“We belong, she showed us, not just in paperback books but in textbooks, not just in a publishing house but in the White House.”
The summer after my senior year of high school was a slow one for me. I’d had a cyst removed from my wrist, and a heavy white cast cocooned my forearm up to my elbow. There wasn’t a lot I could do. Sidelined on my parents’ couch in the South Side heat, I picked up a paperback copy of “Song of Solomon.” I hadn’t heard of Toni Morrison yet, so I can’t say I did it because I was curious about her writing, or that I was being purposeful about supporting African American women authors. The truth was, I didn’t know anything about the book. It was simply there in the living room, just like me.
I like to think that this is the way that she would have liked it; that she’d have wanted the tidiness of her prose, the interiority of her characters, the complexity of the stories to stand on their own, away from her growing legend. Toni Morrison understood, you see, that people gravitate to what’s real. And in her writing, the truth was always right there on the dog-eared pages.
For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions. And she didn’t just give us permission to share our own stories; she underlined our responsibility to do so.
It’s a thread running through “Beloved” and “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye” and all of her work — that black stories, particularly the stories of black women and black girls, are worthy of examination and celebration. Again and again, she was unapologetic about that fact, deliberate in proving that our stories are rich and deep and largely unexplored. We belong, she showed us, not just in paperback books but in textbooks, not just in a publishing house but in the White House. And on their own, our stories are more than enough to inspire a Nobel laureate.
In the years since that slow, scorching summer on the couch, I’ve read “Song of Solomon” twice more, cover to cover — once as a young professional and once more as a young mother. Each reading has revealed new lessons that accompany my own changing perspective as I’ve grown and evolved. Each reading also serves as a reminder of the patience and rigor she demands. I often find myself reading and rereading passages multiple times in order to uncover her secrets. But that work is part of what makes the act of reading her so special; that at times, you have to earn her wisdom.
I’m sure that someday I’ll pick up “Song of Solomon” again and see what new lessons it has for me at this new stage in my life, now that my own girls are off writing their own songs. That’s perhaps the best thing about Toni Morrison. It will never really matter how many years have passed since her novels were first published. The words may have been new when she wrote them, but the truth behind them wasn’t. She was simply uncovering the beauty that was always there.
Michelle Obama is the former first lady of the United States and the author of “Becoming.”
“In the unexpected slide of her sentences, she was our foremost poet, our foremost truth-teller.”
In 1998, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Victoria, my father sent me a parcel. I’d gone there to study writing, and I was still reeling at the impossibility of it — still feeling myself an imposter, astonished that someone like me could even begin to think of herself as a writer. A parcel was an unusual gesture on my father’s part — we weren’t particularly close, and the weight of the package suggested more than a short letter. I opened the slender manila envelope to discover a copy of Time magazine bearing Toni Morrison’s portrait, a sticky note hastily pasted over it. My father’s scrawl read, simply, “Thought you might enjoy this.”
I could not have expected how much this simple, thoughtful gesture would change my whole sense of myself.
I had, of course, heard of Toni Morrison; when she won the Nobel Prize in 1993, I remember attempting to read “Tar Baby,” but I was young and unpracticed, 15 years old, and it was not a book for my immature sensibility. My father’s parcel sent me back to her work as a young woman — and, more important, as a budding writer — and what I found there shook me.
It seems we all have these stories — when we first discovered her work, how profoundly it marked us.
Her work spoke of our lives and directly to us, and it was also universal. She gave us the permission of visibility; she said, as much with the fact of her body as with her stirring prose, that lives that had rarely been acknowledged in serious literature without ridicule or censure not only mattered but also were a central part of the Western story. She looked directly and sometimes mercilessly at the choices of the vulnerable and at the powerful who profited off that vulnerability, and she allowed the inevitability of their tragedies to play out in ways that sometimes left us outraged or wounded, but never indifferent.
She wrote of black life in all its complexity, quarreling with the notion that the “black experience” was a single monolithic thing. She spoke as honestly about the marginalization of black people within the larger fabric of American society as about the ways black communities can fracture and sometimes turn against themselves. No one, it seemed to me, had written as soberly about the pain of colorism, about how absent fathers can derail a life, about the ways that class and gender complicate race. She dragged into the light issues plaguing lives that until then had rarely been discussed in the mainstream.
But her concerns were universal, and Morrison spoke about how thwarted desires, both grand and small, can utterly destroy a life. She was never instructive, nor was she relentlessly dark — there was always lightness, both in her touch and in her insistence on an essential human goodness. She was deeply moral without being moralizing.
And all this was written in a prose as exacting and exquisite as anything that has ever been set to paper. To read Morrison aloud is to revel in the astonishing musicality of the English language (which in these days of Twitter and Facebook is easy to forget). Her phrases were touched by the cadences of black dialects, but also by Homer and the King James Bible. I remember hearing her described as a “black Faulkner.” And yes, she did share William Faulkner’s almost alien reach with language, but she was sui generis, entirely her own creation. In the unexpected slide of her sentences, she was our foremost poet, our foremost truth teller.
Esi Edugyan is the author of “Half-Blood Blues” and “Washington Black.”
“The ‘word’ she brought forth was one of life, of dignity, of survival, of integrity.”
I always marvel when I see people reading Toni Morrison on the subway or on planes. When I read her, I am conscious that at any moment, her writing can, without warning, bring me to my knees, and provoke an embarrassing, emotional response I’d rather not have witnessed by strangers. This happened to me while reading “Home,” Morrison’s 2012 novel about a young man who returns to his hometown to save his sister Cee Money and reconcile them both to long-held family secrets.
As Cee recovers from abuse she suffered at the hands of a sadistic doctor, she is forced to address the profound issues of abandonment that made her vulnerable to abuse. Cee explains to one of the older women taking care of her that she was unloved by her mother and raised instead by a disapproving grandmother. Cee’s belief that she is unworthy of love has left her unable to protect herself. She gets no platitudes or sympathy in response. Her caretaker tells Cee that her emotionally impoverished childhood reflects her mother’s deficiency, not her own. Cee realizes that her mother should have cherished her and told her, “You my child. I dote on you. ... You born into my arms. Come on over here and let me give you a hug.”
Reading those words I unexpectedly burst into tears and wept for 20 minutes. Not tears of grief for Cee, but tears of gratitude for my own mother who, it suddenly and earth-shatteringly occurred to me, had done precisely this for me in the five short years we had together. Dying of cancer, and with nine other children who needed her love and attention, she managed to give her youngest the experience of unconditional, doting love that gave me an unshakable sense of my own worth, which I carry to this day.
I am also a huge fan of Morrison’s nonfiction work. Her 1992 volume about the issues of race and gender in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings was literally a bible for those who were shattered by that weeklong televised drama. She understood that to process what was for so many of us a kind of traumatic national event, we needed, as she wrote in her introduction, “perspective, not attitudes; context not anecdotes; analyses not postures.” She was there to help, assembling a “who’s who” of African American scholars who could situate this dramatic and devastating event into the framework of our historical and contemporary race and gender struggles.
And we cannot forget that Morrison’s voice was its own body of work. She was a kind of a preacher. Her interviews and speeches are mesmerizing. And the “word” she brought forth was one of life, of dignity, of survival, of integrity. When you listened to her, you believed that these were unmovable, nonnegotiable truths to which each one of us is entitled, because she so effortlessly embodied them.
Toni Morrison — who, it seemed, was always there — is gone. In her tribute to James Baldwin, Morrison wrote, “You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”
This was also the gift she gave to us. Rest in power.
Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“I remember how we laughed.”
When I heard that Toni Morrison had died, I walked to a church in Peckham, South London, and sat on an empty bench outside. I wanted quiet, but I also yearned for the church bells to ring out in celebration of a mighty writer whose voice rang clearly in my head.
I remember that Easter Saturday, in 2017, when I spent an afternoon in Toni’s home — and she said to call her Toni. She told us about the novel she was working on. She planned to call it “Justice.” I remember how she sat straight-backed and magnificent in black trousers, caftan and woolen cap, waiting for the interview to begin.
She said in “Justice,” there was a slave owner named Goodmaster who made his slaves call themselves Goodmaster. The slaves kept the detested surname to make it easier to find each other in later generations. Three of the descendants would be her characters. She’d named them Courage, Freedom and Justice. I remember thinking we have not yet emerged from this struggle and wondering whether she completed “Justice” and whether justice can ever be complete.
When, in the course of our interview, I mentioned James Baldwin, she sighed lovingly and called him “Jimmy.” I remember what she wrote of him in the wake of his death — of his gifts to her of tenderness, courage and language. She, too, gave us these gifts, especially the courage to write our stories without a care for anyone’s gaze.
I remember her Nobel Lecture and the lines I had committed to memory: “Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity, is in its reach toward the ineffable.” In that lecture, she told the parable of an old woman, and I remember the intensity of the questions the woman is asked. “Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.” Toni wrote that in 1993 — it could have been written in 2019.
I visited her guest bathroom that Easter Saturday and found it filled with photographs of writers I had long admired — Wole Soyinka, Gabriel García Márquez, Baldwin — and a letter from the Nobel Committee announcing its decision to award Morrison its highest honor. There was also a “Publication Denial Notification” outlining why Morrison’s novel “Paradise” was banned from Texas correctional facilities for fear of “inmate disruption such as strikes or riots.”
I asked her what President Barack Obama had whispered to her after presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and being surprised when she said she didn’t remember. I realized later that she, the master storyteller, was simply explaining that when one is in awe of someone, what stays in the memory is not what is said but how it is said. It was her son who later asked Obama what he had whispered into his mother’s ear. “I love you,” Obama answered.
I remember at the end, telling her that my son wanted to know her secret to writing so well. “Tell him I’m a genius,” she smiled. I remember how we laughed.
Sarah Ladipo Manyika is a British-Nigerian novelist and author of “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to The Sun.”
“She wasn’t one to search for common ground; she was looking for the true path forward.”
People often ask me what Toni Morrison has meant to me as a writer. No novelist has influenced me more. I tip my hat to her in some way in each of my novels. In my latest, my hero is from the town of Eloe, the fictional hometown of Son, the troubled hero of “Tar Baby.” I make these gestures as an homage to the greatest writer of our time but also as a gesture of gratitude to the woman whose wisdom helped me understand my real life, the one I live in private, off the page.
Morrison wrote novels that gave us cautionary tales on life and love, but she also modeled the way forward. These stories nudge us away from respectability in favor of true respect for ourselves, and each other.
Her moral compass was impeccable and her intellect peerless. Her ear for the poetry, beauty and brilliance of African American language lifted us, reminding us that we are marvelous — anytime we open our mouths to speak.
“Morrison had provided, through her characters, some of my earliest mirrors.”
I’m in Morocco and the emails, texts and WhatApps come at me: Toni Morrison has moved on to the next place. Weeks before, I’d spoken to some friends who’d told me that she was close to this transition, but a part of me thought, Aren’t we all? Isn’t each one of us living in this moment with all its madness, beauty and despair, knowing that at the end of this is death? Death and whatever we believe of what comes after.
And still …
What I know now — and have known for some time — is how fortunate I am to be walking through the world at this particular moment in time.
When I first read “The Bluest Eye,” I was a fifth- or sixth-grader. It was one of very few books on the shelves of our Brooklyn apartment. We could not afford shelves lined with books and depended on the neighborhood library for our weekly dose of new narratives. But the cover of my mother’s book had caught my eye — a photograph of a black woman dressed as a child and holding a white doll.
I despised this cover. And I was fascinated by it. A slow reader, I read through “The Bluest Eye” with my finger moving beneath the words. I remember being captivated by the story — so many people walking through it were like people walking through my own life. When I picked up the book again in high school, I would remember it as having a happy ending. I remembered Pecola Breedlove’s wish for blue eyes had come true and everyone lived happily ever after.
And for many months after reading “The Bluest Eye” for the second, third, fourth time, I was certain that Morrison had written two versions of the novel — one for children and one for adults. The adult version was stunningly heartbreaking. The children’s version — what was that? Something I could grasp parts of. Hold on to.
“The Bluest Eye” was an awakening for me. Already, I wanted to write. Already, I wanted to show and see representations of the people I loved on the page. Decades later, as an adult when I heard Rudine Sims Bishop talk about the importance of books being mirrors and windows for the reader, I’d realize that Morrison had provided, through her characters, some of my earliest mirrors. And windows.
And so here I am now. Here we all are. Toni Morrison as light, as way, as ancestor. And the many writers she has left in her wake, and the many writers coming after, and those after them, will hopefully always know this: that because of her, we are.
Jacqueline Woodson, the author of “Harbor Me” and “Brown Girl Dreaming,” lives in Brooklyn.
“I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to swim in her laughter and lean into her deliberate silence.”
My heart went to her words, but my mind went straight to her voice.
Perhaps because I worked so long in radio, it was her voice that washed over me when the news flash rolled in announcing that Toni Morrison had joined the ancestors. Her voice was as measured and magisterial as the words she put on the page. It had the quality of music, in the way that an artist can take a single note from a single instrument and make it hang in the air like tendrils of cigar smoke, move it back and forth like an old porch swing or send it drifting toward the moon like an owl in flight.
I imagine that many people reached for her books in their moment of grief. I wanted to hear her voice. I wanted to swim in her laughter and lean into her deliberate silence — because she used silence as a kind of punctuation, pausing when she spoke to let her words sink in, long pauses to give you a moment to sop up her wisdom or perhaps in her own mind to say, “Mmm, that sounded good.”
Morrison’s speaking voice was low and feathery and playful, which is a bit of a conundrum because her writing voice cut like a knife — straight to the bone — examining the physical, spiritual and soul-crushing wounds of race and racial hatred.
I’ve interviewed Morrison several times and, though the books we discussed were always drenched in pain and heartbreak, the interviews felt like a visit to a juke joint. At a 2015 event, I asked her to begin our chat with a reading from a section of what was then her latest release, “God Help the Child.” She chose a passage that described her character Bride — a statuesque, dark-skinned woman dismissed as ugly by her parents and teachers and just about everyone else — as she discovers that she possesses a kind of magnetic power over men. A young Morrison had studied theater and you could hear the training as she danced through her prose. I looked out over the audience and several hundred people had their eyes closed in a trance. You could hear in Morrison’s voice how much she valued her own words. You could hear how much she valued black life.
She changed the publishing industry in the United States. That is not hyperbole. She was known as the “black editor” at Random House, and she wore the title like a badge of honor, using her perch to knock down doors previously closed to black writers. She edited Angela Davis, Chinua Achebe, Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.
She used that voice to encourage young writers and she challenged booksellers to stop placing even best-selling black authors in the black book section that was always — always — in some hard-to-find back corner of the store. And when she herself became a best-selling author, she used her voice to reject the notion that being a black writer was a subgenre of high literature. “Reject” is almost too soft a word. She was asked time and time again if she chafed at the term “black writer” or whether she would ever consider centering white characters in her work — and with a smile on her face, she flicked that off her shoulder, flung it to the floor and stomped on it with an elegant grace. “The inquiry comes from a position of being in the center and being used to being in the center and saying is it ever possible that you will enter the mainstream,” she once said.
She shot past the mainstream and elevated the highest levels of literature with her own language on her own terms. “I stood at the edge and claimed it as central,” she said. “Claimed it as central. And let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”
Michele L. Norris is a former host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and the founding director of the Race Card Project.
“Once you’ve read her work, you cannot unread it or leave it behind.”
When I was 10 years old, I borrowed my mother’s copy of “The Bluest Eye.” I was a gluttonous reader, consuming every book I could get my hands on. But that’s not why I chose Toni Morrison’s book.
I had seen my mother, my aunts and their friends reading Morrison’s work. I listened silently, watching as they praised, argued and even gossiped over the layers and textures of Morrison’s words and stories. I wanted to be a part of that — not simply as a witness, but as part of their congregation, offering up my own testimony.
It took me months to finish as I struggled to process the story. It was so different from anything I’d read. It was rawer, more precise and more cutting, but it was also so much freer. I couldn’t articulate it then (and even now, I struggle to do so), but I certainly could feel Morrison’s words. Her prose made me feel seen, visible. I could feel Morrison writing to me, about me, as she documented the rhythms of black girlhood and the fullness of black community in America, in all its joy and trauma. She loved black people so thickly that it pulsated through her prose.
Once you’ve read her work, you cannot unread it or leave it behind. The ideas and lessons linger — sometimes as a caress, other times as a slap. I have birthed two children in my life, and each time, Morrison’s words from “Beloved” emerged instinctively to haunt and comfort me: “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.”
When I was a graduate student at Princeton University in the early 2000s, one of my most potent memories is of sitting in on Cornel West and Eddie Glaude’s class on the black intellectual tradition; on this day, our guests were Morrison, the actress Phylicia Rashad and Jay-Z (Shawn Carter). Turning to Carter, West asked the rapper to comment on his musical catalogue, his lyrics and race in America. Jay-Z vigorously shook his head, laughed and responded: “Why should I talk when Toni Morrison is here? She’s the one who taught me. I need to learn from her.” The room broke out in laughter born from a shared understanding that Morrison was our translator, our teacher, our literary great, our canon.
Long before I became a professional historian, Morrison put me through a masterclass in doing history imaginatively, reassuring me that the careful excavation of stories that unapologetically center black life and community was, and still is, a revolutionary act, especially for a black woman in America. “I write what I have recently begun to call village literature,” she once noted. “Fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe. … I think long and carefully about what my novels ought to do. They should clarify the roles that have become obscured; they ought to identify those things in the past that are useful and those things that are not; and they ought to give nourishment.” Morrison told us to explore that which is foreign, and to wrestle with both the beautiful and the horrifying parts of blackness, and to do it with clarity, love and empathy. She constantly reminded us that writing us “whole,” in all our intricacies and silences, was a necessary part of freedom. She leaves a legacy of limitless possibility, for our community, our liberation and for us: “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers.”
Leah Wright Rigueur teaches 20th-century American history and politics at Harvard University.
Diana Ejaita is an illustrator and textile designer based in Berlin.