When Toni Morrison died, there was an outpouring of tributes. People wrote beautifully about the impact of her work, the strength of her character, the power of her insight. The tweets were amazing from President Barack Obama to local librarians.
As the love and mourning swirled, I was impressed by how much of the dialogue centered Black voices. Toni Morrison would have been proud. A quote of hers circulated: “Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination. It expands it.” A video of her went viral — in it, a white reporter asks when she’ll write “substantially” about white people and Toni Morrison responds with, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?”
This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative. When you switch from the “usual” perspective of the white man to a marginalized, silenced, and ignored black woman, history changes. Our understanding of what it means to be an American, a lover and love interest, and simply a human — they all shift.
This is an author who for the entirety of her career showed what it was to not just center black women but how that choice reframes the entire American narrative.
The power of this experience is exponential. If you’re part of the group that is rarely centered, you can see yourself in a whole new light. You can value and love yourself in ways you didn’t know were possible, or even know you were missing. You can suddenly perceive all the previously invisible ways you were ignored, taught your experiences didn’t matter, and led to believe your perspective was wrong.
And if you’re not in the newly-centered group, there’s much to learn as well. I am not a white man so I don’t know what is to have the whole world structured to uplift my perspectives, preferences, and power. But I do have many privileges, fair skin among them. As such, reading and studying Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. They’ve taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.
I was shocked when I got to college that other people read books like The Color Purple in high school. They were assigned books by and about black people? Gay black people? We did not have that. My high school was over a third Latinx but the only time I can remember reading an assigned book about the Latinx experience was Bless Me Ultima. It’s a good book. But it was the only one. I’m wracking my brain, trying to remember if we were ever assigned anything written by a black author. I don’t think so. We certainly never read anything from the LGBTQ perspective (or disabled for that matter).
Toni Morrison has shaped my view of the world and made me a better person. [She] taught me to listen, to question, to demand more of myself and others but that change wasn’t instant.
Now I’m a nerd from a nerd family (including a Chicano-studies professor dad and a woman’s history professor mom), so I read lots of great books. I remember being so impressed by Rain of Gold as a teenager and even, upon my dad’s recommendation, selecting Beloved for my independent book report project junior year. I don’t think my (white) teacher had read it. I certainly didn’t talk to her about Beloved. High school was not where you discussed books like those, at least not where I went
College, of course, was different. And not just because I could take classes like “Women Writers” and “Chicana History” but also because the experiences of black and brown people (including women!) made their way into the general curriculum. I took a class called “Literary Masters” and we just read Faulkner and Morrison. The power of telling kids of all backgrounds that these two voices are at the top of their craft, their ideas are in conversation, was monumental. The professor may have liked both authors equally, but I think I speak for all my classmates when I say Toni Morrison won. Her words, her moral authority, her characters sang in a way Faulkner’s don’t. Yes, they both earned the Nobel Prize in literature, but Morrison had to overcome so much more, be so much more excellent, to get it.
I was lucky to discover and fall in love with Morrison in school but I didn’t stop learning from her once I got my degree. After graduating, I stayed in dialogue around Toni Morrison’s work, part of a three-person book club (me, my favorite professor who just happened to be an esteemed Morrison scholar, and my roommate/fellow English major) who read literary theory and Morrison’s new works (as I said, I am a nerd). In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic. In that role, I call for more and better representation of women of color, insisting we’d get better art and a better society if we diversified who we listen to.
In addition to grappling with her work and words, letting them challenge and inspire me, I also tried to emulate her example. I became an activist, a cultural critic.
Toni Morrison may not have written with me, a white-passing Latina, in mind. I am not the person most affected by her work or her legacy. I’m not even in that group. But I learned so much from reading her and learning how others read her. I am grateful that she did the hard work of becoming a writer, of insisting her words mattered, of valuing herself and those in her community.
She did so much for us. Let us honor her by using the space she created to push for more. More space. More voices. More black women at the center of it all.