On August 5, 2019, the world lost an American novelist: Toni Morrison. The award-winning writer was 88 at the time of her passing. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with multiple honorary doctorates. And she has always occupied space in my life.
I was two years old when her first book was released. My mother is an African American writer, so Toni Morrison was immediately important. I was around seven or eight when I picked up The Bluest Eye; the words were impressive, and a few characters sounded like people in my family and community. As I grew older, I read the books again and formed a deeper understanding of the concepts.
About a month before Dr. Morrison's passing, the documentary The Pieces I Am was released in theaters. As soon as I saw the trailer in my social media newsfeed, I immediately ordered two advance tickets for for my mom and me on opening day. Witnessing Toni Morrison on screen talking about her inspiration and process made me want to read everything again. At the time of her passing, I had just re-read The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, Beloved, and Song of Solomon. I was (and still am) in the middle of Jazz. It has been a delightful journey to read these novels as an adult, escaping into worlds of complex characters with unpredictable stories.
I shared with my colleagues that I had recently been re-reading Toni Morrison books, shortly before her passing. Several of them mentioned that they also read her books and a couple were fans.
Quite frankly, I was surprised. I selfishly believed that Toni was near and dear to African Americans only – it hadn’t occurred to me that she was special to other people too. Even though I have three children who read Toni Morrison in high school, I assumed it was because they attended a progressive high school in the Bay Area. Until this point, I had a blind spot about her impact and I wanted to know more.
So, I did what any employee at a startup would do when they want more information – I sent out a brief survey to find out what my co-workers knew about Toni Morrison.
21 people responded and here’s what I learned:
- Everyone was born after her first book was released
- 11 of the folks read Beloved
- 8 have read The Bluest Eye
- A handful read Song of Solomon and Sula
- 5 people have not read any of her books
- Only 2 people had not heard of her prior to her passing
They grew up in a range of places: Colorado, Northern California, Southern California, New York, Texas, Wisconsin. Even Canada. For many, Beloved was assigned reading in high school and left an impression.
“Toni Morrison was a cornerstone of my high school English classes. I remember how enamored my high school teacher was with Beloved, and she was determined we understand, love, and appreciate her writing too.”
“Like so many, I first read Toni Morrison in high school. Beloved was so different from most books I had ever read, and drastically different from what I was being taught to write. I wondered why we had to produce such tame, predictable, five-paragraph essays when writing like this existed in the world. Toni Morrison’s death is an enormous loss, but her books are an ever-present gift, and now would be a good time for us to revisit them.”
“We read Beloved in my 9th grade English class. It was so beautifully written, engaging, and a wonderful text to learn so many fundamental literacy skills from.”
“The first Morrison novel I read was Beloved during my junior year of high school. The book captivated and disturbed me at the same time; her writing painted a picture of American history that couldn’t be ignored and stirred up some of the strongest female characters I'd ever encountered. I started picking up her other works and found them each to be riveting and edifying, each in their own way. Her ability to bring to life American narratives – both past and present – is unparalleled, and I’m so grateful for the legacy she leaves behind.”
Others were drawn to her writing independently and were also deeply impacted:
“One of my favorite Toni Morrison moments was watching Fran Lebowitz interview her at the NYC Public Library during her press tour for A Mercy. I had just read the book and found I couldn’t leave the world she created. My mind was steeped in the hopes and dreams of these vivid characters. And there she was on the stage, fielding these irreverent questions (I didn't know the depths of their long-standing friendship) with grace and 360 perspective on the human condition. Morrison was a true journeywoman, traversing one of the broadest stretches of human experience I have ever found in a writer.”
“She taught me how to love – myself, others, and more. She taught me how to fly. She’s influenced how I think about the need for diverse educators in our schools. Her novels allowed me to escape life when I needed to the most. I am thankful for her and how much she inspired countless folks, especially black womxn.”
“Before this week, I was generally familiar with Toni Morrison, but hadn’t actually read any of her work. It seems like many people read her work as part of high school or college courses, but that wasn’t the case for me. The news of her passing and the conversations about her prolific writings (both at Landed and elsewhere in my life) inspired me to begin reading her works. I picked up God Help the Child at the airport on the day she passed, and it was the second-to-last copy of any of her books left on the shelves. I am about halfway through, and definitely plan to work my way through her writing going forward.”
I had already graduated from high school when Beloved was released, and it won the Pulitzer Prize after I finished college. Therefore, the books that I was assigned to read in high school were often difficult to read (like Shakespeare) and not necessarily connected to everyday human experiences. Toni Morrison’s novels created space for contemporary fiction in classrooms around the world.
Yes, she is important to African Americans. Equally as important, she showed the world that the African American experience is the American experience. Morrison’s writing gave other writers permission to write about whatever their hearts desired, using their most compelling and eloquent language. She encouraged people to use the broadest strokes of their imagination and not shy away from including the pieces of themselves when telling their tales.
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