Earlier this month, the literary world was rocked by the death of Toni Morrison. She was 88. In 1993 Morrison won the Nobel Prize in literature, making her arguably the most academically accomplished African American of all time; certainly of her generation.
Morrison was part of the Silent Generation, one of the 58 million Americans born from 1925 to 1945. As much as 16% of this generation was black (9.28 million).
Today the correlation between IQ and academic success is only about 0.55, but in the mid-20th century, when Morrison was coming of age, it was a potent 0.7 and was likely about the same in the black population.
It was once suggested by Garth Zeitzman that when estimating IQ from the 0.7 correlation between IQ and academic achievement, the academic Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of the latter.
Thus if there were a perfect correlation between IQ and academic success, Morrison’s IQ would be 78 points above the black mean (one in 9.28 million), but given a correlation of 0.7 in Morrison’s day, we’d expect:
Morrison’s IQ = (0.7)78 + U.S. black mean
Morrison’s IQ = 55 + 85
Morrison’s IQ = 140 ( 95% confidence interval 119 to 161)
Further evidence of Morrison having a 140 IQ is her schooling a BBC reporter on the difference between a porch and a terrace, the fact that she has a very good long-term memory for her childhood (according to Fran Lebowitz), the fact that she excelled at typing when young, and like her biggest fan Oprah, she learned to read by age three.
Indeed Oprah was such a huge fan that she chose not one, not two, but four Morrison books for her coveted book club, and loved Beloved so much she bought the movie rights.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, Beloved is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped 19th century slave who loved her baby so much, she killed it rather than allow it to live a life of slavery. In Morrison’s brilliant vision, once slavery is over, the baby returns as a flesh and blood ghost to live with her now free mother (played by Oprah in the movie).
It’s a testament to Morrison’s high IQ writing style that Beloved is considered way too difficult for university undergads, and Oprah was warned by director Jodie Foster that it was way too literary a novel to ever become a film.
Nonetheless, it became arguably the most underrated film of all time.
I’ve never read the book, but I loved the film for its sheer beauty, originality, haunting score, and how the simplicity of the 19th century characters captured the Flynn effect, especially the mesmerizing scene of the escaped slave men clumsily dancing to Baby Sugg’s preaching.
Or the white girl Amy Denver who dreams of going to Boston to buy “the pertiest velvet”.
There was a childlike innocence about the characters that revealed the Flynn effect, juxtaposed against the stunning beauty of pre-industrialized America with its vast wilderness, traveled by horse and canoe.
Sadly, despite being promoted by Oprah and directed by Jonathan Demme, the film flopped at the box office, perhaps because the average moviegoer is too low in IQ and too high in psychopathy to appreciate such emotional non-linear symbolism.
Morrison’s first book was The Bluest Eye, inspired by a beautiful little black girl Morrison knew as a child. The girl became an atheist after her years of praying for blue eyes went unanswered. So powerful was racism that this girl would rather look like a freak than accept her natural black beauty.
Like a lot of black Americans who were raised in segregated times, there was an anger lurking beneath Morrison’s soft-spoken eloquence.
In one book she imagined a U.S. town without white folks.
“What would it be like if they just weren’t there?” Morrison asked.
The title of the book: Paradise.
When a white interviewer asked Morrison why she didn’t include more white characters, she reacted with a calm yet defensive rage.
Despite the fact that Morrison was a Nobel Prize winning literary giant who exudes gravitas with every breath, there’s something about the white woman’s smug gaze that made even Morrison look small.
A character in the film Beloved said it best, when describing a white man riding a horse:
There’s a look that white folks get. Righteous look…
To learn more about this American legend, I strongly recomend the following BBC documentary: