It took me a while to know what I wanted to write about Toni Morrison that hadn’t already been said more eloquently. So before you keep reading, please take a look at what so many talented black women have written, like Charlene Carruthers’ piece in Out Magazine, Akwaeke Emezi’s letter in Them, or Roxane Gay’s piece in the New York Times.
And once you’ve read their takes — and hopefully followed the breadcrumbs to other fantastic writers who were not just inspired but seen and represented by Ms. Morrison’s writing — you can come back and read mine.
I credit Meggan Burgoni, my 10th grade English and 12th grade Humanities teacher, with introducing me to two literary loves of my life: Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison. The first she sent me on a two-week getaway with in the form of a winter break Welcome to the Monkey House assignment. The second she teased me with in the spring of 2009 via a slow-paced reading of Beloved.
Recently I read Wired’s review of Euphoria that rightfully lauded the HBO series as the “perfect anti-binging show” — that part of the series’ allure is how it forces you to sit with what you’ve seen and develop your opinions, hopes and fears for each character over eight weeks instead of eight hours. Beloved can be described in the same way. You can read it in a single night, but it won’t have the same effect. You’ll miss things. And so Burgoni would quiz us daily to make sure not that we had done the reading we had been assigned, but that we hadn’t gotten farther in the book than she asked us to read.
(This is where I confess that I totally read ahead sometimes, just made a mental note of where each assignment passage ended so I’d still pass the quiz. Sorry, Mizz B.)
A year after I read Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five — the latter two by choice — Kurt Vonnegut died. When we heard the news, a lot of us didn’t even realize he was still alive. I think it was because Vonnegut’s wit and voice, while staying mostly relevant throughout the American Idiot Bush-led era we were teenage-angsting our way through, was clearly from another time. He was one of the literature titans that had formed modern sci-fi satire and been overthrown by the Zeustic powers of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore and other nihilistic authors who captured our attention with their equally raw but timely storytelling. It was sad he was gone, but we’d still have fun scouring used bookstores for vintage copies of Timequake.
But on Tuesday when I heard that Ms. Morrison had passed, I was gutted. She was supposed to be immortal. Souls are immortal, aren’t they? After all, she was the soul of American literature. She was the conscience, too. And the heart. And the folds of the brain where relationships and emotion hold hands. I haven’t found another writer like it, and I’ve blown my book budget and deprived myself of sleep trying to find one.
There was no other writer who could slice me open; fill me with the faith, skepticism, jubilation, torment, distrust and fellowship felt by her characters; sew me up again for 200 pages; yank out the stitches and the stuffing with one hand at the stories’s climax; and leave me with more understanding and compassion than I had when we started. Her writing changed me.
And she did that without even writing for me. She wrote for black women — the “most disrespected person in America,” as Malcolm X famously and accurately said — but everyone else had the privilege of reading it and learning from it, too.
A couple years ago, I sat in the airport before a business trip, reading Beloved for the fifth or sixth time (I read it every 18 months and always find something new in it). A group of older black women walked past me, and one of them stopped.
“Great book,” she said, more to herself than to me. Then she called to her friends: “This white girl’s reading Toni!” We ended up talking about the book for a couple minutes before their flight was called. She told me the next one I should read was Sula. I’ve read it twice since.
I think that was the first time I saw through the privilege I had experienced as a Caucasian reader and recognized that I was reading something that wasn’t created for me. It was my first reckoning that artists don’t just write for anyone — they have a specific audience, and if they’re good enough, their work attracts readers from outside that group. And I thanked Burgoni all over again for tempting our mostly white, middle-class Humanities cohort to huddle around our red paperbacks at lunch, desperately reading ahead to see what would happen to Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver and Beloved.
There’s a lot more I could say about Ms. Morrison. How she pulled other underrepresented writers up with her, saying “the function of freedom is freeing someone else.” How she refused to be a victim of racism and demanded that white people be the ones to fix it. Then there’s her work on its own: How The Bluest Eye made me a sobbing wreck on a very crowded rush-hour train. How Tar Baby gave us one of the best deep-dives into the social and spiritual meanings of beauty, and Jazz gave us this beautiful quote:
“Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”
Instead, I’ll leave you with one final story. I mentioned to my mom on Tuesday that Ms. Morrison wasn’t published until she was 39 or 40. As I currently lose sleep (and possibly friends) over a first-draft of a book that ebbs between good and garbage, this is reassuring to me, as well as a reminder to slow down — much like when reading Beloved. In fact, I joked to my mom as my throat closed up around a sob that maybe this is a sign that I should just stop and wait until I’m 35 or so to pick writing back up again. The Bluest Eye took five years to write, after all.
Then Mom countered with another biographical detail. When Ms. Morrison’s son died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she quit writing from grief. But upon thinking about it, she realized that the last thing he would have wanted. So she started writing again.
“So what would Toni want you to do?” Mom asked.
It’s simple. It’s the quote that most writers have tattooed inside their skulls, if not on their actual skin. And I hesitated to include it in this post (everyone is including it in their posts), but it’s a rally cry that every writer should shout at the top of their lungs and blog pages for the rest of time:
“If there’s a book you want to read, write it.”
I love you, Ms. Morrison. Thank you. Rest in power.