Toni Morrison struck the world with language— the method of human communication; her words are to be sipped slowly even as they hit us with rapid truths; her depths brought us to heights so that we could “surrender to the air” and ”ride it”.
For Black girls forming into women, the works of the late Toni Morrison were a salve, a comfort as much as a weapon against a world that impressed upon us that we had no value. Morrison showed us that our nature was every bit deserving of intimacy, love, and praise as the central White characters in her favourite works from canonical writers like Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy were. She called us to know ourselves and to live and create from that knowingness.
Before the release of her debut novel in 1970, The Bluest Eye, Toni was the first Black woman to be a senior editor at Random House publishing in New York City. She utilised this position of power to include other emerging Black writers such as Wole Soyinka, China Achebe, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis in vital collections that established and expanded the canon of Black literature.
At the time, she was a single mother of two sons and would rise daily to write her novels before dawn. Every parent who works to create while raising your creations can feel the fibre of this. She did what had to be done.
Morrison examined the configurations of race and the most insidious racism, in a way that granted us who are most damaged by it a great relief. She let us know unabashedly that it’s not on us. That at its root, “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being”, as she said in her rousing 1975 speech at Portland State University.
As a small child, her family’s landlord set their house on fire – while they were in it – because they had come up short on their $4 rent. Their response? Laughter. Morrison took note, and became known for her punctuating laugh. A laugh that was filled with defiance, intelligence, and ultimate triumph. “That’s what laughter does,” she said in a 1993 interview, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, “you take it back. You take your life back. You take your integrity back.”
She gave us space to be angry, and then encouragement to get back to work, channeling emotion into the tangible. All because, she said, “we do language”, and the work of expressing and documenting our culture is of the utmost importance: “if there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet then you must write it,” she famously asserted. This command landed on an entire generation of writers and expanded into other creative industries, from filmmaking to art, made by people of colour – this I know myself, as a filmmaker. She lent us her grit and her gumption to go ahead and be the first, if that is what’s required.
“She became our gateway to tremendous imagined worlds that still reflected our grounded realities”
Morrison’s second novel, Sula, was her second release back in 1973 – a complex narrative set across nearly five decades that focused on two black heroines in a small Ohio town. It gave us permission to be sensual dangerous and unsavoury, while laying the integral foundations for Black feminist literary criticism. She showed us the complexity of friendship as all relationships define parts of our being. Her next book, 1977’s Song of Solomon, granted her celebrity and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1978, with its sprawling, multicultural life-story of a Black man in Michigan from birth to his adult years.
She continued pouring out compelling works: Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy, Home, God Help the Child. All of her canon affirms Black identity and experiences, exposing secret and unspoken notions. All are breathtaking in their bracing beauty. Morrison’s most recent compilation, The Source of Self Regard, contains some of her most tender and brazen thoughts as she paid respect to one of her heroes James Baldwin in his death, and elegantly asserting “Black matters”, that traverse issues from money and grief to women’s empowerment.
We grieve for Toni Morrison so deeply because she claims us, and we her. For me, she is family. She feels at once mother, sister, lover, and friend. We are the centrepiece, we are the sun in a universe of her own innovation that helped shape our real lives. In this, she became our gateway to tremendous imagined worlds that still reflected our grounded realities.
We cannot dismiss the age at which our beloved Toni Morrison left us: 88. A symbol of continuum, followed by continuum. We cannot be too sad, for she was deliberate in all that she did: every letter, every syllable. She gave us mesmerising novels, searing essays, the wisest advisement. She is our warrior, the blueprint. And with this, we go on.