I met Toni Morrison over 30 years ago while I was in college. I doubt that she remembers me. I was shy, and frankly, not as overwhelmed as I might have been. The full power of the woman – the writer – had not dawned on me. I listened to Morrison, as she engaged with the 20 or so women of color in the class room, as we discussed Race, Gender and Discrimination. She struck me as sincere, “real” but not in the least intimidating – just serious, very serious.
Of course, I had read some of her books, because they were required: Beloved, Song of Solomon, Jazz, Sula, and others. Ask most teenagers and young adults how they feel about anything that is required, and well, you might understand how I felt. Morrison is a woman, a Black woman, a disciplined, writer, Professor, Editor, Nobel Prize Winner, Activist, Pulitzer recipient, recipient of many other awards and accolades, and I respected her for all of this, and still, her impact, her truth, her words, still failed to fully reach me.
It was much later, when I became an English Teacher, and taught Morrison for the first time, that the full weight of her power surrounded me. I admit that I had put her down; I had forgotten her. Meantime, Morrison had been getting stronger, reaching into territories not associated with her writing, experimenting, calling out, reaching out, demanding, insisting and speaking raw, difficult truths. I paid attention.
I picked her up as my choice to teach. I re-read her. I returned to her first novel. It floored me. I knew more, had experienced more, and understood more. She brought me to my knees. I cried when I re-read The Bluest Eye (I hide my tears from my students each time we get to the end of the novel). This novel was the gift that my students most deserved. They needed access to their truths. It struck me that I had been paralyzed by fear. This text impacted me, as a Black woman living in the United States, more than ever other text. It speaks to my soul, my world, my being. How would I introduce it to my students, revealing its tensions, its sadness, its marvel and its artistry? How could I fully honor this incredible novel? How could I make them read it? I framed a curriculum to teach The Bluest Eye (Morrison’s first novel). The most important novel, I believe, for any young person of color to read. In surrounding the text, we read about our history of Slavery, Racism and Colorism. We study the Golden Age of Hollywood. Students are introduced to the Dick and Jane Primer and to Shirley Temple. We discuss America’s definition of ideal beauty. We watch the film, Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner, as well as films featuring Ginger Rogers. We grapple with internalized racism and self-hatred. We read Morrison’s Forward to the novel as a road map to reading and understanding the novel.
Throughout my 15 years of teaching, I have taught the novel at least 4 semesters. I introduce it each semester, by telling my students that it is the greatest gift that I can give them. I also speak to them about my sense of urgency in teaching it. I feared that Morrison would not be with us for very long. She needed to be alive, “present” as we read her novel.
I have had the occasion of seeing her several times since our first encounter, and each time she seemed frailer. She was getting older; she walked with a cane, and although she often read excerpts from her novel(s) to her audience, the voice, to my ears, was less punctuated, perhaps weaker. To me, she still appeared serious, even more so than I remember.
Prompted by one of my colleagues, we went to see the documentary of Morrison’s life before summer break. Part of me hesitated at the invitation. Somehow documentaries speak of the things that were. I did not want Morrison to be someone who had been for me. I wanted to feel her presence as I read her work. I imagined that I asked her questions, and that she answered. I invited my students to also question the author, and imagine what she would say, based on what she had written and what they had interpreted.
Today, as I sit at home, during my break, reflecting on Morrison’s life and works, it is a bittersweet moment. I think about the senseless deaths of so many recently; one young person shot several innocent beings in Morrison’s home state of Ohio. I balance this unimaginable act with the death of Morrison: one life destructive, the other creative.
I sit on my couch, surrounded by her novels, reflecting on what Morrison meant to me. I lean back, and flip through the pages of The Bluest Eye – a deceivingly thin book. I put the book down, and pick up the final paper on this novel, written by one of my students this past term. I utter a low “Yes!” as my tears flow. Gift well received!
I imagine Morrison sitting next to James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou. They are relaxed, less serious, spinning tales that I will never hear or read. I mourn.
I say, “Thank you Toni Morrison for helping me define myself as a Black woman, a teacher, a learner, a reader and of helping my students find their dignity, and define themselves as powerful and remarkable human beings. Thank you for your gifts.”
Marie France Leblanc