Toni Morrison wrote her masterpiece novels steeped in Christian scriptures and African spirituality, including beliefs in miracles and Black holy women. Through these lenses, the Nobel Prize–winning author believed universal truths could be told, says Nadra Nittle, author of Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature (Fortress, out now).
Nittle, a journalist covering news, culture, food, education, and more for broadcast, magazines, and newspapers, never met Morrison, who died in 2019 at age 88. But she had read Morrison’s novels during her college years.
In 2017—when Song of Solomon was 40 years old and Beloved was 30—the Jesuit-owned America magazine asked Nittle to write on Morrison, who converted to Catholicism when she was 12. Nittle returned to Morrison’s work for her story, “The Ghosts of Toni Morrison: A Catholic Writer Confronts the Legacy of Slavery.”
That article caught the eye of Emily King, an acquisitions editor for Fortress who had been seeking the right writer to examine religious themes in Morrison’s novels. “Morrison’s cultural impact is so enormous that there is always more to learn,” King says. “In Nadra, I saw a journalist by trade who could bring an impulse for nuance, complexity, and storytelling to the project.”
For Nittle, the research was an eye-opener. “I am Black,” she explains. “My mother is African American and my father is African. But when I read Morrison as a student, I wasn’t reading through a religious lens, so a great deal opened up to me in rereading her books. She strongly believed that critical aspects of Black faith and spirituality and folkways had been discredited or lost, and she wanted to be sure the next generation knew and took pride in them.”
Nittle describes Morrison “as a woman who believed in magic, centered on the divine feminine in her literature, and wrote for Black readers.” So it made sense, she continues, that Morrison was drawn to Catholicism, “a belief system where miracles are accepted, and the Virgin Mary is venerated.”
For Morrison’s characters, “birds talk and butterflies cry, and it is not surprising or upsetting,” Nittle writes. “Such magical events unfold in her novels to reflect the ‘vast imagination of Black people’ who existed in Morrison’s personal orbit. These individuals didn’t just recite folklore; they believed in the stories they told.”
Cathy Lynn Grossman is a veteran religion and ethics writer living in Washington, D.C.