A Tribute to Toni Morrison

Cherise Charleswell | Society & Culture | Commentary | August 19th, 2019

On August 5th, 2019 we lost Chloe Anthony Wofford, better known as Toni Morrison. This brilliant Griot, who was one of America's most venerated novelists, essayists, editors, social critics, teachers, and professors, died of complications of pneumonia at the age of 88.

One of her first great feats happened during the 1960s, a period of time where the United States of America was still caught up and resisting through the Civil Rights Movement's call for equity and dismantling of oppressive barriers and discrimination. Against this backdrop, Toni Morrison became the first Black female editor of fiction at Random House, and in this capacity she played a vital role in bringing Black literature and authors into the mainstream.

She got a seat at the table and not only took up space, but dragged other seats over to the table to allow room for other marginalized voices. She later described the importance of "Taking Up & Creating Space" in one of the many interviews that she conducted over her many years in the spotlight:

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game."

She left behind a remarkable and award-winning body of work, beginning with her first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. And went on to publish ten additional novels, numerous short stories and essays, as well as works of non-fiction.

Toni Morrison's work will forever entertain, inspire, and challenge us to reflect as individuals and as a society, and it is for those reasons and more that we pay tribute to this formidable woman who epitomized Black Girl Magic long before the phrase was first used. There was magic in her pen and tongue, and it casted spells on our psyche.

So, in this tribute I will lift up her voice and unpack the impact and legacy of Toni Morrison.

The Honors

"I don't believe any real artists have ever been non-political. They may have been insensitive to this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political, because that's what an artist is―a politician."

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was a prolific writer who approached writing with intentions and a purpose that went far beyond storytelling. She recognized that the Political has always been Personal, and didn't shy away from using characters, themes, and language (whether engaging dialogue or thought-provoking monologue) to provide social commentary and criticism, and challenge readers to truly reflect on what they've read. Because of this, her work can't be described as "light reading," but it was certainly captivating. And thus, the honors rolled in.

Those honors included:

• Honorary degrees from Oxford University and Rutgers University

• In 1979 she was awarded Barnard College's high-test honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

• She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Her citation reads that she, " who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality." [ She was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize

• In 1996, the National Endowment for Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. Federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities.

• In 1996, she also received the National Book Foundation's Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

• She received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel Beloved, which was adapted into a movie, starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998.

• Her novel Song of Solomon received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

• In 2012, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

• She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American fiction in 2016.

Unapologetic About Centering Black Characters and Experiences

"Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form."

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's work builds on the legacy and body of work of the prolific Black authors, novelists, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, an important artistic movement which The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture described as :

"A movement that brought notice to the great works of African American art, and inspired and influenced future generations of African American artists and intellectuals. The self-portrait of African American life, identity, and culture that emerged from Harlem was transmitted to the world at large, challenging the racist and disparaging stereotypes of the Jim Crow South. In doing so, it radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African American experience."

The Harlem Renaissance - thought art, music, fashion, and literature - left an undeniable mark on American culture, but it did not end the marginalization of the Black experience in America, and this what Toni Morrison was referring to when pointing out the fact that Black literature wasn't to be taught or viewed as a rigorous art form. This occurred whether Black writers wrote novels and stories using African American Vernacular English, such as the work of Nora Zeale Hurston, or writing in standard American English.

Not only did Toni Morrison's work build on the creativity, critical, and impactful work of authors from the Harlem Renaissance, throughout her career she remained unapologetic about centering Black characters and experiences in her work. There were no White Saviors. She instead displayed the fullness of the Black experience - the good, bad, ugly, and painful. While other writers seemed to abhor labels, such as "Black writer," and didn't want their work assigned to a marginalized classification and shelf that was/is often at the back of a bookstore, Toni Morrison welcomed the term.

And being a "Black writer" didn't diminish her career. It didn't stop her from being presented with esteemed awards, or having her work adapted into a film. She remained an unapologetic "Black writer" who took up space on the highly coveted "Literature" shelves of bookstores as her work was fantastically displayed in stores, outside of and beyond February (Black History Month).

When the question about when she was going to write about and/or center non-Black characters came up, Toni Morrison didn't waste a second, immediately pointing out that those types of questions were inherently racist and were never asked of White writers. They were never asked about when they would center Black characters. And she often went on to explain her exact intentions.

Below is the explanation in her own words:

" I don't have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don't [write about white people] - which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books.

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say 'people,' that's what I mean."

When we look closer, there is one sub-group that Toni Morrison truly wrote for, and that is Black women and girls. Her books allowed us to see our stories come to life on a page in such a meaningful way. She once shared the following:

"I merged those two words, black and feminist, because I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes."

Her work was intersectional and didn't attempt to make us choose between our Blackness and womanhood. It all-at-once exposed our vulnerabilities, insecurities, strengths, and resilience. And being a Black woman in the United States, or any part of the world, certainly requires a level of resilience. Malcolm X's statement made during the 1960s, remains true today: "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman."

The ubiquitous and constant disrespect that Malcolm X was describing and what Toni Morrison highlighted in her books is the effect of misogynoir. Misogynoir is something that has always existed, even before we had a word for it. It is a term coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey, in 2010, to describe a special form of misogyny that is explicitly directed towards Black women, where race and gender both play roles in bias. Misogynoir makes Black women the most "disrespected, unprotected, and neglected" people globally - not only in the United States. And this is due to the marginalization of our multiple identities, and the fact that every " Ism" that one can think of, whether sexism, racism, colorism, texturism, ableism, classism, along with homophobia, impacts Black women.

Toni Morrison's work gave us vivid examples of this unique form of prejudice, bias, and hatred throughout her work. In fact, it is fitting that her first and last novels, The Bluest Eyes and God Help The Child, both centered Black girls/women whose self-images were negatively impacted by misogynoir. The characters Pecola Breedlove and Bride were both made to feel like the color of their skin and eyes, as well as their features, were undesirable. While Pecola literally prayed for blue eyes, Bride depended on surface beautification that didn't lead to the acceptance or celebration of her beauty, but to fetishization.

Toni Morrison wrote an updated foreword to The Bluest Eyes in 2007, explaining her reason to create a character like Pecola, who was so deeply impacted by misogynoir: She wanted to focus "on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female"

Gifts of Wisdom

Ultimately, through her novels, essays, interviews, and statements, Toni Morrison left us with gifts of wisdom. Words to reflect on and to better interrogate the world that we live in. Her words also can serve as a tool to reject misogynoir and any feelings of inferiority - a world where Black people and our experiences are at the Center, and not marginalized.

In fact, the entire notion of white supremacy, despite its horrible history, was laughable to her. She pointed out its illegitimacy or historical inaccuracy by asking, "Where was the lecture on how slavery alone catapulted the whole country from agriculture into the industrial age in two decades? White folks' hatred, their violence, was the gasoline that kept the profit motors running." And really poked holes at the entire premise by stating, "I always knew that I had the moral high ground all my life. If you can only be tall when someone is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. White people have a serious problem."

And White people, particularly White Americans have certainly proved they have a serious problem. It is a problem linked to the decades-long mass shootings that plague the country that are predominantly carried out by White men, who the media, politicians, and others immediately address with sympathetic treatment. Something "had to happen to them" or "make them" carry out these atrocious acts. That something may be mental illness, trauma, broken homes, and yes, even video games. Just a plethora of ridiculous excuses that ignores the fact that other groups in the country experience and are exposed to the same conditions (or worse), but do not go on these murderous rampages. White privilege created these mass shooters and white privilege protects them long after the dead have been buried.

For instance the Los Angeles Times published this horrible and disingenuous Op-Ed that listed four commonalities seen in mass shooters per some research study, but never once mentions the fact that they are White men. That omission of this obvious factor leaves the research as being nothing more than bias garbage, and the "journalism" lacks any credibility since the obvious is going to be ignored.

America's problems of racism, white supremacy, and white privilege continues to hurt all Americans. Those shooters are also killing white people. And the feat of losing that privilege, of having to live in a changing country led many voters to choose a president (45) whose vision of America resembles the days of decades past, that they deem to have been "Great". Much of Toni Morrison's work is based in those periods. We can just check her written record to prove that those days were far from great.

As pointed out by Toni Morrison, far too many White Americans require others to be on their knees in order for them to be tall and feel secure. Thus, for them, equality (resulting from the loss of white privilege) feels like oppression.

During Toni Morrison' 80+ years of life, she witnessed these changes in America and released the essay " Making America White Again " for The New Yorker, shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This is one of the last essays that she wrote and it is certainly a gift of wisdom that describes the cultural anxiety which motivated most White Americans to vote for Trump:

"So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters-both the poorly educated and the well-educated-embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan."

Among the Ancestors

Toni Morrison was a national treasure and literary genius who garnered global acclaim for her ability to vividly and honestly tell the story of the Black American experience. She was unwavering in her centering of Blackness, and courageously highlighted the damaging effects of racism and colorism when few authors with national platforms were willing to address these issues. Her stories had depth, and were intersectional and thought-provoking.

She is a foremother, an ancestor, whose shoulders - we must now stand on - left behind a body of work that will entertain, challenge, and educate us.

And I will leave you with this challenge that Toni Morrison has left behind - it is the challenge that she first presented to herself, and it led her to write her first novel at 39 years of age:

" If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."