What is it to miss an icon? A sorcerer of words? She who, as editors, resurrected black writers from the reject pile into pillars in black literary genealogy? She who gifted the world the gifts of Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, and Henry Dumas? What is it to miss she who employed prose to build worlds—worlds beyond white supremacy? Her writing did not cast us as a fly on their walls, her writing sat us at our own table and introduced us to characters that reminded us of all we still had time to be and who we still had time to meet.
The white canon sought to humanize those who dehumanized the black collective. Whereas Morrison placed the self-proclaimed “masters” in her periphery. Literature centralized white men who fetishized their sisters, Gatsby’s who were great, and plain Jane’s crowned queen of the canon. In her novels, there we were. We were beautiful and ugly, magical and relatable, awe-inspiring and audacious, inspiring, and insolent.
In a 1990 interview, Morrison stated that Pecola Breedlove, the poignant protagonist in her first novel The Bluest Eye, subscribed to what she called the master narrative. Pecola’s trajectory illuminates the tragedy such a narrative promises the African in American. The novel is an uncomfortable work, whose discomfort aborts Pecola’s conception in the world beyond her fiction. Morrison’s catalogue archives a similar evolution past the master narrative. Morrison’s final novel, God Help the Child presents a nuanced fairytale of sorts where the love affair is not between a prince or princess, or between a Bride or a Booker, but between a black woman and her blackness.
Pecola. Cholly. Ruby. Mr. Cosey. Celestial. Mavis. Pilate. Macon Dead. Grace. Baby Suggs. Sethe. Paul D. Halle. Denver. Beloved. Bride. Booker. Violet. Dorcas. Eva. Sula. Plum.
Morrison betrayed the being of black form as bearing a womb in their mind—birthing through writing. Her legacy shows the black reader that to imagine is to hone the fertility of the mind.
I hadn’t read Jazz at the time of Morrison’s passing, but reading the book this past winter illuminated the reality that is a writer’s immortality. This novel is easily my favorite for its rhythm. As I read, I could feel my mind move, and my thoughts danced to the piano of her prose. In Jazz, as in Beloved, Morrison writes beauty into the unsettling and unsightly. Like countless black writers before her, Morrison paints her prose with the souls of black folk, and the walls encompass colors we’ve never seen before yet somehow seem quite familiar. Morrison illuminates that words create worlds as much as people do, that prose is protest, and blackness is power.
So what does it mean to miss an icon? A black writer?
It means to miss the totality of their influence. A writer is never more alive than in their writing. She’s in the laughter, tears, enlightenment, and shock that her writing engenders. Now that she is an ancestor, both her spirit and her novels are constellations to a world beyond whiteness, a world toward a black aesthetic, or black reality we have yet to imagine.
As the shelves in bookstores around the globe encase Morrison’s novels on a shelf that somehow encompasses, or frames, her forty-year career, she reminds us of the storytellers of an African past. Storytellers that did not inscribe their stories by hand, but whose verbiage now encompasses the whispers in the wind.
They, like Morrison, are not gone.
Their bodies were vessels, and what they leave us is vision. A vision that enables the imaginations they ignited, the ideas they birthed, to see the value in the stories they hold. The stories our experiences etch into our flesh. The stories that speak to us as we sleep.
It is our duty and nature to tell these stories. Our lives are literature, and it is an injustice to our collective not to imagine as we breathe—without apology or expectation that we are to do anything different.
Furthermore, Morrison’s life and legacy underscore that a new world is as near as a writer’s canvass—be it a pen and a pad, brown paper bag, or a laptop.
Well done Ms. Morrison, well done.