I learned of her death while driving through Bed Stuy. I saw the first tribute flash across my phone during a quick Instagram scroll at a red light. I recall immediately knowing it was true, that the inevitable had happened. I considered letting out a guttural scream, but my daughter was in the backseat, and I could feel my pre-emptive annoyance at her questions—who was she? Was she our family? Why are you sad? Are you okay?
I also immediately lamented that I couldn’t quote Toni Morrison.
In the days, now weeks, since her death, I have been struck by how little of her writing I can quote, how specific passages of text escape me. I’ve wondered if I could call myself a true lover of Toni Morrison with such a lapse. I considered joining my fellow mourners by Googling quotes from her writing, clips from her interviews. My competitive spirit wanted the clip or quote just familiar enough to be recognized, but obscure enough to communicate the heights of my reverence. But I didn’t. Her words escaped me.
Although, I did summon some often-shared anecdotes. Of her photograph in a red picture frame that rested on the writing desk where I rarely sat to write my dissertation—the photograph that my mom regularly side-eyed on a table absent a photograph of her. Of the three days I spent without showering while reading “Song of Solomon”. Only to get to the last 10 pages, feeling like I couldn’t bear to finish, but that it haunted me so that I could not sleep alone. My 15- year-old self crawling into bed with my mother for some strange comfort. I shared those with a few friends. I did not write them down.
I was a moderately tall, overweight, studious, dark-skinned, nappy (4C)-headed girl from the DC area and an immigrant Sierra Leonean family, a girl who was rarely ever told that she was pretty. Apparently, I was much too smart to want such “praise”. One would think that the Bluest Eye would be how I would “enter” Morrison. As I became more and more a Toni Morrison connoisseur/evangelical, I would self-importantly advise Morrison-curious folks how they should “enter”. I always suggested The Bluest Eye, like every cool high school English teacher that ever was. If I wasn’t going to be a remarkable beauty, I would at least have the intellectual superiority to not be so obvious. I started with Song of Solomon.
By the time I fully delved into the rest of Toni Morrison’s fiction, I was already knee-deep in the finishing school that was Claire Huxtable. I had already mastered the unflappable poise, if not the grace or bouncy hair, of Mrs. Huxtable. By then, I had solidified my overachieving tendencies and was experimenting with a coolness that I would spend my late 30s and early 40s in therapy trying to thaw. So, when I first saw Ms. Morrison on the Oprah Winfrey show and heard her tell those white womenthat their struggle with her writing had little to do with her and it was instead due to their fundamental misunderstanding of what it meant to be literate.
When she said, “That, my dear, is reading,” with all of the bless-your-heart realness; I knew I had found my muse.
I, like those white women, also had to read her pages over and over again. On the first pass, my mind would dance to the melody of her words, and I would get so enraptured I would lose the meaning. I would clear my head and start again, trying to flip the switch to my analytical mind, reading for the meaning. Only to find I had already absorbed it. But rather than complain on national television, I knew that what I had received in every word was an advanced course in radical and unflinching regality— unabashed and unapologetic. It was the cherry on the top of my Black girl sundae.
By the time I had reached my doctoral program, I had banished any desire to write fiction to wherever potentially poorly-paying childhood dreams go to die. I was becoming a scholar and needed to focus on epistemology and such. It was then that I found Toni Morrison’s non-fiction. In those essays on writing, I found the courage to face the vulnerability of staking a claim of earned knowledge, wisdom and expertise. She reminded me of my profound responsibility to use my scholarship to tell the stories I wanted told. She never shamed me for my audacity to attempt to understand her craft. Rather, she seduced me to the keyboard with the fantasy that I might bend the ear of the world towards a deeper understanding of my people like Toni Morrison did.
I’ve spent the last few years either ignoring the urge to write, devising elaborate plans to get back to writing, or putting that energy into some of the most beautiful emails ever written. Despite the many times Toni Morrison brought me closer to my own words, I still cannot recite hers. I likely never will. Yet, she remains my beacon and a consistent reminder of how powerful it can be to not only write profound things but to be the catalyst for Black girls the world over to find their own words.
I could sometimes be a pretentious ass.
That coolness makes it hard to build intimacy in adult relationships. Trust me.
My minor research clarified that it was actually Oprah who told the story to her audience while interviewing Toni Morrison. That’s not how I remember so that’s not how I’m going to tell it.