Hi guys! This week we’ll be taking a short break from our regularly scheduled programming in order to honor an incredible soul in literature, a woman whose magnitude of life is matched only by the magnitude of the loss we feel without her. This past Monday, Toni Morrison passed away at the age of 88. The past few days have stung immeasurably feeling the void left by her absence in ways I could not address with words.
Today, I want to yield the floor to some of those closest to Morrison, friends and scholars, mentors and mentees, in the hopes that their words can help you through this moment just as they helped me.
Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say by Doreen St. Félix, published in The New Yorker
My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.
You are always too young to read Morrison. I was eleven. A teacher had grown concerned. From what I can recall of the report, my eyes glazed over in class and I was sinking into my desk, falling inexplicably ill. “Maybe this will make you feel better?” my mother asked. The copy of “The Bluest Eye” that she gave me was distended, graffitied with epiphanies. It had been assigned to her in an E.S.L. class at Kingsborough Community College, burdening her for all time with a misleading impression of the potential of English. Out of a “discredited vocabulary,” as Morrison once termed it, the author coaxed out a superior written tongue—one that, I more than suspect, each black woman writer who has come after her mimics, to varying degrees. My own mimicry was, at first, automatic. That summer, I stayed indoors, truly possessed. I transcribed the whole of “The Bluest Eye,” in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, at least a dozen times. I memorized whole chapters. My finger pads melted. I ingrained the beat of the novel into the movement of my right wrist.
Meaning, Without the White Gaze by Rebecca Carroll, host at WNYC, published in The Atlantic
I had been writing it for her. For her, and for Pecola Breedlove. Perhaps too ambitious or presumptuous or high-minded, I had, until the announcement of her death this week, been writing my memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, for Toni Morrison and Pecola Breedlove. Because I survived the white gaze for Pecola, and Morrison taught me how.
I knew Pecola first. I lived inside her skin, her ache; felt sickened, ashamed, and unseen by that baby doll’s dead blue eyes on one of the book’s early covers. Page after page of The Bluest Eye, I felt Pecola’s mind curl into anguish and succumb to a delusion better than reality. Pecola lost her mind because she wanted the blue eyes set inside the ceaseless standard of white beauty—a gaze so narcotic that it ravaged her body from flesh to bone—and I almost did, too.
Going to the Movies with Toni by Kevin Young, published in The New Yorker
In 1991, I would get to meet Morrison more personally: I went to the movies with her, Angela Davis, and a close friend of mine, who is Davis’s niece. Whenever I tell this story, which I do rarely, but with gusto, people always ask, “Which movie?” They picture, I think, something as profound and political as Morrison’s writing. “The Five Heartbeats,” I reply—a black film, sure, and a bit of a cult classic now, but certainly unexpected. I love that it was that film, though, because, up close, Morrison was earthy and funny, smoking afterward as we walked the streets of Oakland. “Oh, a bookstore,” she said, after a few blocks, and dashed in to ask after something. Through the glass doors, I could see the employees at the help desk looking quite helpless, answering that they didn’t have this or that title, then staring after her in wonder as she simply walked out and we ambled back to our cars. It was like a visit from a myth that you had only read about. She had been unaware, or at least unfazed, that they might have recognized her, which to me seemed obvious. How could they not?
The whole while, I had my hardcover copy of “Beloved” in my blue messenger bag, and was aching to ask her to sign it. I was too shy and didn’t know how to broach the subject—exactly because Morrison was so unpretentious and accepting. I was afraid to break the spell. After we parted ways, and, for the rest of the evening and for years after, I felt that I had missed my chance. When next I knew I’d meet her, more than a decade later, I was ready; she was as generous in signing her book for me as she had been in accepting the earnest student journal all those years before. In the meantime, her own work had helped me to further accept my own black and writerly self, to realize that what she said was true, that “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction.” She gave us permission to work, to wake early and stay up late writing—rather than arguing whether we could or should write or exist at all. Racism, Morrison wrote, “keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.” Morrison gave us beautiful language as an assumption of selfhood, but also as a mirror to look into.
Remembering Toni by Fran Lebowitz, journalist, published in The Paris Review
And she loved, more than anything, dessert. As soon as we sat down, she would choose dessert, probably the most unhealthy thing you could eat on the menu. And you would know that all during dinner she was thinking about it. She would eat only three bites of her dinner, and then she would look at you. If she was a child, you would have said, “No!” But I would just say, “Fine, do what you will.” Toni didn’t really like New York. She was not an urban person. She would say, “Let’s go downtown,” about a certain place that was actually up. She couldn’t remember restaurants, she would just say, “Is this the restaurant that has the peach pie?” That was one of her main interests in life, dessert. When Toni’s mother was alive—so this was a long time ago—we had this bet going. Toni was always talking about her mother’s apple pie. And my mother was the Albert Einstein of apricot strudel. Toni and I had a bet on which was better. I pointed out that my mother also made apple pie, while her mother had never even heard of apricot strudel. I think I won that way. Once I said to Toni, “The amount of sugar you eat!” And she said, “You know, sometimes even sugar isn’t sweet enough.”
The Indelible Substance of a Semester with Toni Morrison by Troy Patterson, published in The New Yorker
The substance of the class was indelible. Great writers are always grand readers, and the regular business of watching Morrison go at other authors’ texts, as an analyst and interrogator, was a pleasure. My mind touches daily on the work done in that room—on the lens that Morrison made for examining constructs of blackness in the American imagination.
[…] My fondest recollection of Morrison is a kind of a compound memory, compiled from hours of hearing her think aloud as she strolled through the storehouse of her mind. I have spent a quarter century feeling faintly obsessed with Morrison’s distinctive use of the word “thing” in classroom conversations. Enunciated for evocative weight, “thing” was a placeholder for a concept or a process whose correct name either proved elusive in the moment or remained yet to be discovered. “Thing” was a generality that indicated the terrible importance of being specific. The way she would say it—gesturing, as if holding the idea between her fingers—suggested that she was setting a unit of language aside for the moment, awaiting its most perfect formulation.
Toni Morrison, Revolutionary Political Thinker by Angela Davis and Farah Jasmine Griffin, social justice activist and scholar of Toni Morrison, published in The New York Times
Toni believed the writer had the duty to take a public stance. The novel was but one tool for doing this. Decades ago, she warned about the rising tide of authoritarianism in a series of astute and prescient lectures and essays. In 1995, she compelled us to heed the signs of people who “construct an internal enemy as both focus and diversion” and who “isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse.” These, she warned, were the first steps toward “a final solution.” These essays are as important today as they were when she wrote them. Perhaps even more so.
[…] Toni was cleareyed about the United States, about the lies it tells itself, about the truth of its dark side and about its potential, rooted in its traditions of dissent, to offer a better future. A student of history, she understood that nations come and go, but that human beings had the capacity for change, evolution and growth, and that a more just world awaits if only we would commit to bringing it into being.
In her presence, whether on the page or in person, we understood the world was large and it was ours, to enter, to comment upon, to write about, to shape, mold and change. In her presence her brilliance was as apparent as it was capacious and inviting. She did not condescend to her readers or her friends; she was utterly confident of her own capacity and of ours.
Toni Morrison’s Cosmos by Jesse McCarthy, published in The Nation
In a very real and terrible way, our country needs—but does not yet deserve—Toni Morrison. Even in death, she exceeds us: We lack the language fit to eulogize her achievement. No writer has done more to shape the course of American fiction in the last 50 years. No writer has pushed the bar for the novel higher than where she left it with Beloved. Her place in the literary pantheon seems so self-evident now that younger viewers of the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am will likely be shocked to learn that well into the 1990s her work was downplayed, denigrated, or simply ignored by the members of a literary establishment fearful (and surely jealous) that a black woman could not only outsell them but also garner higher literary praise.
They were right to fear her. Like Pilate, the fierce outsider who guides the plot of Song of Solomon, it never occurred to Morrison to ask for a seat at the table: She pulled the table to where she sat. She refused to fill her novels with white characters, refused to write under what she called “the white gaze,” and refused to apologize for doing so. She did all of this knowing she could write her critics off the table in her novels and essays—and she finally did. The due respect accorded to women novelists of any color today owes something to her struggle to remind publishers of the importance of those voices they neglected. Like a new planet, she shifted the flow of gravity in the literary cosmos.
I’m Annie, a recent UC Berkeley grad and publicity intern here at Art + Deco Agency. I’ll be your resident blogger, chatting with and about emerging voices in the literary industry and getting you started on your summer reading list. Catch me here every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday!