We Will Miss Our Ms. Toni Morrison
My heart is broken. I know mine isn’t the only one but at this moment it feels like it is. Toni Morrison wasn’t just an amazing writer, she was the voice of black women.
Ironically, I learned about Toni Morrison from a white female instructor in a women’s literature class at The Ohio State University. I will admit, I’d never heard of Toni Morrison and had no warning or expectation of what was to come or the impact she would have on my life. Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe that’s what made her work all the more amazing.
Beloved was eye-opening. It was a beautifully told ghost story and social commentary. I feel like so many people keep trying to tell black women that the right to choose is wrong, they’ve apparently forgotten that today’s black women are only three or four generations removed from slavery, maybe two generations from Jim Crow. We’re not far enough away from forced breeding to want to voluntarily give up our rights over our own bodies. The very premise of being forced to carry a child you’re terrified of having is traumatic enough. But there’s nothing more horrifying than giving birth to a life and not being able to keep that life safe, which is the crux of this story.
Beloved explored the extremes of fear and desperation our ancestors must have faced in a way nothing else has. It was full of spirituality, kinship, superstition, love, heartbreak, history, pain — and all from a uniquely black womanhood perspective. The fact that it was based on the true story of Margaret Garner from my (our) state of Ohio made it feel all the more personal.
Though Beloved was a masterpiece and one of her most well-known works, to me, The Bluest Eye was my favorite. It was the story of a domestic worker who spends all her days mothering white children, helpless to protect her own daughter from abuse. Her daughter, a little black girl who, after constant sexual and emotional assault, determines that if she had blue eyes like the children her mother seemingly lavished love upon, she wouldn’t be brutalized.
The symbolism spoke to my soul, and I’m sure the soul of every woman who has been a little black girl having to grow up faster just because our skin color required it. One of the most challenging things about being black is that innocence is fleeting and can often be a detriment. It’s dangerous to be innocent. Innocence makes us prey to everyone and everything. Because for some reason, the world doesn’t believe we are ever innocent — not even our children.
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The Bluest Eye reflected the internal war between pragmatism and hope. Trying to make sense of the pain being inflicted when nothing really makes logical sense. It spoke to every black woman and allowed us to be seen.
We were all little girls wanting to play with dolls and dream, after all. Contrary to popular belief, black women weren’t born strong. Our strength is forged through a process that starts way too early and doesn’t ever let up. It’s lifelong demeaning of value that forces us to find meaning in whatever way we can.
The Bluest Eye showed, in a brilliant way, how mistreatment and cruelty of our most innocent becomes internalized hatred and how the spirit seeks to find meaning in the worst of circumstance. But also, how hard our spirits will fight to survive. With this story she puts to paper the experiences we have never seen acknowledged or addressed in this way.
“Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
— Toni Morrison
As you might imagine, I wanted to be Toni Morrison, as far as writing goes. I read and studied her work, her voice and style. I can eke out some literary prose but that doesn’t feel as right to me as genre, slushy pulp lit. It doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, only Toni Morrison could ever be Toni Morrison. Her voice was hers alone. Anybody trying to imitate her would be just that, an imitator. Here’s a great interview on Charlie Rose.
Yesterday when I heard the news that this great writer had passed, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I feel like I’ve lost a friend. I received a text from a friend who said “you’re the first person I thought of when I heard the news” because she knew how much I loved Ms. Morrison.
Correction, how much I loved her work.
That’s the thing, I never met Toni Morrison in person even though we’re both from Ohio. I didn’t know her. But she knew me. She must have because she wrote for me. She wrote for every black woman I know. In sharing our experiences — our most personal, private, secret pain and hope — she showed us she knew us … and loved us as if she were our best girlfriend, sister, mother, or daughter.
So we will miss the gift that was Toni Morrison. But we will always have her books, each one a love letter to you and me.