what toni morrison taught me about love and death

August 6, 2019
473 Picks

The first time I read Sula I was 13 years old, abandoned by family, and living in a world I fretted might kill me before I figured out how to escape it. I found the tattered copy in a pile of pornographic magazines under the house in which I lived, in Paradise Crescent, Montego Bay. I read it, from cover to cover, in one day.

I loved the book for many reasons. Not only did it present a rambling band of folks who loved each other but often disappointed or betrayed or hurt each other badly, it presented another kind of forever that was different from the romance novels that were the stock reading material for young girls in the ’80s. The friendship between Nel and Sula provided a blueprint on which I could rest my best hopes for deep, unshakable love between Black women. I might also love Sula best because I’m a Black lesbian whose fantasies of the perfect love looks somewhat like the bond between Nel and Sula — plus it gave me an alternate narrative to the heteronormative notion of love. Love didn’t have to be perfect, or without quarrel. It didn’t have to look like the white mainstream romantic stories with their happy endings and a man at its center. If I can love anyone fiercely and without the narrow confines of our worst need to control each other, it is because I read Sula and it burrowed under my skin, and seeped deep into my blood. And for that I remain grateful to the indomitable and incomparable Toni Morrison.

As we acknowledge the loss of a giant in American letters, an icon among women of color, a force in the nature of literary tsunamis, I offer Toni Morrison’s own words as salve for our deep sorrow at her passing.

When she write of Sula’s death, it is nothing short of magic.

She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead. Sula felt her face smiling. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

The transition was surprising. And without pain. It was joyful. Buoyant. And it still existed in the code of friendship. Death did not end friendships. “Wait till I tell Nel.” Death was not a thing of finality. Sula’s didn’t end her friendship/relationship with Nel. Under Morrison’s pen, death was simply another thing to be kept/held — like a secret, til it could be later shared with her friend.

Inside the parameters of this view of death, the sorrow of Morrison’s passing, is ours and ours alone. Toni’s death has released her from the pain of her flesh. She no longer needs painkillers for her arthritis. Or a wheelchair to keep moving. It’s freed her from her very dependence on oxygen, on air. But it does not sever her connection to us. Death, as silent as it feels, still leaves her tethered to us. And how much truer could that be as we look at the breadth of stories she left for us to read and reread? Something in that continued connection resonates with me, the reluctant atheist — wanting desperately to be connected to my fierce loves, even after my body ceases to function, after my pen can no longer mover.

It gives me particular joy to think of her as taken by surprise, off-guard. Something playful is evoked of this very esteemed writer. Something joyful erupts from it. In this context, I’m only left, smiling, giggling even, wondering Toni Morrison couldn’t wait to tell about the beauty of crossing over.

For the rest of us, who are not yet able to access that joy, we can find comfort in seeing ourselves in Nel. Nel, who does not yet know that death is not final. Left behind, and grieving — holding the sorrow of our magical Toni Morrison, leaving, leaving us. We remain perplexed, without anchor, until the sorrow breaks open, pushing us to begin the process of shifting, reordering, re-examining what we thought we knew about her, her characters—forcing us to face our greatest sorrows, to step into to the most surprising, the most beautiful truths about ourselves. Until then, we are trapped in Nel’s lamentation. Today, we hold the final worlds of Sula as litany, muttering them, hard beads on an elegiac rosary…

“All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something. “O Lord, Sula,” she cried, “girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

Poet, actor, and performing artist Staceyann Chin is the author of the  soon to be released Cross Fire: A Litany for Survival and the critically acclaimed memoir The Other Side of Paradise, co-writer and original performer in the Tony Award–winning Russell Simmons “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway”, and author of the one-woman shows “Hands Afire, Unspeakable Things, Border/Clash, and MotherStruck”. She has appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and “60 Minutes”, and her poetry been featured in The New York Times and Washington Post. She proudly identifies as Caribbean, Black, Asian, lesbian, a woman, and a resident of New York City, as well as a Jamaican national.