Toni Morrison, Our Greatest US American Writer

I think it might annoy her that I cannot fully explain the profound effect that each of her books has had on me. How to explain that Beloved resonated so strongly that I experienced a form of PTSD, reading and digesting it by chapters or partial chapters so that it took months to read it all. I knew those ghosts so intimately that I wondered how it could be that she was “singing my life with her words.” Could it really be only a coincidence that my childhood address was 124? I admit that I’ve never seen the movie and never will because I have no interest in anyone else’s interpretation of this awakening.

Through her and a host of other (mostly) Black women writers, I came to a more nuanced, often cuttingly sharp understanding of our connectedness through our shared histories and humanity. She read and spoke my heart when she posited that we are always interesting; that love is complex and sacred; that we must write and speak our own stories.

This is my favorite Toni Morrison book, (if one can even choose among her painfully exquisite offerings to the world) and when I met her at Sarah Lawrence College in 1988, she challenged me about “why” in a way that no one previously had interrogated me about anything I thought or felt. She quietly confronted me, right in front of the group of students who were invited to meet her, requiring that I shine a ruthless eye on my thoughts and feelings and not settle for the easy or false enlightenment, nor write before I better understood how my perceptions were influenced by personal and US history. She noted that for an intelligent woman and aspiring writer to do less was moral cowardice. She forced me to reckon with what courage- from the heart-really means. It hurt. I grew.

I wish that I had a photo of that encounter, and perhaps there is one somewhere in the bowels of my college’s photo archives. I would love to see her piercing eyes sending the strength of her words straight into my soul. I’d love to see my body’s presentation of the shock and awe that I remember feeling. I wonder if the lens captured any of the depth of those relatively short minutes of a brief, deeply meaningful encounter that continues to inform and inspire me. Having been raised in the art of bodily self control, I’d bet that only my widened eyes conveyed any of what felt like an hours long police interrogation under bright lights. Perhaps an auric reader might have seen my soul shift to a new level of maturity. Maybe the other people present noticed that I staggered away in shock, but I doubt it, because Toni Morrison skewered me without leaving a mark or any trace of blood. She entered through my skull and went straight to the heart, like an expert charcutier, cutting away the fat and dross, leaving my generally loquacious inner voice with not a blessed word to say, but a whole lot of reckoning to do. It was years later that I understood that by being provocative, she was also asking to be challenged, not just venerated.

She was indeed a gift, a blessing, a razor sharp sword: the voice of the Ancestors reuniting us with our natural selves, providing the medicines for our long healing.

Thank you, Ms. Morrison for the love. May you rest in the peace and power that you so richly deserve.

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