TONI TONI TONI: ON THE DEATH OF A SHERO
By Kierna Mayo
August 9, 2019
The news first came by way of a ticker. In slow motion it dragged across the screen: AUTHOR…TONI…MORRISON…DEAD…AT…88. There was a slight delay in my processing. The TV said what it said, but the synapses refused. I’ve experienced this a few times before, times when certain information is more than the brain wants to know and emotion is too far away to access.
I just sat there. I was pinned to the edge of my bed, rock still, holding that huge fact like the bag of cinder blocks it was. When my friend Jamilah called, it broke the stillness. Lifted the weight.
The whimper in her voice made me cry.
And right there, me and my girl, through our iPhones, we folded into each other. I can’t explain it. It’s an existential, spiritual combustion thing that happens when the moans and the tears, when the loss and the hope, when the pain and the pride of Black women spontaneously intertwine. When things said and unsaid bind us in the deepest of ways. It is about a knowing. This time it happened when two or more gathered in her name.
Her name was Toni Morrison.
Imagine that a Black girl child was born in a steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio in 1931, a time when Camay soap cost six cents a bar, good girls wore skirts, and, of course, Negroes couldn’t sit with the other folk, or vote. Imagine that this girl child had the kind of imagination that might one day set yours free. (A Black girl child, for God’s sake!) Now, beloved, imagine this girl with all that thick hair and tawny skin and smart mouth — a mouth with so much memory inside it that once she became a woman, she would write The Bluest Eye, The Song of Solomon and…Beloved. Imagine that these works (and many, many others) would be so profound, so soul-stirring that they’d cement her as what Margaret Busby affirmed in the 1992 anthology Daughters of Africa, “a novelist of undisputed international stature.”
Yes, this was Toni Morrison; the Black girl child born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, who later became the BlackWomanStoryteller, snatch the Pulitzer Prize and become the first African American woman to lay claim to the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Can you imagine?
It didn’t take long before the cadre of Black women on social media started the wave, the contagious, flowing and still-widening sacred circle of sorrow and celebration. It was time to remember the legacy of Toni Morrison and bear witness to the countless ways in which she gave us life. Noteworthy and everyday Black women and men across generations mourned and rejoiced together. The posts from around the country and the world were magical little markers, each etching her name deeper and deeper in the Universe. An evidentiary fact: before Toni Morrison belonged to everyone, she belonged to us.
It’s only been three full days, but in the wake of Toni Morrison’s transition to ancestor, I must consider the luxurious Black Girl Magic manifestations that we younger generations of Black women sometimes take for granted: all the Black feminist scholarship, the hot girl summers, the radical storytelling and activism and politicking that blesses our timelines and extends community and grants validation whether we like it or not. I consider all the sex positivity, the Professional Black Girlism, the movements of Me Too, the Black-Women-Only FB groups, and food and travel and book clubs. I consider that we have never lived in a world without the very fact of Toni Morrison.
“The Towering Novelist of the Black Experience,” as the New York Times rightly remembered her, is our reminder that before these spaces, before these Black women-carved modern places in time, we were still so brilliant and so valiant. Morrison’s life and legacy of unparalleled race and gender work (that’s what it was) is the evidence that we Black women were always worthy of collective creativity and companionship — not to mention commerce. Even her personal life, as a young divorced single mother of two boys, Harold and Slade (who died in 2010) — and as a woman who once lived in a boathouse on the Hudson River — was a reminder to do us; to live free or die trying.
Of course, Morrison was part of a generation of Black women writers who unselfishly gifted the legion of aspiring Black women writers to follow with the unflinching narrative of us. They are the ones who changed the course of American literature. They sold millions of books talking Black girl talk. They created the lane.
“Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Gayl Jones and Morrison all directed their unwavering gazes on subject matters previously marginalized in literature — black women and their worlds,” wrote Danielle Taylor-Gutherie in Conversations with Toni Morrison.
It is Morrison above all, though, who will remain quote-worthy for the ages. In addition to her masterful prose, whenever she so bothered, she gave such good interview. She once frankly told Hilton Als in The New Yorker that being a Black woman writer is “richer than being a white male writer. Because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
“Being a Black woman writer…doesn’t limit my imagination, it expands it,” she made plain. A recent documentary on her life, “Pieces of Me” bares more evidence of this fundamental life philosophy and teaching.
Already remembrances of Morrison are chock filled with delicious things she’s said or written from every decade of her adult life. Most everyone has a favorite Toni Morrison quote. Among this writer’s is a rather simple testimony she shared with Betty Jean Parker in 1979: “Anything I have ever learned of any consequence, I have learned from Black people. I have never been bored by any Black person, ever…”
I know that’s right, Toni.
Somehow I missed all of the impromptu gatherings that happened in Toni Morrison’s name in New York over the past few days, so Jamilah and I — bound as we are by the history and future of Black women writers — are going to host something public in her honor, too. The emotions are still raw, maybe it’s a writer thing, but I’m truly looking forward to having drinks and talking shit with some pretty Black people who loved the remarkable woman as I did.
The mourners among us, especially the lost and found Black women dreamers, thinkers, writers, lovers, fighters, bitches, witches, Pecolas, Sulas, seers and be-ers will gather to say, simply, thank you. We together will bear witness and know that Toni Morrison lived 88 good years, and that that is longevity. And then, we also understand that her earthly time here was only a portion of her story. “Language alone is a meditation,” the writer famously said in her 1993 Nobel Prize address. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Alas, through the omnipotent power of words, Toni Morrison was here before long she was here. And it is through the power of such words that she has made herself immortal.