Appreciating Toni Morrison’s Literary Legacy – C. Imani Williams
The August 5, 2019 passing of 88-year-old Pulitzer and Nobel Literary prize winner Toni Morrison marks the transition of a literary icon. Whether one was introduced to Morrison’s works through library books, in a high school or college literature course, or through Amazon, it matters that her books are read.
From Howard University Student to Howard Profesor
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the Howard University graduate changed her name to Toni when schoolmates had difficulty pronouncing her given name. Morrison would return to Howard to teach after earning a Master’s in Literature at Cornell University.
Queen Toni Morrison Wrote Truth With a Cape and a Crown
Morrison dared do what many other Black writers struggled with. Writing truthfully and soulfully about societal issues plaguing Black folks was and are radical. The idea of showcasing Blackness is ofttimes usurped with the desire for white acceptance. Morrison wasn’t here to sugar coat things.
While Morrison’s work focused on Black life, her characters could be any race or ethnicity. This may be one of the strongest arguments for people discovering Morrison’s work at various ages and its inter-generational appeal.
Uncovering the Depth In A Bluest Eye
“The Bluest Eye”, Morrison’s first novel was published in 1970. The book was controversial due to Morrison sharing “in-house” business, and ignoring Black Respectability Politics. Such politics demand Black people keep their “dirty laundry out of the streets.” Some denounced the in your face side-eye given through Morrison’s ink to systematic oppression and racism facing Black people, and the intra-cultural shame of sexual violence and incest.
White folks weren’t without their opinion on the matter. Morrison was a writing master and they had to get over it. She has had readers from all backgrounds because of her flow and un apologeticness.
Pecoal’s Peculiar Situation Spoke to the InHumanity of Man
Through the main character, Pecola Breedlove, readers are taken through cycles of family dysfunction. Just a child, Pecola already poor and lonely, is cruelly driven to insanity. Her fall into mental illness, a direct result of the trauma from sexual violence suffered in her home, and the racism living outside her front door.
The evil of both worked in tangent to break down any sense of self-worth Pecola may have held. The self-hatred Pecola subscribed to, stained the pages of The Bluest Eye. It forces readers to understand the depth of self-loathing possible in the absence of self-love.
Truth is Still Truth
Fifty-years after the release of The Bluest Eye, Black people still face unsurmountable racism and oppression, and Black girls still aren’t safe from sexual abuse. It was risky for Morrison in 1970, and there have been efforts to ban the book over the years. In response to critics of The Bluest Eye Morrison spoke her mind in 1994 by likening her book’s reception to how Pecola was treated by the world. Morrison made the world see what the world did to a Black girl child.
Another Reason We Appreciate Morrison
It’s another reason we appreciate Toni Morrison. What she saw in the everyday treatment of Black people while growing up during the Depression in 1940s Lorraine, OH was a catalyst to unlocking her gifts.
Morrison’s legacy of publications includes five children’s books, 11 novels, nine non-fiction works, two plays, and two short stories.
Morrison’s works on feminism demanded inclusion and space for Black women. As an educator, scholar, and member of the Black community Morrison lent her voice to essays where she penned powerfully conscious works. As book critique and reviewer, Morrison didn’t hold back. If she felt the writer was off point, her reviews reflected her lack of enthusiasm over the read.
A Cause for Black Love and Unity
What makes Morrison so remarkably relatable in a world of social media and Black folks coming together in unity, is her stance on Black Love and Community. That she insisted on there being safe spaces for Black girls, is extremely radical. With that demand, Morrison threw a lifeline to Black girls everywhere. Radical Black anything is not looked at kindly from a white supremacist or unenlightened Black folk point of view.
While Morrison raised two sons whom she loved dearly, she was also about “ Black Love in Community”. Holding a special place in her heart for Black girls and women. This theme carried over from novels and poetry onto the big screen and onto theatre stages. Morrison’s commitment to craft and community says so much about who she was.
The Legacy of Greatness in Writing
How wonderful for the lucky souls blessed to have taken a writing or literature course with Morrison at the head of the class, at any point in her career. Watching Morrison win two of the most prestigious literary recognitions, helps aspiring writers reach higher. That kind of graceful fierceness pushes us all to do better. With Morrison’s voice came an opening to better tell our stories.
Permission Granted to Women to Tell Their Stories
She gave Black people permission to tell our stories. She also showed the naysayers that despite what some say, Black stories and lives, do matter. When Beloved came out in print it was a heavy read. Saturday mornings at the beauty shop (salon) found women holding court about Setha and Denver, and what of the ghost baby?
Morrison Unafraid to Deal With Black Respectability Politics
When it hit the big screen and some Black people, again subscribing to Black Respectability Politics, couldn’t get into it. The supernatural ain’t Christian (even though those praying Sistas worked an exorcism), Oprah killing her baby, the horror of having her babies milk sucked from her breasts by white rapists, Her man leaving her to fend for herself. And Danny Glover, showing his ass again. Some just weren’t yet ready. These were some Black people. Of course white folk had an even harder time with it.
Fans of Morrison’s Work Always Showing Up
Readers and fans of both Morrison and Lady “O” did show up. Maybe not in Hollywood glow up terms. But in terms of community. We went, we supported and we reveled in amazement at the depth in the characters. We took in all that symbolism, and we saw our aunties and cousins, and for certain, Big Mamas.
I Am My Sisters Keeper
Morrison allowed Black women to be real as we worked to find ourselves. It is needed as we heal from the “isms” of the world. Watching Morrison and Angela Davis together was seeing Black Royalty. Their relationship as mentor and mentee, to friends, to Sistas is full-circle. It’s “I Am My Sisters Keeper”, in full effect. It’s beautiful. With Morrison’s passing comes an opportunity to love on one another in community.
Thank you, Queen Toni Morrison
Morrison has set the stage has completed with a job well done. She passes the torch and she’s well known for telling people to write it, get it done. The voices of her characters are familiar, we know them. They are us and we are them. Morrison was able to take us back through history up to the present and teach along the way. Her characters breathed. Thank you, Queen Toni Morrison, for sharing your gifts with the world.