Toni Morrison: Black Without Apology
Eleven novels. Nine works of nonfiction. Over twenty awards. 88 years.
We are privileged to keep the gift of thousands of masterfully written pages, but there’s even more about this gifted life that we simply can’t count: The magnitude of her influence on Black writers and readers. The radical mind shifts she inspired. The full weight of her name.
We lost Toni Morrison on August 5, 2019. She was a towering figure, a literary legend. She shook the world with boldness—in her staunch championship of fellow authors, her refusal to play pattycake with racism for even a second, her outright rejection of being ruled by the white gaze, and her sharp words that didn’t flinch in the face of Black pain or any facet of the Black experience she chose to explore. Her pen didn’t let up when it rounded a corner to find anger or ache. In her work, there is both beauty and bite. There is a celebration and an affirmation of blackness.
And Black she was, without apology. She welcomed the term “Black writer,” writing for Black people and about Black lives as a forthright, career-defining art. Her work was read and adored widely by readers of all races, but her stories remained Black and their effect is felt most in the stories we tell of her now. The stories of Black women who recall feeling seen, cherished, and fittingly described on the pages of books like “Sula” (my personal favorite). The stories of those shaken to tears and forced to face cultural realities that were laid bare after reading “The Bluest Eye.” The stories of being in turmoil and, eventually, deep thought and reverence from those who read “Beloved.” The stories from anyone at any time who picked up any one of Toni Morrison’s books and broke away from cookie-cutter literature with characters whose families and lives looked nothing like their own.
For as many words as she gave the reader (and the wider world when they dared to ask questions), none seem adequate to describe the impact of her life and the world’s loss. Her contribution is massive. In her time as an editor, she brought forth talented Black writers like Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. She went on to become a full-time writer, bursting in with novels the world had never seen, and the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. As a professor, scholar, and intellectual, she helped shape the work of her own students and those she never met. She was a mentor, friend, and inspiration to many near and far.
Toni Morrison’s legacy will maintain its mark, as it reverberates in the world through her work and the work of writers present and future. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she said:
“Make up a story… For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
Toni showed us. She showed us why and how to unleash stories courageously. She challenged the world and gave it her genius at the cost of its comfort. For the Toni Morrison reader, we know sentences that are “clean as a bone,” to borrow from James Baldwin. We know our world more vividly; we’ve seen our uncles in her books. We’ve become the forever students of literature, from the moment we read a novel with a little Black girl on the cover.
When we speak of who a writer was, we must remember what writers can do. Here we can begin to grasp what Toni Morrison’s life and work meant. Writers can free and empower others with new thought that inspires a new direction. They can shape imaginary worlds that reshape the real lives of readers. A writer can take a huge chunk of the world’s genius with them when they go.
We now feel the gaping hole that Toni Morrison left in the literary world. But O, what a writer can leave when they leave! They can leave a legacy of sheer brilliance in words, as she did, echoing across generations, changing and propelling them with the power of language.