Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)
She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.
I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.
In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.
Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:
Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?
Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.
Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.
Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.
I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.
In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:
For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.
Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”
Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.