“What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze. … In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”
I was probably 22 the first time I tried to tackle a Toni Morrison novel. I think it was Sula. I got it, but I didn't get it. Couple of years later, I tried again with Jazz and fared much better. It was still not the same experience as reading the more mainstream books I grew up on and I struggled with it. It wasn’t that I was not a mature reader; I’d read so many books in the kid’s section of my local library that several librarians made a special card just for me so I could check out books beyond the age limit. I read everything. I devoured all of Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. Then I moved on to so many books I wasn’t supposed to like Lace by Shirley Conran, anything by Jackie Collins or Erica Jong. All very readable and very scandalous things. Then I became obsessed with The Color Purple by Alice Walker in the 7th grade and by that time had read each of Maya Angelou’s memoirs many times over. Morrison’s vernacular was different.
Reading was an escape for me and the words always translated into a mental landscape I could see in my mind’s eye. Universes and worlds and countries – I traveled in books – I know it’s a cliché, but I was a lonely, only, adopted child. Reading for hours was incredibly easier than going around being bullied for being the only Black girl in her grade and one of only 2 or 3 Black kids in the entire school. Then as I got older, I kept reading for the joy of it.
I had to read Jazz twice before I could see Morrison’s New York. I had to read it again to see the rooms Dorcas, Joe and Violet moved in. But it was Song of Solomon that really touched me. I always say it helped me “crack the Morrison code”. I devoured it. I mean, she seriously named a character First Corinthians! What is more Southern or Blacker than that??? I loved it. I could hear the rhythms of Mama with her sisters and the women who were Mama’s friends. Mama had a sister named Narcisses - doesn’t that sound like a Morrison character to you? It was like reading about my family – reading Alice Walker and Maya Angelou was too, but I’d never thought about Black people the way that Toni Morrison wrote about them. The details she chose to underscore, what she said - the care she took in how she said it. Her Black Universe is as extraordinary and metaphysical as I knew ours to be, but she seemed to be the only one to acknowledge it openly. In her famous novel Beloved, a baby comes back from the dead to punish and lament with the mother that killed it. In the book, it’s the elder women of the town who weep, moan, sing - finally grieving appropriately for the lost potential of that dead baby’s life and the loss of humanity Sethe, Beloved and Paul D faced at the horrific plantation Sweet Home. Based loosely on the real story of Margaret Garner who wanted to save her children from slavery even if that meant taking their lives. Walker and Angelou talked about secrets, but not like this. I was moved by their words but I truly felt language was exalted when I read Toni Morrison.
I mean, my God – in Morrison’s world, Africans can fly.
I saw a photograph of her in a wheelchair, white-haired and still regal but starting to look frail, maybe five years ago. I started putting a place in my energy for the coming grief then, as I have done with other beloved folks that have aged and died as I have gotten into middle age. It’s easier when you’re ready for it. You can stiffen your back and remember that you have most of the important stuff in your book collection. I suppose that’s part of it – what we lose, and who. I’m grateful that I got to read not only the novels, but also the academic work like What Moves at the Margin and Playing in the Dark. I was blessed to see her speak to Charlie Rose in a way I had not often seen a Black women speak to a White man. She taught me that Black people are beautiful and complex and deep and majickal. She changed my life and the way I read forever.
Thank you, Toni.
You can see a clip from that Charlie Rose interview here.