The semester is less than two weeks away and I’m running out of time. I should be finishing syllabi, or writing a book proposal, or attending to half a dozen other tasks I have the privilege of doing in my college-professor job. I’ll get back to those tomorrow, but I need to spend some time feeling grief and gratitude for Toni Morrison, who died this week, leaving us to reread her books and wish for more.
It was 1986 when I first read her work, taking a graduate seminar on Black writers with Dr. Trudier Harris, who became my dissertation director. I still remember reaching the end of The Bluest Eye, sitting in my apartment and staring straight ahead, so broken by the book’s sadness and awestruck by its language. I walked to campus in a daze, feeling it. So many sentences that lifted you off the ground, so many stories that rearranged your sense of yourself.
“The damage done was total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue voice it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.”
I never quite got over feeling destroyed by this beautiful book and this lost girl who “would never know her beauty.” A paper I wrote for Trudier’s class took me to my dissertation, which took me, through a series of ridiculously lucky breaks, to this job and this city. On Tuesday, I first learned of Morrison’s passing through a Facebook post by an English professor in Canada who was once my student. Miranda mentioned reading Morrison in an independent study with me, and said she went on to get a PhD partly because of my mentorship and Morrison’s works. Putting me and TM in the same sentence was giving me much too much credit, but it did me good to read it, a salve for the sad news. “I want to type more, but I am honestly out of words on this,” Miranda said.
I heard Morrison speak once in Charleston, when the Toni Morrison Society held a conference here. It was the summer of 2008, a different time, when Obama was running for president. When she spoke, the audience in the Sottile Theater was enrapt, beside itself over getting to be in her presence. At one point when Morrison moved her notes, the glass of water on her lectern toppled over. The audience gave a collective gasp as the stage manager rushed out to assist. Morrison looked serenely upon us all as she said gently, bemusedly, “It’s just water.” Later in the Q & A someone asked her about the Presidential election. She said of Obama, “I think he’s going to be all right.” Or something like that; that’s how I remember it anyway. I felt encouraged, full of wild hope.
Trudier, my dissertation advisor, wasn’t in town for that conference, but several of her former students were. She keeps up with all of us. When she left UNC and cleared out her office (where she’d once told me, patiently, that I’d discover why my argument made sense when I wrote the next chapter), she sent me her latest book. After the Emanuel massacre in 2015, Trudier wrote to say she was thinking about me and all of Charleston. I responded that we needed lots of prayers, and she replied, “I will continue to lift you up.” Tuesday as I was scrolling through posts mourning Morrison, interspersed with families on vacation, I saw a shot of Trudier. It was posted by Will Murray, another student I’m very proud of, who was graduating from the U of Alabama, where she now teaches; she directed Will’s dissertation. In the photo she’s standing with his family, beaming in her regalia. She continues to lift us up.
The summer Morrison came to town, our daughter Sara had just finished high school, having worked for the Obama campaign since 2007, long before her parents believed he had any chance of winning. By July 2008, it seemed like the country might be able to do the impossible. During the conference, the Toni Morrison Society led an expedition to Sullivan’s Island to dedicate a memorial “Bench by the Road,” near the site of a “pest house” where captive Africans were quarantined before being sold. The Society’s benches are installed in response to something Morrison said in a 1989 interview, explaining why she wrote Beloved: “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. . . . And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to.”
Our newspaper carried photos of the dedication ceremony. We were a large and picturesque crowd, dressed in white, standing at the waterfront with drummers and libation-pourers, accompanied by Ms. Morrison, who looked regal because there is no other way for her to look. The next day when I read the article online, I felt proud of us all, and thus was unprepared, when I reached the end of the story, for the racist comments that had already been posted in response. I shook my head, thinking that those haters must have been an insignificant fringe group. It seemed like we were going to be all right.
Back in the more difficult present, on Tuesday someone tweeted, “Can we just do a whole Toni Morrison quotes thread? FOR COMFORT.” I flipped through Morrison’s books in my office that afternoon, finding more and more passages that knocked me over. “Deep down in that pocket where his heart hid,” one sentence in Song of Solomon begins. Sula comments, in passing, on its heroine: “And like any artist without an art form, she became dangerous.” The Bluest Eye says of a pizza parlor, “slow-footed teenaged boys . . met there to feel their groins, smoke cigarettes, and plan mild outrages.” Tracy Smith, in her beautiful NYT essay, consoled us with a Morrison quotation I hadn’t read: “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image and experience.” The passage I chose for my post was from Song of Solomon, when the hero, holding his dying aunt, realizes what he’s lost. “Now he knew why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly. ‘There must be another one like you,’ he whispered to her. ‘There’s got to be at least one more woman like you.’”
Sara called me Tuesday night while driving home from work. “I know how sad you are,” she said. She’s in California now, but in her first two years after college, she taught English and French in a middle school in Mississippi, in a town where the library was closed on weekends and the students were smart and beautiful and low-income and reading two years below grade level. Sara and three other teachers have been returning to the town every summer since then, to put on an all-girls’ creative writing camp, Girls Write the World. “Our mission is to provide a safe space for female creativity . . . to celebrate, affirm, and project young female voices.” The campers mostly read and write poetry, but Morrison’s prose and her fearless female authority are often invoked. On Tuesday, the organization (Sara) posted its Morrison tribute, a quotation I had forgotten about, from Jazz: “Don’t think I ever fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love. I rose in it.”
Yesterday Sara, still melancholy, texted me a quotation from a 1987 eulogy Morrison wrote for James Baldwin: “There is too much to think about you, too much to feel.” We’re still surprised at just how sad we are. She lived long and well. Her passing is not one of the shocking catastrophes we’re getting used to reading about. But most of those events are too much to dwell upon, at least for me; I’m not brave enough to accord them the grief they deserve. Mourning for this monumental artist, then, must stand in for other lamentations.
Her works remain, breathing new life into us every time we read them. That’s what Baldwin did for her; it’s what she’ll go on doing. “No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did,” Morrison wrote. ”You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft plump lies was a lean, targeted power.” To read her sentences is to stand in a wind tunnel.
That Baldwin essay was new to me, and thrilling and heartening, which is why I cried so much when reading it. I haven’t yet read everything Morrison wrote. So there’s that.
Here’s a little more of the eulogy. For comfort.
“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee.”