Toni Morrison the Revolutionary
I loved Toni Morrison long before I read a word she’d written.
Her life was an epic poem, a love poem written to African Americans — and by extension to all of humanity.
She wrote from the intimacy of deep-in-the-bone knowledge. It was knowledge that she learned first at the feet of her parents and other family members. She listened, and she watched, and she carried their words with her. She saw too the ghosts who would follow her into her stories. She was a witness, a woman who traveled through centuries to bring us to us.
Resistance and resilience were stitched in her marrow.
She was a revolution.
Toni Morrison was an editor. And then she wrote. She taught and gave speeches. And she wrote. She did literary criticism and children’s books with her son, Slade. The Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Laureate, the President’s Medal of Freedom, these were some of the awards she collected along the way.
Maybe it was the fact that I read Song of Solomon early, by 20, I think it was. At some point I started reading Solomon every couple of years, from my late 20s all through my 30s. The Bluest Eye was the first Morrison book I’d read. Sula was the next, then Song of Solomon. I read them all, loved some far more than others. Beloved. God. Seth, Denver, Paul D. I watched the woman walk out of the water into their lives. I knew it would be bad — this ghost, hungry for everything that had been stolen — but I didn’t know that it would also be so beautiful, a beautiful-ugly-consuming thing.
I read the Nobel speech, and when it was released in a small red book I bought a copy. There have been times when I have carried it with me when I have spoken to students about writing, have pulled it from my stack of papers and held it up like a light. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
She seemed fearless. Unafraid, she was, to take measure. Politics did not frighten her. It was, she said, a part of her responsibility. The Clintons, the Obamas and, yes, Trump. It was as much her job to be political as it was her job to write. For her, being political was as natural as writing — an act of love.
I knew that one day she would die. I even wondered what it would be like to have to live on this planet without her. There is no more wondering of course.
I got a polite “no” from her once. I was editing a special edition of The Washington Post magazine. It was for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A lovely idea, her spokesman emailed me, but she was too busy. We didn’t have any slouches for the magazine: Rep. John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Alexander and Ken Burns all contributed, but Morrison would have been an incredible addition.
Certainly Morrison stands on her own feet. Resistance and resilience stood up in her bones. But when I hold her light in my hands, I see James Baldwin too.
“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it?” she said during Baldwin’s funeral in 1987. “How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wilderness for me? … You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love?”
This is her courage, the spirit of her love. Look deeper still and there sits Paule Marshall and Frederick Douglass and Margaret Walker Alexander and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and W.E.B. DuBois, and, and, and. They are all there in the palm of her hand. Not to mention those who knew the power of her pen, who benefited directly from her brilliance.
We are all there, standing in resistance and resilience.
She was a revolution. And I loved her before she ever wrote a word.
— Marcia Davis