In Memoriam: Toni Morrison

Line drawing by Darrell Rainey originally appeared in the Spring 1995 edition of The Georgia Review, a special issue on the Nobel laureates of literature

 

Because of This Woman, I Plant Marigolds

As a child I wanted to know why God put me in this body that repelled so many people on sight. Why people felt at liberty to pick me apart and wipe off their filth with the pieces of me. My skin, too dark; my hair, too kinky; my nose, too broad; my lips, too full. I wanted to know why I, a girl who was already dealt the hand of poverty and strife, would also be born . . . ugly. It was more than I could handle. But I was taught that God doesn’t do that, so I talked to Him. I asked Him for long hair that could dance merrily with the rain. I asked for lighter skin, so that people could actually see ME. And yes, I wanted lighter eyes—not blue, maybe hazel or green—because people don’t commit horrible acts before beautiful little girls. I went to church of my own volition, flagellated myself for any impure thoughts I had that might bar me from receiving my prayer song, and I waited.

Boys continued to run past me when we played Catch ’n Kiss. Girls never invited me to makeover parties. My family gave my lighter-skinned cousin the nickname Pretty; me: Retardo. I swallowed it all whole for decades, barely getting one down before another heaping dose was thrust upon me. I waited and prayed, prayed and cried, cried and read.

I read The Bluest Eye as a teenager. Immediately I recognized my soul’s twin in Pecola Breedlove. I was awestruck that there was a book that was written about me, who didn’t matter. The triple oppression of blackness, femaleness, and poverty had rendered me invisible to empathy, but highly conspicuous to abuse. But this woman—this Toni Morrison—she saw me. She didn’t answer my question: Why did God put me in this body? She couldn’t; that was between me and God. But she did teach me that I was asking the wrong question. So gently, she rocked me in the frilly Egyptian-cotton-laden cradle of her words, and said: The question is why do THEY reject God by putting this question into your head? And when I stopped crying long enough to see, she taught me how they made me hate myself. How Dick and Jane, the Brady Bunch, my classmates with proximity to whiteness, white Jesus, bleaching cream in the medicine cabinet, “good hair,” and brown paper bag tests shaped me in the eyes of Others. She taught me that those were man-made. And that the Bluest Eye was not even the Bluest “I,” because there were so many of us . . . so many that it could shatter your heart into a mosaic. But most importantly she made me want to know why anyone would stoop so low that they would want a poor little black girl to prefer the prospect of being physically blotted out over a lifetime of social death. I know the answer to that now; I became an African American Studies professor in the process. 

That is who Toni Morrison is to me. Because of this woman, I plant marigolds.

—Jessie LaFrance Dunbar

 

 

 

 

Our Beloved Toni Morrison

What can I say about Toni Morrison that she has not already said better herself through the robust collection of work she has gifted us? As a poet, scholar, and professor of literature, one would think I could be professional in articulating something profound about such a titan of letters. But it is profoundly personal, the impact that she has had on me as a writer and reader, as a Black woman, as a single working mother in America, as someone who did not come from means, as a thinker and an artist—in short, as a human being. She is a public figure, but this grief feels private, too. I encountered Sula in the library at Beverly Hills High School, where as a bused-in sophomore I would go to escape my only-ness. I had just read The Third Life of Grange Copeland, still my favorite Alice Walker novel, and Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. But Sula! Altogether something so powerful, alchemical in that character—I read two more novels, Tar Baby and Song of Solomon, quickly after. But my mind still wandered, and still does wander, back to Sula, the character, and that secret smile Morrison talked about creeps onto my face. A woman without limits on her mind. In a world that could not conceive of folks who looked like me in such a way, Toni Morrison did, fully, elegantly, searingly, gorgeously. She did so taking into account the past, present, and future as archived by our devastating sufferings and improbable endurance, carving into language the vital throughline of all of it: love. By the time I graduated from high school, a different one with more Black people, she ’d won the Nobel Prize. She was a hero and role model to me, to so many of us—readers of her novels, identifying with both the traumas and victories in the stories of her characters, and writers, making our words into art against often cruel odds.

Neither Toni Morrison nor her work bothered with so-called respectability, did not worry about what white folks might think. She made her characters so human they live on in us. They live their fullest, fiercest, most mythic lives, as built by both her imagination and her knowledge of Black existence as sublime. She did not just lay claim to a space for us in literature, and by extension, as active shapers of American culture. She said we already had that space; we were already there. She just pointed it out in her undeniable way—the light of her brilliance illuminating the path forward fromthat declaration of presence, already paved by our impossible survival, a boundless space that racism has tried, and still tries, to hide, suppress, deny. Toni Morrison taught us how to reach and navigate that space on our own terms. How to return if we forgot. And if we mistakenly thought that space was small, she made it so we knew there was plenty of room for us in all our complexity, like Beloved’s Baby Suggs in the clearing, letting us feel that discovery in every molecule, to shout it, cry, moan, cackle, and whisper too. 

She was so free and radical and precise. So accurate. I strive for that kind of radical accuracy in my work because of her. And she was not envious of younger writers; rather, she wanted us to succeed in being and doing our best on the page and off. We could feel it in every interview. Not only did she humor our strivings, she encouraged and pushed us to do more, simply by being the best at everything she did. And, crucially, she corrected white interviewers who tried to avoid centering the Blackness that is so indivisible from her excellence. And! She made motherhood an accompaniment to her work, a vital part of it, and not a hindrance. That alone is profound, even defiant if you imagine mothers stereotypically—as soft, self-sacrificing, and silent. She made it natural to be the best in the world at writing sentences so full of clarity and complexity, scenes that make worlds out of feeling, books that travel through time, that power such rich learning and beauty and sorrow and tough awakening. She made it not just possible but also inevitable that being a Black woman means to be a literary powerhouse, to teach and to raise children, if you choose, while nurturing a people’s whole creative future—and to do all that with humor and love and fellowship and unrelenting commitment. Like Sula Peace, she sure did live in this world. Her voice echoes beyond the redwoods, her words etched in memory so constant it is the future. What a life to have so wondrously shared with us. What a giant intellect and glorious heart. What an imagination for all time. 

—Khadijah Queen

 

 

 

 

The Soaring Legacy of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison has made a phenomenal contribution to American and world literature because of how she has told the story of African American history and culture, literally from the days of enslavement to now. And what is distinctive and unique about her work is her literary voice, the way she brings the culture to life. She called herself a culture worker in that she saw her art as not only a form of preservation, but also a way of passing down, to America and the world, and celebrating the contributions that we African Americans have made in music, in dance, in food, in how we speak, in how we walk and move, and in how we think about ourselves in relationship to the world.

She also was courageous, because she encountered, full-force, America’s history of racism and racial tension, and the lingering stereotypes and perceptions that have swirled around African Americans, as well as the social costs of those tensions and of those stereotypes not only to individuals but also to our society as a whole. 

Like our great African American thinkers, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Dr. King to Barbara Jordan, she also offered a different way of being in the world to American readers—an antidote to our consumerism and materialism. And that antidote, for Morrison, is culture and is love: love for oneself and love of other people.

I can’t begin to express how much we will miss her imaginative voice, her wise take on American society and culture. And her optimism. No matter how dark some of her characters or plots may have been, ultimately Morrison’s work always offered hope—hope that we could aspire to and become our better selves. 

Toni Morrison was profoundly a mentor and a teacher. I’ve met so many young writers, so many young scholars of African American literature and culture who have met Toni Morrison, attended a talk given by Toni Morrison, or seen Toni Morrison in a documentary, and were inspired by her. My own encounter with Toni Morrison took place when I was a young assistant professor. My very first job was at SUNY Albany, where Toni Morrison had a distinguished position in the creative-writing program. Her office was just down the hall. It took me many weeks to muster up the courage to go down and introduce myself. I was so intimidated about being in the presence of someone who was so great. She had already written what I think are her greatest novels, Song of Solomon and Beloved. 

I finally mustered up the courage, went down, knocked on her door, and she didn’t brush me aside, didn’t tell me to go away because she was busy. She clearly was busy! Her desk was covered with papers. But she gave me twenty minutes of her time to talk about African American literature, and she was so gracious and so approachable, and that meant so much to me, being a newly minted professor, still unsure of my place in the field and my potential to be an excellent scholar. It was an inspiring moment that I will treasure, and I will always remember her beaming with a big picture window behind her and the sun just shining through. It was a magical moment, and I’m so glad that she’s given me and so many other readers countless magical moments in her literature and in her life.

One reason she was able to do it was that she understood the life of a writer inside-out. She was an editor as well as a writer. And in that role, she nurtured a generation of writers, something we can say is unique about Toni Morrison. Not only did she soar, in terms of the aesthetic quality of her writing, but she gave back so much to the writing community by identifying and nurturing talent. And she is admired for taking the time to listen—to listen to other writers, to read and critique their work with a fine-toothed comb, and to help them get in front of the right people in the publishing world. 

I think she excelled because she understood writing from so many different sides—the creative side, the business and marketing and publicity side, and the disciplinary side. I mean she understood that writing is work; writing is labor. She modeled that in the disciplined approach she took to her own writing, and to her teaching. Every day, showing up in front of the computer, and putting words to the page: it sounds so easy! I tell my own students—if it were so easy everyone would write a book!

I really took a lot from her in terms of trying to model my own discipline as a writer after hers. To write every day, no matter what. To sit down and to think. To focus, and to put intensity in front of me and not to be casual about what I am saying and to understand the consequences of what I am saying. She was a very careful writer, deliberate and precise. And I know that’s why millions of us admire her work. 

—Barbara McCaskill

 

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Editor’s note: Barbara McCaskill’s piece is adapted from her interview with Alan Flurry, a version of which was published online by Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia on 6 August 2019.

 

Jessie LaFrance Dunbar specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American and African Diasporic literatures; she has secondary interests in Russian and AfroCuban history, literature, and cultures. Her current book project, “Democracy, Diaspora, and Disillusionment: Black Itinerancy and the Propaganda Wars,” suggests that scholars recalibrate the earliest notable era of Russian influence on African American politics from the twentieth century to the nineteenth. An assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she carries a secondary appointment as assistant professor in African American Studies.

Khadijah Queen is the author of five books, most recently, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her verse play Non-Sequitur (Litmus Press, 2015) won the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women’s Performance Writing, which included a staged production at Theaterlab NYC. Her next poetry collection, Anodyne, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tin House. Individual works appear in Fence, Poetry, Gulf Coast, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Colorado, Boulder, and holds a PhD in English from University of Denver.

Barbara McCaskill is a professor of English at the University of Georgia and associate academic director for the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. Her latest books—both with the University of Georgia Press—are Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory (2015) and the forthcoming The Magnificent Life of Rev. Peter Thomas Stanford: Transatlantic Reformer and Race Man, co-edited with Sidonia Serafini and Reverend Paul Walker. She is the 2019 recipient of the Lorraine A. Williams Leadership Award from the Association of Black Women Historians for mentoring and fostering the professional growth of Black women scholars.