Attempting to gather thoughts on Toni Morrison and her legacy I mentally cautioned myself to avoid being hyperbolic. But then I realized it’s not hyperbole when someone was a genius, a luminary, and a sage.
I first read Morrison as an undergraduate English major at a small state school in very white Utah. I knew she was an author I ought to read, and also an author I wanted to read. That school had no African Americanist in the English department but it did have a very flexible Honors department. I asked a (white, male) professor if I could do an independent study with him on Morrison’s works.
Looking back, I realize that probably he too thought Morrison was a writer he ought to read, and also an author he wanted to read, so we both dove in. We read her entire oeuvre to that point, in order of publication, from The Bluest Eye to Jazz. We also read her monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Her work challenged me and startled me. It was hard and magnificent in equal measure. Her work expanded my mind and it changed me.
Morrison represents the world in unexpected ways in her works. The Bluest Eye asks you to consider whether a rape of a dark-skinned child can also represent the only love that child receives and uncovers a world so full of loathing for dark skin the protagonist literally goes mad. Sula and Jazz force you to reconsider betrayal. Paradise questions what utopia really looks like but also asks you to consider why you’re so invested in who the white girl is. Song of Solomon reframes reality. Playing in the Dark was the first work of literary criticism I read and it shaped everything I understand about American literature and culture. Beloved … there aren’t enough words right now to unpack what Beloved does or says or means to the world so for now I’ll seize on the novel’s fierce, unforgiving depiction of mother-love, above all else and within the ravages of slavery.
So what is there to say about Toni Morrison other than thank you? A great light has gone out of the world. The work remains.