Readers worldwide are still grieving the loss of Toni Morrison. We reflect on the late author’s legacy and speak to some of her fans at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
Where was I when I heard the news? On BART, headed to KALW, scrolling through the headlines on my phone. After a weekend of mass shootings, learning Toni Morrison,88 was gone that morning, made the start of my day a little heavier. But I went to work with gratitude, because people like her opened the doors for writers like me.
Toni Morrison was one of the greatest writers of our time. With masterful storytelling and gorgeous prose, she reflected the complexities of life and history, while burrowing deep into the reader's soul. People praise her for being unapologetically Black when it comes to her protagonists. But I also appreciated her for being unapologetically Toni, even in spaces where she was the only woman, or person of color. She explains this in the new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AMONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM
“Navigating a white male world was not threatening,” says Morrison. “It wasn’t even interesting. I was more interesting than they were. I knew more than they did and I wasn’t afraid to show it.”
Her fearlessness is reflected in the power of her language and the tough issues she chose to write about, such as incest, ptsd and slavery. This repelled some folks. But it endeared her to legions of fans.
Love from her fans
I caught up with some of them a few days after her passing during a poetry reading at the Museum of the African Diaspora, The reading was scheduled months ago. Ironically, this event took place amidst an exhibition about the relationship between the living and the dead, joy and sadness. Morrison is not the theme for the night, but she is definitely on the minds and hearts of the diverse audience and performers.
Writer and radio personality Avotcja speaks about why she admires Morrison as a person.
“She left her body but now she’s everywhere,” says Avotcja. “She was a powerful force and just blew me away. And I’ve seen a couple of interviews where people tried to make her back down. Mmm-hmm. She wasn’t going that way. She was a tough lady.
Like many of us, Poet Tureeda Mikell, Story Medicine Woman revisited Morrison’s work after news of her death.
Mikell recalls, “When she had passed, I felt like I needed to just go and review some things she had said in her Nobel laureate acceptance speech.”
That speech from 1993 was included Morrison’s most recent book The Source of Self-Regard, a collection of her essays and speeches. Mikell says while reading the speech, she found it significant Morrison transitioned days after a weekend of multiple mass shootings.
“In her speech she talked about the violence of language, English language specifically and made examples of it,” says Mikell.
Mikell is referencing the part of the speech where Morrison says:
Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas...There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death.
Mikell says Morrison publishing this speech in her latest book is foretelling.
“It’s almost like [she said], ‘It’s enough now. I’m ready to go. Ya’ll see it. Now do something about it.’
I tell Mikell that I felt like her last book was a goodbye letter, full of wisdom.
She tearfully responds, “And that’s what I felt as well.”
After the reading, I make my way through the crowd to chat with some of the audience members like Linda Cummins
“If you didn’t when you read her, find out something about yourself, you weren’t listening,” says Cummins. “What a blessing she is and was.”
Next I chat with Laney college English professor Adrienne Oliver.
“I love Toni Morrison!,” Oliver says excitedly. “I love her exquisiteness with her use of the English language and how she’s unapologetic about writing for black people and about people. As an aspiring novelist, she’s paved the way for me to be unapologetic in that way. “
Toni Morrison is deep. Her books delves into issues and are layered with symbolism. You don’t zip through a Morrison text, but take your time with it. Some readers may not understand what she’s conveying the book. I ask Oliver what’s her suggestions to those who are apprehensive about reading Morrison. She suggests starting with The Bluest Eye. Then she adds, “If we have lived subjected to the European cannon for this long, we can sit down and be with Toni?”
Then I make a confession. I know some Black folks are apprehensive about reading Morrison. Even I felt that way in high school. Back in the day, I thought to myself, I don’t know if I can rock with this.
Olivier and I laugh. She responds, “Yes that’s true but that’s those same people who open their Bibles up, that’s poetry too. That stuff Parables, that’s deep. You can get with Toni, come on now.
I remember reading Beloved for the first time,” says my KALW colleague Ariella Markowitz. “It’s so easy to focus on the shock value of the story and the surface horror of the terrible things people go through in our history of our country. But my heart was so full after reading it because at the end of the day it was a love story.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved is particularly meaningful to a lot of the people’ in this room, including me. The novel is about Sethe, an enslaved mother who kills her child Beloved so she doesn’t experience a brutal life as a slave. Through this story, Morrison expands our consciousness on the horrors of slavery which still haunts this country today. For African- Americans, slavery broke families, bones and hearts. Yet in Beloved, Morrison presents those pieces and shows us despite the trauma--our humanity and capacity to love makes us whole.
What Morrison writes of Sethe in Beloved, reflects what the author has done for her readers over time.
“She’s a friend of my mind. She gather me man. The pieces I am, she gather them, and give them back to me in all the right order. “
Yes, Toni Morrison was one of our best and she will be missed.
Reporter Ariella Markowitz contributed to this story.