“In time, writing became a way to ‘order my experience…’ It’s always seemed to me that black people’s grace has been with what they do with language.”

Late last year I received a copy of The Source of Self-Regard. I guarded this galley with my life, and from the first page, I felt fed. Redeemed. Seen.

I was completely astounded by it, and by the possibility of writing about Toni Morrison for the first time after years of steeping myself in her work. I did what I always do when I’m intimidated by the prospect, by the responsibility, of trying to do someone justice: I went overboard with research. Flung myself into the stacks at the Schomburg. The above quote comes from the 1987 book, Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography by David L. Middleton. Here are my other notes:

Born 1931 in Lorain, Ohio

Chloe Anthony Wofford

Shortened her name to an abbreviation of her middle name purportedly (and with regret) because no one could pronounce Chloe. The theme of claiming one’s name emerged –noted in entry – in her fiction – from third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) to Tar Baby, her fourth ( 1981)

Graduated from Howard in 1953, English Major, classics minor

Master’s from Cornell in 1955 – her thesis was on suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

She taught for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, then returned to Howard as a faculty member.

She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958

They had two sons together, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. They divorced in 1964.

She moved w/sons to Syracuse where she worked as Random House textbook editor. Began writing at night as therapy for her loneliness when her sons were in bed.

Transferred to NYC in 1967 to headquarters for Random House editing acclaimed black women writers like Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.

She kept teaching – at SUNY Purchase 1971-72, Yale, 1976-77. She left Random House in 1983; Appointed Albert Schweitzer chair at SUNY Albany in 1984. Stayed until 1989, when Princeton appointed her Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. (Note from me: That means 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of Toni Morrison becoming the first Black woman to hold a chair at an ivy league university.)

When I am overwhelmed with sadness and grief, like now, I reach for books. Toni Morrison made it so that when I reached for books, I saw the most glorious, complicated and layered parts of myself as a black woman becoming. When I joined the Well Read Black Girl sisterhood for a viewing of the documentary about her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am, it felt like we were witnessing a celebrity in the room with us, like she was talking to every black woman in the room even though we were in a crowded theater in Brooklyn.

She did not know me, but she knew me, because her work reached into my soul and embraced the core of me. That is some of how I feel about Toni Morrison’s work; Toni Morrison who lived by the Hudson, recovered from personal tragedies and still, rose. Still, she wrote. Not just anything — everything. The following paragraph did not make it into my Bitch Magazine review of The Source of Self-Regard:

It is easy for us to take for granted Morrison’s vision, the scope and depth and breadth of it. How far she could see into our future from the quiet of those dark nights of her loneliness. The Bluest Eye, for example, was a precursor for this time – showing us that we would continue, always to vilify the acts of sexual assault against black girls or against women, at least, and maybe sometimes we would consider those two to be in the same category, but we would always excuse the perpetrators of that violence in the bodies of black men. It is easy to look back now that Morrison is nearing the end of a storied, established life, not to put her in a grave or anything, and applaud or be dismissive of the soaring loveliness of Beloved. If the book’s failure to win the 1987 National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award despite notable acclaim was any indication – as these things go, it was taken as such – the idea that a mother willing to kill her children instead of submitting it to a life of slavery was so great a leap that it took an open letter published in the New York Times Book Review signed by 48 prominent black writers to have the literary establishment look again at their discomfort. The following year, Morrison won the Pulitizer Prize.

I would be a less proud, confident, whole black woman writer were it not for the gifts of Toni Morrison. She was and is a literary light for the ages. I will miss her sharp, soft language, that keenly spiritual eye and of course, always, forevermore, the narratives she had left to write, if there was any more for her to give.

I’m too gutted to read her eulogy to James Baldwin in its entirety this morning. But this part, this is what I feel about Toni this morning:

You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. ”Our crown,” you said, ”has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, ”is wear it.”

And we do, Jimmy. You crowned us.

One thought on “On the legacy of Toni Morrison

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