“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison
Since the announcement of Toni Morrison’s death, I’ve found it difficult to find the right prose to correctly eulogize one of America’s greatest writers. Her influence in the literary world is inescapable. She has made her mark in every Black writer work from the moment she published her lauded novel The Bluest Eye.
There is no writer I know that does not fear Morrison. Not as a person but as a writer – one that was unapologetic, ingenious, effervescent, bewitching and ever so cunning. Language became supple under her care, sentences were graceful, bountiful, and pulsing with veracity.
Morrison’s words were not written with white audiences in mind, a fact that she has always unapologetically expressed throughout her decades-long career. The African-American experience has always been the focal point of her work, bursting with the quintessence of her vivid imagination. In her works, Black people – both men and women – contained multitudes, personalities as rich and luscious as her words.
But Toni Morrison’s acclaim did not come as easily as it should have.
Despite being the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, she came across hurdles where institutions failed to recognize her genius. In the 80s, over 40 Black writers – including Paule Marshall and Maya Angelou – signed a letter in protest in The New York Times Book Review asking that Morrison be recognized for her achievements.
Her novel, Beloved, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction a year later in 1988 (but 30 years later and a Black woman has yet to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction again). There was no need to request a seat at the table when she had created her own.
In Morrison’s mind, the glass ceiling did not exist for her. She knew her talent was far more exceptional than many of her contemporaries and she wasn’t afraid to shake the table. In the literary world, her novels shifted any negative notions people had about Black literature and its lasting legacy in the literary canon.
Morrison’s shift within the literary canon did not begin with her first novel though but as an editor at Random House. As a curator of the Black Arts Movement in the 70s, she helped edit and publish several Black writers and the biographies of Black figures like Gayl Jones, Angela Daivs, Muhammaed Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, and Henry Dumas.
Her work as an editor and as a Black woman writer fostered a generation of Black writers, thinkers, and scholars. Morrison – along with the work of Black women writers before her – had a hand in molding our minds and showing us the limitlessness of our imaginations.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, she spoke about writing for a Black audience and other white authors who don’t indulge in other narratives:
“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them.
It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”
The first novel I read of hers was The Bluest Eye in college. Anyone’s first exposure to Morrison is usually through school but, unfortunately, I was not exposed to her works until I went searching for her words on my own.
By then, I was struggling to figure out who I was as a writer. It’s simple – I wanted to write about Black people, I wanted our experiences to be apparent on the page in a way that wasn’t pandering or leaning on the aforementioned “white gaze”.
There are many Black artists who have created art that is seemingly created for us but with a different audience in mind. Using the same tools as your oppressors to tell stories is not progress, it does not dismantle the systems in place that keep us from moving forward.
Morrison’s refusal to cater to the default is one of the reasons why I write about Black women of differing personalities, backgrounds, and looks. She taught me about world-building and ushering in diverse worlds full of color, texture, and beauty. I have no other way to contend with my talent and training than to honor the Black women writers before me like her, who push me to aspire to their skill.
Toni Morrison died at the age of 88; double infinity – a symbol of how her legacy does not end with her life, it will persist, expand, and transcend. We should count ourselves blessed to have lived among her time.
As a Black woman writer, Morrison was the embodiment of Black excellence, a symbol of what it means to take up space in a world that won’t make space for you but having to shimmy your way through all the noise. She knew what kind of writer she was and as I grow and learn, I have learned what kind of writer I am as well.
“Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” – Toni Morrison
We must never deny nor diminish the skill needed to create art for consumption. Black literature is not just the tools to teach but a piece of art to be admired and analyzed.