I remember sitting in school and reading for the first time, “The Bluest Eye.” The story that a little girl, a little black girl, wanted blue eyes – something that was impossible, but nevertheless magical. It was a story that would be read in our classrooms; carry on in our lives; resonate in our hearts. It was required reading. But who knew, no matter how many books we read and loved, how deeply we read and loved “The Bluest Eye” and its author, Toni Morrison. It was a story that would prove to be true, even and especially for its author. The story that a little black girl longed for this magical, although seemingly impossible thing and went through hell to get it wasn’t just a story for us or the classroom, it was a story for Toni Morrison, which defined her entire career.
And so she wrote it, and published it, in 1970. She not only wrote a book, but she created an original and transcendent dialogue on racism and childhood trauma, amongst other things. It was her first book. It was the book in which she told us that becoming white was not just about wanting blue eyes; but wanting to be white meant wanting to be beautiful; wanting to be rich; wanting to change your skin color and your hair. It was the book in which she told us that children dealt with things, two things, two important things: racism and sexual abuse.
Ms. Morrison also said things. She said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” and that was in 1993 during her Nobel Prize speech. Toni continued to write and say things, and she would be asked things. I remember, shortly after reading “The Bluest Eye,” and before reading anything else, finding interviews and articles on the great novelist because I wanted to devour her knowledge. I wanted to see how smart she was; about writing, her own writing, and about us, those she wrote about. It didn’t surprise me to find that she was smart. Toni Morrison was very smart. In her interviews, she said things about writing, about her first novel, about children, about black children, and even about white children and white people, a thing which she purposely and promised to leave out of her novels. This became a point of concern for her readers and interviewers, especially those who were white, as they struggled to figure out why they were left out of the books by a great novelist that they read, books that they read, even though this great novelist was black. To that question, the great novelist said this: “Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
And Morrison was a great novelist in every sense of the word. “Great” was something that she shunned also because it reminded her of the white authors before her and what we called them, even as it reminded her of some she admired, such as Faulkner and Shakespeare. This became the point of Toni Morrison’s novelty, and a huge turning point in her career. “The Bluest Eye” had already touched on race relations, perhaps one of the greatest aspects of it in its take on colorism, but to have not just a novel on the subject, but something more to say embarks on something much bigger. That, too, was a Toni Morrison thing. It was the thing that made her the great author she was and the one we grew to know and love as a celebrated black, female author. It was the thing that inspired her to not only write one story about a black girl, but to write tons of stories about black girls and women, and this, too, was a marquee of the black experience because of Morrison. It was the thing which answered other questions about white people and why she chose to leave them out of her novels. If she would have written about white people, it would indeed have served no purpose. Toni was a black writer, a black female writer and she wrote on the black, female experience: colorism, feminism, slavery, things that served no purpose to white people or the white gaze. Including white people in these stories, whether quite literally or at least in the same way that she includes black people, would have defeated her purpose and delayed it. But what a jarring question nonetheless and the best thing was that she understood it. It was the thing which made the question and answer thing happen. As a great artist did her art and stood the test of time, we sat and read, black or white, because we understood it. It was the thing which made us look deeper into her and her work, and know that Toni was not to be played with.
I remember a lot of Toni Morrison things. Amongst reading her books and watching her interviews, I remember listening to her brilliant acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize. I remember the one for the Pulitzer, which was awarded for “Beloved” 5 years earlier in 1988. I remember when she advised civil rights activist Angela Davis to write and promised that she would edit whatever her friend wrote and she kept her promise. I remember when she praised works of others, including journalist and author, Ta-nehisi Coates and she deemed his accomplished second book “required reading.”
I remember reading the other novels, too, and for the first time in the classroom and at home. I remember trying to read them in order. It was “Sula.” After that, I read “Beloved.” After That? “A Mercy.” Then, “Song of Solomon” and “Tar Baby” and the novel with the velvet cover, appropriately titled “Love.” And the others, “Jazz” and “Paradise.” Last but not least, two of my favorites, “Home” and “God Help The Child.” I remember exactly where I was when I read “Home” and “God Help The Child.” I purposely opened up “Home” at my own home, thinking that if I sat at home and read a book about home that some magic would appear and I could one day write like Toni. I rushed home with “God Help The Child” from the bookstore, but I was finished with the novel by the time I got there. I really rushed and finished literally. I was excited about its cover, which I admired even more than “Love.”
I remember her Nobel Prize speech well. That was when she reminded us that all great writers are known by their first words, and those words must be, by some magical Toni Morrison thing, “once upon a time.” Her relationship with Angela Davis and other writers, black writers – Maya and Baldwin and others – showed her true colors and how influential she was. That was important to me as a black person and as an aspiring writer. It was that moment when Toni began to be asked not only about being a “black writer,” but the other things: a “female writer,” a “black female writer,” an “influential writer,” a “great writer,” and most importantly, the writer in which she fully and wholly wanted to be.
Now, today, as a black person and as a writer, I can only remember and be thankful and inspired. I am thankful and am inspired by her work, her advice, her blackness, her femaleness.
I remember when I first wanted to become a writer, and by some magical Toni Morrison thing, I wanted to write about race. I’d read others: Angelou, Hurston, Hughes, Wright, Baldwin. But when I read Morrison, I was thankful and inspired. I was truly thankful and excited for her debut novel just as I was for her last novel, and in uniquely similar and constructive ways. I was engulfed in “Sula” and the title character’s experience. I was following along to “Song of Solomon” just like a song. And “Beloved” and “A Mercy,” which seemed like the most similar novels to me, simply overwhelmed me as expected. “Tar Baby” and “Love” were the lonely titles which seemed even more like the same novels, but they were the upkeep of her routine on black writing. But I felt the same about “Home” because why title a magical Toni Morrison thing just “home” and why for a brand new title in 2012. Yet “Home” contained the same depth and wealth as “Beloved” and “A Mercy,” and even more warmth, and I loved her 10th novel especially because I knew a brother, a war veteran, and a Frank, and I was a sister sitting at home reading Toni Morrison novels.
So, I remember all of the titles and as I decided on my own journey as a writer, they were all inspiring and contained different meanings and thoughts and feelings. I felt by some magical Toni Morrison thing that I could become a writer. I wanted to be like Morrison, and if not, at least like the others. The only way to achieve this, I felt, was to write about race. I felt this tug as a black person, too, regardless if I was a writer or not. I felt that the only thing that bugged us was race, like Morrison, which is why we in return wrote about it, remembered it, thought about it, lived it. By reading Morrison, though, I learned that the only way to achieve was not just writing about race, a thing that all black people did, a thing that stood in our way only if we let it. And she said this. She said, “You don’t have to write about race. I just choose to.” I learned that the only way to achieve Toni Morrison status was to first write, and next write about what you want. It is because of Morrison that I write about politics and sports and music and film, and write it freely.
Toni Morrison was a teacher, at her alma mater Howard and at Princeton, so you learned a lot from her. I learned more from her than any other writer, including even Baldwin and the great, big ones like Fitzgerald and Dickinson. I learned from Baldwin the art of thought and thinking deeply, which he achieved better than any other writer. But it was Morrison who taught you to write. I learned from Morrison the art of literature itself and the power, whether by writing or by thinking, behind it. I learned from Morrison the titles and the words and the people. I learned a great deal from Morrison just by being a student. Then as a writer, until I found my own words. So I read her. I read others. I remembered them. I remembered them and I carried the knowledge with me, tucked it under my arms like a book, carried it and let it resonate in my heart, through my own journey.
Through my own journey is where I learned most from Morrison. This is where I learned that music writing and sports writing took a certain type of freedom, and that if I wanted to, I could find the time to carve out articles on a regular basis. This is where I learned that becoming a writer meant not only becoming a book author, but a journalist, or both and that there was a difference and that was okay. This is where I learned a lot about my own journey, even while living it, which began in a town called Milwaukee just as Toni’s began in Lorain, Ohio. We may never know where the journey will take us or how it will end. But Toni Morrison knew and we must learn from her.
She knew that her book, her very first book, “The Bluest Eye,” was magic and it wasn’t just about eyes. It was about race and color and eyes. It was about a black girl and dreams, which is all we have. It was about us and for us. It was about her and an encounter with another little girl at school growing up in Ohio who had wished to have blue eyes. Toni knew the power of this and wrote about it.
Toni Morrison knew that when she wrote “The Bluest Eye,” it would be banned from schools and they would say that it was about beauty being in the eye of the beholder or some capitalist, white idea like that. But she wrote it anyway and it was required reading. She knew that it was required reading. She knew that it was deeper than that. She knew that when she wrote anything, eyes would blink and magic would appear. She knew all the hell it took to get to where you wanted, but she wrote anyway.
Toni Morrison knew how to write. She knew her what’s, when’s, why’s, how’s, and where’s and she wrote them. At the end of her greatest novel, she wrote something great about the why’s and how’s and it’s one of my favorite quotes and I remember it just like I remember to breathe air. It goes: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, we must take refuge in how.” ‘Since why is too difficult to handle, we must take refuge in how’ is what our sister Toni said, and I imagine that is true above all truths in life.
It is true. We do not know why things happen in life. We do not know how either, but Toni said that it is better and we take refuge in that more than why. We do ask and we live and we continue to live, and that is how we live and for Morrison, that is why we write.
She wrote another thing, toward the end, about lovers and freedom and gifts and beauty and eyes. This is true also.
So, on a hot Summer day in August, a few days after the birthday of our other great novelist, James Baldwin, we remembered Toni Morrison. We remember her books. We remember her words and her wisdom. We are thankful and inspired. We will learn. We will teach. We will read. We will remember.