Toni Morrison — writer, critic, editor, orator, teacher, mother, and more — died on August 5, 2019. With the announcement yesterday, Black readers the world over shared a sigh of grief. She was 88 years old, and surely no one lives for ever, but to lose Morrison now, as the world seems to fall to ever more brutal pieces, feels like a cruel twist. A movie of her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, is in limited circulation. She’d just released a new non-fiction work, The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations. And her novels remain as bright and magnetic as ever. The Bluest Eye. Sula. Song of Solomon. Tar Baby. Beloved. Jazz. Paradise. Love. A Mercy. Home. God Help The Child. In the finest tradition of Black folk everywhere, we gathered together to share our favorite memories of Mother Morrison, how we met her, what she meant to us. We cannot stop the world so that we can grieve, but we can honor her and her contribution not just to fiction, but to our collective Black culture. Because she wrote for us, everyone else was just lucky enough to get to read it.
I was introduced to Morrison’s work right around the time she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was in college and read Song of Solomon on assignment. With the faultiness of memory, I think it was the first novel by a Black woman I’d ever read. But that can’t be right (or probably it can be). What is right is that it was the first novel by a Black woman I’d ever read that so fully embraced its Blackness. This was a story that seemed to baffle my white classmates from the very beginning, but I knew about The People Who Could Fly and had cousins with names direct from Bible passages. This was a world *I KNEW*. And in her adept hand, I explored it in different ways, ending in the most haunting cliffhanger — You mean, they just…fly?
I devoured her other books, wrote my thesis on Beloved and Magical Realism. Through her I met other Black women writers, Audre Lorde and Gloria Naylor, Jamaica Kincaid and Octavia Butler. To me, Morrison fits within my Speculative reading. She plays with time, bending it outside of the expected Eurocentric norm. She dares the reader to imagine different ways of being. Not ways that are always successful, necessarily, but ways that eventually outline what freedom looks like. Through my first engagement with Morrison, I became a reader of my own people’s worlds, a Black reader. But there is more.
I read Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination at the end of my first college phase, neck deep in an English degree that insisted I worship at the feet of Hemmingway, Poe, and Faulkner. Playing in the Dark took all of that in a different direction. This book of 3 essays posits an entirely different way to read the American “canon”. Black people are simultaneously excluded from, and central to, the definitions of whiteness that are the core of so much of white American literature. The book blew open my ideas of what criticism could look like, inverted my entire approach to reading. Through that second engagement, I became a Black critic, someone comfortable reading and engaging with texts on multiple levels, always centered on my culture and heritage. Not just comfortable with, driven to. I’ve no doubt that without having Morrison in my life, on my shelves, I’d be someone else. Someone flatter, less engaged, less passionate about fiction and its power and place in the world. For her contribution to the reader and critic that I am, I will always be thankful.
Toni Morrison has been a literary authority on Black lives, Black pain and the Black experience for decades. When my students suggest names for our Black History bulletin board, the typical greats (MLK, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman) are suggested. Then we teachers enlighten the youth on the unsung heroes they should be up on. Toni Morrison is the rock of African American legends and I’ve been enamored with her impact on literature since I was one of those snotty nosed, dim witted, high school kids. After deciding to read The Bluest Eye over Beloved, I was rocked to my core with this overwhelming feeling of agony and empathy, and that is where I believe Morrison makes her greatest impact on readers and young writers. The experiences that Black people have been through and endure on a daily basis should be felt and ingrained into the psyche of every American, in hopes that we will one day be as free and equal as our country presumes to be.
I got my first public library card when I was 10 years old. My small private school class walked to the tiny library just off Piedmont Avenue, and I wandered through the dusty stacks of chapter books. One caught my eye — on the cover was a blonde, blue-eyed doll. I flipped through it and was puzzled and intrigued by the fragments of “Dick and Jane” disintegrating throughout it. The Bluest Eye was the first book I checked out of a library and the first book by Toni Morrison I ever read — at age 10.
I got to meet her once, when she came to speak at Cornell. She was a stern woman, staring down another undergrad who called her “Toni” instead of “Ms. Morrison” and got too close and dared touch her without asking. I hung back until I could catch her eye, and then my mouth went dry. The only words I could get out were these: “Thank you.”
Thank you, Ms. Morrison. You’re the reason I write prose and expect it to sound like poetry. Thank you for demanding respect you weren’t always offered. Thank you for letting me know that age is irrelevant, that there is no minimum age for reading and untangling stories that feel cellular nor an age by which one must write them. There is always plenty of time, and now, you have all time you could ever have.
— Lauren W.
The way Toni Morrison translated deep-seeded truths and emotion into gorgeously written prose is an inspiration to me as a writer. She spoke for herself, Black people, and Black WOMEN in ways that make the heart sing with joy or ache with sadness. Toni Morrison SAW us, and we saw her. And we loved her for it.
Here are a few things that Toni Morrison means to me:
- I was not put on this earth to cower or crawl; That the Creator did not breathe life into this beautiful Black body for it to suffer in silence and not experience the full range of LIFE and LOVE this world has to offer.
- This dark chocolate skin, deep brown eyes, course hair, big pink lips, and slick-ass mouth deserve to take up as much space as any and every other motherf***** up in here. *Kanye shrug*
- I can achieve my goals, if for no other reason than I am here and will it so.
- I am human and flawed, but so are those who may have hurt me. But like Morrison said, “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
- The Black experience is varied, unique, and worthy of being told.
Thank you, Sister Morrison. Wherever you are, I hope it’s somewhere wonderful and that you feel our collective love for you. Rest in Power, Queen.
Toni Morrison changed the defaults of the literary world — of who stories were for and were about. She defined the world on her own terms and populated her world with people, with women who looked like her, who looked like us. From my first (and life changing) reading of The Bluest Eye back in middle school to the later adult readings of Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon to all of her critiques on race, class, and gender — she’s been an force to be reckoned with, an elder to behold, admire, and cherish.
She served many roles during her time on this earth, and one that many forget is her job as editor. Lord knows how needed editors are in any capacity, especially, for writing and the publishing industry. It wasn’t until a few days ago when reading the late Lucille Clifton’s collection of poetry, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (American Poets Continuum) that I learned that Morrison edited Clifton’s first book of poetry — Generations. I learned more about their connection in the foreword that Morrison wrote:
“I edited a book by Lucille. Generations. The only prose, I believe, she ever wrote for publication. I was so pleased to be working with her because, although we knew each other briefly at Howard University, I had not seen her since then. The manuscript was impressive — honest, clear-eyed with a shapeliness natural to poets. During one of our conversations in my office she told me that she spoke fairly regularly to her deceased mother. “Really? How?” I asked. “Prayer?” “No,” she said. “Ouija Board.” I smiled, not with condescension, I hope, but with fascination. “What does she say?” “Many things,” she answered, “though she has no sense of time. She speaks of things past as though they were in the future. As in ‘you are going to have two beautiful daughters.’ I tell her I already have beautiful daughters.” Lucille continued, “But I get the impression she isn’t very interested in me. Once I asked her about something extremely important to me and she said, ‘Excuse me, I have to go. I have something to do.’” Something to do? I was mesmerized. The dead have active, curious, busy existences? Lucille assured me it seemed to be so. I was happy beyond belief to contemplate the afterlife that way. Not some static hymnal-singing, self-aggrandizing chorus, nor blank preconsciousness — but life otherwise.”
This was a gift to read and reflect upon now with Morrison’s passing.
As with Maya Angelou, as with Ntozake Shange and now with Toni Morrison — may we consider them in the fashion of Lucille: they’re not gone. Not gone completely. May we speak to Toni with love and contentment of the world she has left but in which she yet still lingers. May we speak to Toni as we do Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Octavia Butler, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorraine Hansberry and all our literary gods in their infinite Blackness and female presenting bodies who left us incredible works to hold.
May we remember Toni and keep her alive. She left us on this earthly realm to meet and celebrate with the ancestors but I know here, we’ll always celebrate and honor her name and the legacy she’s left us.
Cover photo collage: Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. 📷Photo by Bettman/Corbis.