Though I met Morrison as a child, I did not understand her until I was an adult. I was an adolescent who pursued her text perilously. Like Beloved protagonist Sethe, I journeyed to the unknown knowing that what lied ahead was better than what I was leaving behind. Reading Beloved change me, delineating the full extent to which the literary world encompassed a realm of its own. Beloved, like The Bluest Eye, God Help the Child, and Sula, archived the black female narrative in a way that only a black woman could. As a writer, Morrison archived portions of herself and her experience that provided a new way for the black woman and the black writer to see herself and embrace how central she remains to her community. As a black woman who spent her entire life studying English as a discipline, Morrison provided a special means for me to see myself. Specifically, it is because I started my journey to literary scholarship at Howard University that English equated to blackness. Morrison took the terms “novelist,” English,” “professor,” and “editor,” terms that previously marked linearity to white men, and occasionally white women, and adorned them in black.
Additionally, Morrison’s prose proved consistently pedagogical. The Bluest Eye taught me that “self-hatred” is a process too often passed down, or inherited. The text introduced readers to a generational genocide that functioned as though genetic. During this a process, one ultimately loses a part of themselves that they never really had to begin with.
Yet, despite Morrison’s literary genuis, a common contention that followed her in her lifetime was that she was unnecessarily hard on black men. I came into reading Morrison with this in the back of my mind. I even encountered those who enjoyed Morrison’s work because they felt comforted by what they considered negative portrayals of black men. I, however, could not disagree more with these contentions. Specifically, in reference to Cholly Breedlove of The Bluest Eye and Halle Suggs of Beloved, Morrison does not paint a blissful or idealistic portrait; rather, she depicts black men as wounded by the white ideal. To be clear, by wounded, I don’t mean weak. Instead, Morrison takes black male portrayal past a single dimension and illustrates the black man as he is, complicated and layered, a challenge she endured with love.
Morrison created a world where the black people could not only be, but a world where the black man was not violently placed into a box and caricatured as a hero, super-negro, or hoodlum, but human.
Morrison, notably through Beloved, taught me that through fiction we can create fact. Through literature, Morrison showed the black community that we have the power to fill in the gaps in our story. Her prose taught readers that genre enables us to meet our ancestors and to archive, a world, a truth, a story that we were told did not exist. From her works, we, as black women and black people, learned parts of ourselves that we were either taught to suppress, or that remained buried in caricature. Morrison’s essays, novels, and speeches illustrated the humanity this country tried to strip from black people, and her language mastery delineated our severed tongue as a weapon.
Yet, in remembering our greats, it is imperative that we not forget what their lives teach us. Particularly, attaining placement as a prominent black author in America, does not come without a cost. Recently, the white community ignited an uproar upon learning that there was to be a street posthumously named for prolific black intellect Dr. Ben. The African adjacent listed numerous reasons why the street naming should not take place. The most reasont reason would have to be the resentment engendered from Dr. Ben’s refusal to have his word revieved by the African adjacent.
This is interesting to consider with regards to the late and great Toni Morrison, who wrote black narratives that only went out to the public after edited by a white male publisher. This affiliation provides cause to question whether Morrison’s national reverie reflects her true greatness, or whether Morrison’s acclaim reflects a means for white media to Americanize black achievement. For those who regard Morrison’s national acclaim, it is imperative to note that Morrison’s high regard does not encompass what she meant nd will continue to mean for black people.
Nevertheless, this truth compliments the legacy Morrison leaves behind. Morrison’s Americanized legacy illustrates the danger that lies in valuing our greats by American standards. Morrison is not great because of her publisher, her inclusion in the literary canon, or because of her American and European accolades. Morrison is great due to the publsher she was, and because of the new standard and canon she helped created for black readers and writers. Morrison consummated greatness because she used her platform to nurture other black writers. Thus, her life and literary presence teaches the black community what remains foundational in restoring our collective; that it is not about recognition, it is about responsibility.
Literary Mother Morrison, may you rest in peace.
Though absent in presence, your spirit remains between every line, and on every page. For tis’ the legacy of every writer ❤