Justice dismantles the “house that race built,” the one constructed on the idea that our nation’s strength, power and longevity are contingent on its ability and willingness to either “wrest dominion” from those it deems unworthy of its promise, as Morrison writes in A Mercy, or to deny entry to those who seek refuge and the shelter of its bountiful dream.
Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.
In the America Morrison imagines—in novels such as Paradise and Home—justice bends the arc of our moral imagination toward paradise, where home is defined as a place in which all its inhabitants feel both “free and situated.”
As she is now a member of that great ancestral throng, justice looks like the legacy of my literary mother.
Seeing justice as faith in action
Justice looks like the most personal commitment one can make to the public good, righteously defending the vulnerable and rightfully pursuing the fulfillment of our highest moral and ethical principles.
As a person of faith, I always have been drawn, like a moth to a flame, to those great men and women who have committed themselves not only to being honest, fair and just, but to those who also have dedicated themselves to doing justice.
When we seek to do good, to be good and to make good, even if and especially when it requires great personal sacrifice, we create the change we desire to see.
In this instance, justice looks like the liberating gospel of Christ in motion. It is what we witness when we turn our revolutionary faith—our inward belief in that most sacred and salvific gospel—outward toward those who need it and speak truth to the powers that threaten human life and dignity.
In the plaintive cries and early quests for freedom so painstakingly captured in the narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Solomon Northrup, I discovered what it means to have hope in the midst of despair.
From the historical and sociological perspectives of W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke, I learned of the spiritual “strivings,” intellectual aims and artistic aspirations of a people wed, not only to the idea of equality, but also dedicated to its manifestation in every sphere of endeavor.
Through the essays and records of Ida B. Wells Barnett, I am reminded of some of the earliest protests against the extralegal, state-ignored and sometimes sanctioned lynchings of Black bodies that lend context and credibility to our current, righteous indignation concerning the police brutality so often visited upon African Americans.
Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may be known most widely for his beautiful “dream,” for those of us who have not forgotten the totality of his message, he always will be remembered for the way he awakened us to the evils of racism, poverty and war.
In the wake of the passing of two heroes of the civil rights era—the Honorable Congressman John Robert Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, an activist, organizer and author—who both carried the baton unwaveringly for human rights well into the 21st century, justice demands we vote, protest and march on as they did until all that remains imbalanced is made equitable.
Be firm in this resolve until justice looks like a new day dawning.
For further reading:
• By Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye, Beloved, A Mercy, “Home” in The House That Race Built.
• By W.E.B. DuBoisThe Souls of Black Folk.
• By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “I Have a Dream,” “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma.”
Dr. Michelle L. Henry is a professor of English who loves reading, paper-crafting and sharing life with her family and close friends. The views expressed are those solely of the author.
Click here to read the full “Justice looks like…” series.