Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Remembering Toni Morrison


“If you surrender to the air, you could ride it.” The Song of Solomon

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”  Beloved

“Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”                                                                                                                         Beloved

“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”   Sula

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be’   Sula  

   I am a reader: I have always been a reader. I don’t know exactly when I learned to read, but I cannot remember a time when I did not read. Comic books, newspaper comics, magazines, books, poems, cereal boxes, street signs, historical markers, advertisements: if it had words in English and it was in my sight, I probably read it. It is and has been one of the most joyous and important parts of my life. I interact with words, and I interact with them in a number of different and meaningful ways. That means, of course, that I love libraries and bookstores: those two institutions have helped me read a hell of a lot of books in my life. Dramas, history books, brochures, mysteries, fantasy, pamphlets, biographies and autobiographies, comedies, and fiction from any and all genres. And I collect quotes, quotes from movies, friends, historical figures, historical sayings, plays and especially from books. I find that authors, especially novelists, often have ways of saying and expressing things that capture me, touch me deeply, and lead me to new realizations. The above five quotes are among my all-time favorite literary quotes. They give me much to reflect upon, and they have been with me for years. And they all come from the mind and vision of one incredible and powerful author: Ms Toni Morrison.

  I have been a fan of Toni Morrison for over 45 years. She has been and is a voice that causes me to pause, to look at something differently or more deeply, and to become more aware of my own expectations, biases, and assumptions. She surprises me, and she helps me look at myself, sometimes even against my own will. She has a way of assembling words in ways that build images, share feelings, evoke scenes, paint landscapes, and allow you to hear the voice and meaning of her characters and what their lives really show. Sula, set mostly in a small Ohio town, was the first of her novels that I read, and the way her narration mixed poetic language, imagination, keen imagery and observation had me stop on page after page to re-read a particular passage again out loud-to hear it and to taste it and to feel it. Her ability to make us deeply feel and know the struggles and choices her two heroines go through in their attempt “to create something else to be” is almost painful. And the ways we are shown how loneliness, anger, and self-doubt, as well as determination, can sometimes be “dangerous” ring true throughout the novel. Sula is a relatively short book: 194 pages. But it seems full and deep.  It is truly a “weighty” book. It was also one of the first novels that had me seriously and deeply connect with female characters, and that opened up a whole new literary world for me.

  Song of Solomon, with its richly and multi-layered, symbolic language and mix of folklore, Biblical references, mysticism, and harsh reality is probably my favorite of all her books. As with all of her works, one of its major themes is identity and how we come to appreciate and learn our various ones. There is also incredible word play in the work, starting with the names of characters and the specific ways each of them speaks, and going on to include irony, puns, and the quiet power of the unsaid. The way Macon Dead discovers he has to look back and down, not only to his cultural past but also to his own childhood while on his quest, resonated with me on many levels. It amazed me that one writer could not only have all of these thoughts and ideas and themes going on in her head, but that she could somehow express them on paper in such a way that they speak to real people and to their real lives. It is one book I truly regret never having had an opportunity to teach.

  But the book which first exposed me to Toni Morrison and helped deepen my own searches for identities wasn’t one she wrote. It wasn’t a novel, and it was not a book of literary criticism and analysis. It was a massively researched and beautifully pulled together scrapbook she helped edit and nurture into being. It was a joyous, painful, celebratory, anger-producing, angry, and proud collection of words, facts, records, and pictures called, The Black Book, that she helped edit and publish in 1974 while she was an editor at Random House. I encountered it at the old Robins Bookstore on 13th Street, and I had never seen anything like it. It was a trade paperback with a cover that was a collage with pictures of Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Satchel Paige, racist stereotyped advertising labels for products, a Black cowboy with a rifle and saddle, an African bronze sculpture, and the words, “The Black Book” proudly front and center. In time frame it ranged from the pre-Columbian history of Africa and South America to the black movies and music stars of the 1930’s. It also included descriptions of slave whippings, escapes, stories about Black soldiers, pioneer farmers, seamen, athletes, inventors, and scientists, pictures of all black towns in the Midwest:  it was literally a book of just about all that we as a culture have seen, been through and done. As a 24 year- old in 1974 that book sent my ADD and curious mind in a thousand different directions at once, searching and looking at things, reading, researching and listening to hundreds of new things, and increasing my own knowledge and understandings of African-American cultures and experiences. (And, yes-we are way more than just one “culture.”) I wore the pages out of two editions of that book, and I later lost my remaining well-worn one during one of my many moves. But hearing of Toni Morrison’s death On August 5th took me to the library to take out a copy. And once again it did its magic, reminding of so much about heritage, triumph, struggle, and the incredible, simple resiliency African-Americans, and indeed, all human cultures need to have in order to survive in this world. It is a joy to re-encounter it, and I am joyously working my way through it again. It never gets old.

   There is so much more I could say about Toni Morrison and her importance to United States literature, cultural studies, and intellectual development. She was a prodigious writer: she wrote 11 novels, wrote and/or edited several books of literary criticism and analysis, co-wrote 5 children’s books, and penned numerous articles. She also taught at several colleges and universities including Princeton, Rutgers, Cornell, and the State University of New York. Her output lasted from the 1970’s until now, and several generations of readers, thinkers, writers, and fans got to read, meet, and encounter her ideas.  I cannot begin to catalog the ways in which she has influenced me, She is one of my many inspirations and starting points. So many of her quotes and ideas have become a part of me and how I look at the world. If you are not familiar with her, I encourage you to take the time to encounter her. She is not an easy read by any means. But she is a read that will give you much to think about, will amaze and dazzle you with the power of the written word, and just maybe have you look at the world around you and yourself in different and rewarding ways. She is simply one of the best and most important thinkers and authors it has been my good fortune to read. Rest in Peace, Ms, Morrison. Rest in peace. And thank you, so very much.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia biography of Toni Morrison:
The Toni Morrison Society:

Link to review of The Black Book:

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