I was first introduced to Toni Morrison’s work in a college class called “Faulkner, O’Connor, and Morrison.” I think this was fall of my senior year, so this would have been in 1990. What I do know is that I still consider this class one of the most pivotal courses I ever took. I loved it and I loved my professor, one of several greats in our English department.
Faulkner didn’t do much for me. I couldn’t stand him and his long-winded narrative, to tell you the truth. I was thrilled when we moved on to Flannery O’Connor. Now she was the real deal. I loved her immediately, devoured everything she wrote, and still count her among my very favorite authors.
And then there was Toni Morrison. In that class we read The Bluest Eye, her first novel; Sula; Tar Baby; and Beloved which had just won the Pulitzer Prize a year prior. A few years later, in 1993, Toni Morrison would become the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s something special to realize you’re reading a classic writer in real time.
Reading Toni Morrison was an experience. A majority of the students in our class — and indeed, at the private, liberal arts, Catholic college in suburban Philadelphia that I attended — were white. There were some racial tensions happening on campus during that time, so reading Toni Morrison concurrently gave everything an added context, a deeper resonance.
At the time of that college class, Morrison’s work was completely new to me. I remember feeling very reverent about it. (I still do.) Like I had a moral obligation to read her words and truly feel what she was telling us about the experiences of our classmates. It made us understand what they were saying and protesting in a way I’ll never forget. In that sense, her books did what great literature does: introduce readers to a different world or experience than one’s own. That was certainly the case for us. It was powerful. A few months ago, when I read God Help the Child, I felt that same reverence again.
Her work is timeless. Just like it had relevance for my world 30 years ago, it has relevance for our world today.
Here are some of my favorite Toni Morrison quotes:
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” (from Song of Solomon)
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens — that letting go — you let go because you can.” (from Tar Baby)
Rest in peace, Toni Morrison. Thank you for the gift of your words.
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