By Virginia Lowman
I had every intention of beginning this essay with a simple sentence: “On Monday, August 5, 2019, we lost an icon.” But in writing about the death of Toni Morrison, I am not entirely certain that I agree with those words. Yes, the novelist, poet, essayist, Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, and teacher has passed on. But I do not yet know that what I feel is a sense of loss.
Whether that is because I have yet to reach the fifth stage of grief, acceptance, or because I view the lives of those who put pen to paper for a living as immortal in some sense, is yet to be discovered. What I do know is that Toni Morrison was the first Black author I read; that her work was ahead of its time and that the themes therein remain timeless. I know that her writing was therapeutic and both reminded and encouraged me to pursue freedom in how I live, how I love, and how I tell my stories. The calls to action and truth in her work are at once unassuming and pointed, humble and in full awareness of their worth, relevant to many people, but more specifically, Black people and Black women like me.
What does one write about a woman who was unabashedly Black, recklessly in love with language and uncharacteristically invested in exploring the dark corridors of the souls of Black folk, holding a mirror up to their pain and giving them language to name it or permission not to? One writes about what they saw in the mirror of Toni’s words; one writes about what they learned and how, like warm hands to clay, those words shaped them; made and remade them in the way wisdom does with the passing of time.
So much of the Black experience in America is about assimilation — a learned effort to coddle and coo white people into being comfortable with your supposed “otherness.” I think about the sentence structure in Toni’s books — how shocking it was for me in high school to come across a sentence like “you your best thing” in Beloved. And yet, the absence of subject-verb agreement in a book that I was reading for school was also like a hug — a literary nudge between myself and the pages that whispered This for you, sis, and I knew I was the only one in my otherwise white classroom who would hear home in her “broken” English and be absent of the need to clean it up and make it palatable in scholarly settings.
The gift of Toni Morrison’s writing wasn’t just in the stories themselves, it was in the diction and placement of the characters. Beyond the prose, she ushered the reader into the proverbial Bottom of Black America; sat them down at the kitchen table with Black matriarchs with callused hands and worn bibles, rubbed their noses in the brine of collard greens and pork belly, and gave the reader access to the uncomfortable and thrilling whispered truths of Blackness. Whether she was addressing the issues of distorted self-image and the need for self-love as experienced by Pecola Breedlove in her first novel, The Bluest Eye; highlighting the involuntary and often misunderstood courage required of Black women to protect their children, in Beloved; or addressing the ever-present relevance of the “n----r joke,” Black displacement, and the search for home both in place and personhood as seen in Sula, the author consistently humanized Black women and revealed the very complex nature of how they exist and move through the world. Her characters were rich and intricate, and gave me both pride and pause and conviction and freedom in the ways in which I identified with them as they grappled with the inherited byproducts of racism and slavery.
The life of her work served as a kind of love note to Blackness, pages of prose that affirmed us and told us that our complexities are okay; that we don’t need to alter who we are to accommodate and comfort the white gaze, and that our humanity, just as it is, is worthy of fiction. The experiences of BoyBoy, and Sula, Sixo, and Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Milkman, and Nel, and Dorcas are just as correct and poignant as Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs. Ramsay, and Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara. Blackness, too, is deserving of the immortality that comes with printed words.
On Monday, August 5, 2019, we lost an icon. In the wake of the author’s death, I, like so many lovers of her work reflected on the impact of her words, combed through her quotes on Goodreads for comfort. I listened to my mom recall her undergraduate days at Cornell and heard the inflection in her voice when she spoke of meeting Toni Morrison on campus and how she detailed Toni’s “excitement” and “aura-like glow.” I ended the day reading old interviews, including a 2015 piece in which Hermione Hoby interviewed Toni at her Tribeca apartment for The Guardian. There she was: standing in a corner of a well-lit room, a cascade of sepia skin and silver locs cloaked in shades of grey, her gaze as soft as it was intense, and her hands planted firmly on her writer’s desk. My eyes began to water.
Seeing that image of Toni standing at her writer’s desk rendered that sense of melancholy in me. That she won’t etch words on paper there or in her boathouse on the Hudson makes me sad. Time has proven that I can read and reread her work and find new ways to apply it to the human condition, but I feel a great sense of longing for all of the new advice and ways of seeing myself in her work that won’t come. There is a low and steady rumble of anxiety in my belly from the weight of wondering whose pages will whisper This for you, sis, or remind me not to fall in love, but to make up my mind and rise in it.
When I began this essay, I had such a sense of gratitude for her work that feeling a sense of loss over her death almost felt selfish. To focus on loss, when I know that Toni Morrison resolved that death is imminent and life is measured in language, felt like a disservice. But if her writing taught me anything, it is that the selfish parts of our existence are not any less relevant, acceptable, or true than those traits we boast of.
“I have read all of her books except the last one,” my mom told me last night as I attempted to explain my struggle to call this a loss. “When I read God Help the Child, the reality will set in that I’ve gotten the final word from her. Not so much that I’ve lost something, but that I won’t gain any more.”
True to form, Toni’s words continue to soothe and disrupt me. Perhaps, selfishly, one of the more discomposing parts of her death is the responsibility I feel from her many calls to action for a life well lived. If what Toni said is true, that we are “all the things [we] have ever loved,” then we can find solace in some sense, regardless of how minute, that we, too, are Toni Morrison. And it is our responsibility to “claim ownership” of our freed selves, “give up the shit that weighs [us] down,” and fly.