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In bringing her imaginative powers to bear on an art that for so long marginalized Black presence, the great American novelist transformed modern literature
I first encountered Toni Morrison’s work in my late high school years, just before she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, back when discovering and reading Black writers felt something like swallowing a desperately needed elixir to stave off boredom and the constant feeling of being adrift in school.
Someone had handed me a copy of her third novel, Song Of Solomon, the book that brought her huge literary success. I tried many times to finish it but couldn’t. It wasn’t that the story was overly complicated or dense, but its language eluded me it came wrapped in an unfamiliar cadence and grandeur that I wasn’t ready for.
As a result, for many years I stayed quiet about not having read her books and went sheepish whenever anyone mentioned the esteemed author.
Later on, and much to my dismay, it became crucially important to have read, or at least claimed to have read, Morrison at university. Everyone I knew seemed to be asking that penetrating question intended to separate the wheat from the chaff: “Have you read Toni Morrison?”
Finally, and after much concentration and effort, I eventually found a way to enter her alluring world of ghosts, slavery, folklore, memory, love and Black traditions.
It’s near impossible to understate Toni Morrison’s importance, particularly in those heady and exuberant days after winning the Nobel. The mere mention of her name meant conjuring notions of intelligence. It meant a connection to something important and primordial. It meant protest. It meant writing and reading against the white literary canon that had both excluded and bored us for most of our school years. It meant linking our own experiences to those of African-Americans, and it meant coming into those early and formative realizations that slavery still haunted and affected us all. In the back of the lecture hall, it meant proudly knowing we had one of our own – a star author, one who pulled no punches, who elevated us, who spoke for us. It meant we had affinity with a writer who wrote about us and to us, who had the strength and temerity to not give a damn what white critics or readers thought of her stories. After all, they weren’t written for them. They belonged to us.
Morrison died at 88 of complications from pneumonia on August 5. She was the prolific author of numerous novels, plays, libretti and essays. Her first book, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, dealt honestly and unflinchingly with the internalized pain and ruinous impacts of racism in the U.S. It launched an unparalleled writing career that included critically acclaimed works such as Beloved, Jazz and Paradise along with other seminal books that were epic in scope and subject matter.
In her masterful essay Playing In The Dark: Whiteness And The Literary Imagination, which she discussed with NOW in 1992, she showed how white writers from Edgar Allan Poe to Ernest Hemingway imagined America by using Blackness as an unspoken and suppressed counter-presence to their world view. In bringing her imaginative powers to bear on an art that for so long marginalized Black presence, she single-handedly transformed modern literature and broadened its canvas. Such were her gifts that it was not uncommon to hear readers speak of having near spiritual experiences while reading her. Through tales steeped in mythology and lore, she rendered the experiences of an entire people with her pen.
But so much of Morrison’s impressive career took shape before her novels were published. As an editor at Random House in the late 60s and early 70s, she was responsible for supporting and publishing other Black writers such as Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Wole Soyinka and many more. In the recent documentary, The Pieces I Am, she recounts how at the height of the Black Power movement she asked herself what she could do to contribute to all of the rage and resistance swirling around her. She decided her role would be to enable the voices of protest through publishing their books.
That she did all of this as a single mother is remarkable. That she accomplished what she did as a Black woman during an acute period of racial fervour is extraordinary. Through kinetic and vibrant language and the sheer force of elegance and intellect, she pushed back forces that sought to sustain the erasure of Black people within modern letters. In doing so, she gave the experiences of African-Americans a gravitas and literary heft that had hitherto been denied.
As a steadfast teacher and supporter of emerging writers, Morrison always returned to the idea of literature as a form of craftwork.
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” she once said.
I realize now why it took me some time to understand Morrison’s books. It’s simply because they don’t lend themselves to passive or easy reading. She’s not the kind of writer you can zip through on a breezy Sunday afternoon. Her books demand labour, patience and a willingness to push beyond imaginary limits. The payoff may take time, but it comes, and comes hard.
In fact, time was something that she knew was in short supply and should be treasured and honoured. For many of us, reading her was a part of a youthful awakening to the realities of who we are as Black people, and for that we will remain deeply grateful for the time we had with her.
Reflecting on our collective mortality, she fittingly once wrote: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”