“Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.”
—Toni Morrison- Beloved, 1987
Earlier this week, I had one of those days when everything stopped for me. The Queen of the English language had died. Born Chloe Ardella Wofford, Toni Morrison was America’s most celebrated literary artist. In 1993 she became the first Black woman to win the Noble Prize in Literature. Her accolades are numerous. Her career was amazing, but my attachment to Toni Morrison feels personal. No, I never met her (although I did speak with her on the telephone once), but through her novels, I felt like she was speaking directly to me.
There are many Black women writers who gave voice to my concerns and identities —Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, Dorothy West, and Alice Childress are but a few. But, no one had the command of language Toni Morrison did. Her powerful use of language and understanding of the challenge of Blackness in the midst of the most virulent racism and White supremacy spoke to the nation and the world in ways few others could. James Baldwin was a literary genius but he rarely spoke directly to the double bind of race and gender. Toni Morrison knew me from the inside out.
As soon as it was published in 1977, I began reading “Beloved.” It is not a long book — a mere 275 pages — but it took me a long time to finish it. Every evening I would come home from work and sit down to read it. It was so heavy, so soul-shattering, and so disturbing that I could only process a chapter or two at a time. For someone who reads tons of books every year, this was new. I had breezed through “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Tar Baby”. I loved every book, but “Beloved” was something altogether different. Morrison dedicated it to “Sixty Million and More” and every conscious Black person knows who those 60 million and more were.
In 1989 the Michigan Quarterly Review published her University of Michigan lecture, “Unspeakable things unspoken: The Afro-American presence in American literature” and Morrison once again rocked the world. Her critique of the American literary canon spoke to all of the ways racism pervades every aspect of American life. Her words so energized and challenged me that I began to re-think much of what I was writing. At that time I was finishing up data collection on a study that would result in my first book. I was also writing articles about “multicultural education” but something was disturbing me about what I was attempting to argue. Morrison’s unflinching look at race and White supremacy woke me out of the academic sleepwalking that had become a part of “playing the game.” If one of the best writers in the world could call out race, I could at least begin to explore it in my scholarship.
From the moment I began writing about “Critical Race Theory” (1995) I have quoted Morrison. From the time I began teaching about race and racism in education, I have required students to read Morrison (especially, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination, 1992) and watch a portion of her PBS interview with Bill Moyers (1990). Watching her do what she does with the English language blew my students’ minds. “How did she think of that?” “Who knew you could create such eloquence with English?” “I feel so inadequate listening to her!” These were just a few of my graduate students’ comments. I knew exactly how they felt. When I truly discovered Toni Morrison I came to realize she had ALL the words!
Rest in peace and power, our beautiful Literary Queen!