A Letter to Toni Morrison

Michel Euler/AP

Author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison in 2006

Dear Ms. Morrison,

It’s so strange. I never cry for famous people. When Whitney went, when Michael died, I shook my head and said a prayer and then continued. When Prince died I stopped a little longer; that one really hurt my heart. But still I did not cry. These were great and complicated artists, gone before their times and for the sake of their families, and for the world, I felt the loss but not for me, not really. For one thing—and I see this only now, with your passing—as much as I loved them, they were musicians, not writers. This made them a kind of distant cousin, one who lived, say, in Montreal and therefore never made the cookout. I knew their names, knew our connection, knew we were related, but really they were strangers. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them.

For you I sobbed all morning. Or, let’s be honest, because you, like any great writer, were relentlessly honest: I sobbed all morning but not for you. The woman born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, was 88 years upon this planet: a good and seasoned age. The passing was peaceful, according to your family. It came only after a life so well lived, it tilted the Earth on its axis: the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Medal of Freedom, a body of work which did not so much expand the canon as exploded it.

No such death can be truly shocking and yet shocked I truly was. We truly were: my phone rang all morning and would not stop. The word went out in Black America, and especially Black female America, and especially that part of Black female America that loves writing, loves stories, knows the fearsome and necessary power of the written word: Toni Morrison has left us. Toni Morrison has left us at this terrible and frightening moment. Who will help us now?

To steal your words from the stirring eulogy you wrote for my other hero, James Baldwin: About you there is too much to know and too much to feel. Your life defies summation; to do you justice is impossible. Forgive me if I take the easy way out and instead focus on my oversized sorrow at your going. It’s so strange.

Perhaps it is, simply, that your importance to me lay not only in your work but also in your being: your very way of being in the world. As a friend said that evening, as we gathered to toast your memory: “She was fully and completely herself, always.”

How radical that was. Many of us have never been so. Some few of us have gotten there, but only after you showed the way home.

Which is to say, paraphrasing Baldwin: Your going did not so much make me lost as make me remember how lost I once was.

A confession: I came late to your work, after much damage had already been rendered. This made reading you like trying to learn a new language after 50: It’s possible but man, is it challenging. I was 18 or 19, in college or on the way, and, after three years at one of the nation’s premier boarding schools, so deeply immersed in whiteness that despite my best efforts I couldn’t see my way out. To my memory, I had encountered not a single Black author in my high school classrooms, let alone a Black female one. (Nor would I do so at Duke, despite being an English major. To my memory. I may be wrong, which itself would be telling. But that’s for another time.) On my own I’d discovered Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, and in the theater I’d had the great good fortune to stumble into Ntozake Shange, who took my hand and pulled me back from the dangerous edge.

Still, I had no framework for The Bluest Eye when I stumbled across it on my sister’s bookshelf. My favorite writer at the time was Ernest Hemingway, whom you so brilliantly dissected in Playing in the Dark, your masterful exegesis of the white literary imagination and the way it—and indeed American literature itself—vitally depends upon the Africanist presence to perpetuate myths of white superiority. (For years I loved The Sun Also Rises and never noticed how Jake Barnes continually obsesses over the “nigger boxer.” Without that boxer, does Jake even exist?)

I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Irving and Graham Greene, in whose books whiteness was centered and Blackness, as you revealed, “an informing, stabilizing and disturbing element.” Also authors in whose books the “message,” for lack of a better term, was always discernible. Characters were complex but explicable, their interiority as easy to follow as GPS. Even when the writing was fancy it was rarely elliptical; even when the plot was nonlinear it was not as complexly structured as the Sydney Opera House.

And even when I did, on my own, encounter Black writers, their powerful work served all too often as a defense of our humanity: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Native Son.

You had zero interest in such pleading. “Invisible to whom?” you famously asked of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man. This slayed me. I had never thought to ask.

So I picked up your first novel utterly unprepared. Here was the piercing story of young Pecola Breedlove, the dark-skinned brunt of such disdain she prays unceasingly for the blue eyes she believes will make her beautiful. Pecola endures all manner of violence, not the least of which is molestation, a brutal, tour-de-force scene you write from the father’s point of view, blocking the reader from easy condemnation. I use that scene with my writing students, proof positive of why a writer must, even in their most monstrous characters, locate humanity.) Mostly, here was a world that centered Blackness, so thoroughly it was unnecessary to declaim. Whiteness, though hovering, was unimportant. There was no defeated or angry finger pointing outward, only a curious and loving eye, looking within.

It was foreign to me; I see that now. I didn’t know what to do with it. I put you down.

Not until years later, when I joined a Black writer’s workshop in Brooklyn, did I pick you up again. The workshop leader, a brilliant writer and Toni Morrison fanatic named Carol Dixon, told me simply: “You need to read her. She is writing for us.”

This then is the crux of it: You wrote for us. Black people in general, Black women in particular. You wrote to show us ourselves in all our humanity: beautiful and murderous, powerful and spiteful, determined and broken and mean. You wrote to give us back the power of our language and our stories and our music and our ways of being in the world. You wrote to challenge us to live up instead of down, to rise in love and understanding instead of falling into lies. (Your understanding of love, by the way, your clear-eyed, steel-toed understanding of love is one of the things for which I adore you most.) You wrote to urge us to love ourselves completely. Also to tell us to grow the hell up.

For one cannot read your work and cling to simplistic notions of right and wrong, villains and heroines. One cannot read your work and remain willfully ignorant to the ways in which history lives in us and through us, a foundation and a burden, a power and a reckoning. One cannot read your work and remain innocent. Nor should we. As Baldwin taught us: Anyone who insists on clinging to innocence long after innocence has passed turns herself into a moral monster.

And, no, a person cannot read your work and remain possessed of the twisting fantasies of white supremacy and Black inferiority: But liberating white people from this delusion was not your concern.

You said: “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure the white gaze was not the dominant one in my books.”

You did that, of course: brilliantly. But what we also loved was how it took so little effort to make sure the white gaze did not dominate your life. In fact, it seemed to take no effort at all.

All those interviews in which you, with a voice as soft as cotton, disembowel some arrogant white interviewer who asks, yet again, why you won’t just please write about white people. That line in the documentary about your life, The Pieces I Am, in response to working in the white, male world of 1970s publishing: “It wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t even interesting.”

To say that you were unapologetically Black seems almost to diminish it. You seemed so utterly unhobbled—nay, untouched—by all of this that the words “apology” and “Black” should never share space near your name. Not even Baldwin—our great, beloved poet—escaped entirely unscathed from the caldron of white supremacy that is the United States. But you did.

You wrote about Black people and to Black people and for Black people and all of it was joyous. “My project,” you wrote in Playing in the Dark, “rises from delight, not disappointment.” Your project—the luminous novels, the shattering criticism, the lectures and speeches and children’s books and teaching and the nurturing of Black stories and Black writers from Angela Davis to Gayle Jones to Muhammad Ali—all of it was so clearly joyous and protective and restoring and we needed it, my God, we needed it. We need it still.

The times are vile and dangerous, though you would remind us: Ever have they been. You were not, in the small sense, a political writer: You did not march, did not campaign or appear in ads. But you were radically political, as any great writer must be. You knew damn well it was the artist’s duty to take a stand. Long before the present moment, you warned us about rising authoritarianism. And in the aftermath of that disastrous 2016 presidential election you made it clear what path America had chosen, and why.

You wrote: “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

We knew exactly where you stood: with us. Before us, actually. Clear-eyed and unafraid.

Which is why your going left us feeling vulnerable. We heard the news and cried. But only in the morning. In the afternoon we remembered what you said about us in your essay “A Knowing So Deep.” In it you remind us who we are and how we must proceed without you:

So the literature you live and write asks and gives no quarter. When you sculpt or paint, organize or refute, manage, teach, nourish, investigate or love, you do not blink. Your gaze, so lovingly unforgiving, stills, agitates and stills again. Wild or serene, vulnerable or steep trap; you are the touchstone by which all that is human can be measured. Porch or horizon, your sweep is grand. …

There is movement in the shadow of a sun that is old now. There, just there. Coming from the rim of the world. A disturbing disturbance that is not a hawk nor stormy weather, but a dark woman, of all things. My sister, my me—rustling, like life.

We read you and, in the evening, Ms. Morrison, we dried our eyes. 

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