James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

BooksCulture

TONI MORRISON: RISE IN LOVE

August 7, 2019
265 Picks

She is all the sea and I have a meager dixie cup.

1. {            }
I approach this moment with my two long hands. I am to write but She Who Gave-Words-Life/Gave-Life-Words has just turned the clasp on her handbag and stepped out. Her footfall grows distant. What to do when our map is also our compass, and she has walked to the other side? Absent any tools of my own, I gather the glory that is our heritage, this gold that she left in her wake.

2. familiar
Just as I raised my phone to call her, my friend Grits, texted a single word.
Toni!
I could hear it. Her name is a consuming scream — alla that Mississippi in her inflection, a choked back tear, a dam that threatens to burst. One word. Absent true names we edge away from long titles for our monarchy and for our saints.

Per August Wilson, we do everything differently. Our reverence looks real familiar. A single name will do.

Think on them.

Just call their names.

Aretha
Gwendolyn
Audre
Octavia
Dexter
Dizzy
Ella
Michael
Medgar
Langston
Luther
Whitney
James
Marvin
Donny
Martin
Fannie
Malcolm
Minnie
Ossie
Ruby
Max
Prince
Dinah
Sassy
Mahalia
Zora
Ntozake
Jimmy

Family. They are our Beloved and we are theirs.

The egun, our ancestors, constitute a number that cannot be numbered.

3. Read!
My first thought was an emphatic instruction. Take this thirst and your dust-dry bucket to the well. I grasped for her words and hear them being read by Avery Brooks. I am confident that Roger Robinson is taking the first shift in the mirrored reading up yonder.

She had wrapped herself up in an old quilt instead of a winter coat. Her head cocked to one side, her eyes fixed on Mr. Robert Smith, she sang in a powerful contralto:

O Sugarman done fly away
Sugarman done gone
Sugarman cut across the sky
Sugarman gone home
– Song of Solomon

Beah got next.

4. facts and truth
Born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, to a family that came north in the Great Migration that brought great numbers of African Americans from the rural south to power the cities of the Rust Belt. Amongst the lessons learned living through Reconstruction-era terrorism was the wisdom that literacy and education were to be treasured and protected. Small wonder that Wofford would become Toni, whose name has me thinking Read!

Educated at Howard University, where she was known as Toni, a diminutive of her middle name, Morrison’s wit and imagination and improvisatory capacity remain her defining characteristics in the minds of her classmates. It was at Howard, where she studied literature and explored the possibility of theater, that Morrison began work in the first of her three vocations, as an educator. There, too, she met and married her husband with whom she had two sons.

Without a doctorate, Morrison’s teaching career reached a plateau. A classified ad for an editing position at a publisher in upstate New York would open the door for Morrison, now a divorced mother of two, to segue to her second calling. Morrison relocated her family to New York City when her employer was acquired by Random House and she was offered a position there.

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” – O, the Oprah Magazine (November 2003)

5. something like Easy Mo Bee & Primo
For lack of a better comparison, when it comes to the American literary canon, Toni Morrison, the editor, was Premier and Easy Mo Bee; which is to say, she constitutes a line in the sand, she is the innovator that defines a before and an after.

For nearly two decades, Toni Morrison, the editor, engineered a transformation of American letters that parallels the imprimatur of hip-hop’s genius producers. She acquired and published the books of Black authors whose mastery of language and form might have been otherwise overlooked. She edited Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas and Angela Davis, together with the miracle that is The Black Book.

During these years, while broadening the concept of what Black letters might be with her editorial list, Toni Morrison wrote and published three novels. The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973) and Song of Solomon (1977). She handled the language for Black folks’ sake.

6.
Memory is holy and shared history is a sacrament. What a joy and what a weight it is to be here, Black, now with you.

7. The Black Book
A magnificent volume that defies description, The Black Book is the crown jewel of Toni Morrison’s editorial career. In it, we find our receipts, gathered and reproduced without comment or caption. It is an assemblage of otherwise hidden things, a catalogue of the seemingly impossible — including an etching of Ruth Lowery, a Black woman entrepreneur who founded a mid-nineteenth-century silk industry in Huntsville, Alabama. While the words are remarkable, it is the image of Lowery that reminds me of Morrison’s prescience. She saw us transforming and determined to fix her gaze on our essence so that it would not be lost to time nor any more sinister force.

Here is a snap shot. Names and dates are on the back. Keep it safe. You’re going to need it.

“There has to be a mode to do what the music did for blacks, what we used to be able to do with each other in private and in that civilization that existed underneath the white civilization. I am not explaining anything to anybody. My work bears witness and suggests who the outlaws were, who survived under what circumstances and why, what was legal in the community as opposed to what was legal outside it. All that is in the fabric of the story in order to do what music used to do. The music kept us alive, but it’s not enough anymore. My people are being devoured.”

A search for other books by the four people listed as the authors of The Black Book turns up nothing, but the acknowledgements hint at a collaboration of epic and unusual proportion. Amongst the names hailed therein are several people with the surname Wofford (birth family, blood) and the polymath that is Vertamae Grosvenor. I picture Vertamae and Toni poring over proofs, two Black woman genius heads being better than one.

8. chapter
Where I come from, “Too nuff” is the expression reserved for a woman, a force of Toni Morrison’s magnitude. It is what it sounds like, too enough. Patwa allows for the concept of excess sufficiency, too much of enough.

When a matter is closed Jamaicans say, “Chapter!”

Toni Morrison shifted language and, in so doing, moved heaven and earth. Nobody will ever write like that again. Not a soul.

Chapter.

9. benediction
Mother,
May you rise on the wings of your word
Get thee up
Get way up and
SHINE

Imani e Wilson is a writer/musician; a born and-raised around the way girl from Queens, she is invested in arcana and a student of code. Follow her  @downhearbelow

Related