It was during the fall semester of 1989. My senior year of college that I read Beloved. The powerful, intense, emotional, gut wrenching Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Toni Morrison. I remember the class discussions that took place in my African American Literature course that were deeply infected with passion, emotion and a degree of heightened anticipation as to what sort of comment(s) fellow students would espouse. The commentary that occurred during discussion of that novel were among the most provocative of my undergraduate career.
A few months short of 30 years later, the incomparable Ms. Morrison has departed this earth at the age of 88. The void that has been left in the literary world is immensely less complete. Not since the death of James Baldwin, (I was much younger then), had I felt such a profound loss toward a writer. It is hard, in fact, virtually impossible to wholly describe the indescribable impact that Toni Morrison had on both, the literary world and the larger society in general.
The first Black American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in literature. The author of 11 novels, in addition to children’s books and numerous essays collections. Her work has been read, critiqued by high school, undergraduate and graduate students. Professors, both domestically and internationally have eagerly and passionately employed and recited her work in their courses. She has been a routine topic (and will likely continue to be) at academic literary conferences and her books are a mainstay in book clubs and on best sellers list. Indeed, very few authors of any genre have achieved or accomplished such a level of notoriety.
Upon her death last week, the tributes were plentiful, unanimously and (at least from what I read), universally laudatory. There was no mistaking that the soulful, revolutionary voice of a literary giant had been silenced. Her’s was one of the most important cultural voices ever. She was a person of dazzling wit, razor sharp intellect, boundless creativity and formidable epistolary skills. She was compared to William Shakespeare, James Joyce, William Faulkner and a few other literary legends. While there is no doubt that she was undoubtedly influenced, to some degree, by certain authors, just as many of today’s writers have been by her, the undisputed truth is that was only one Toni Morrison.
While many readers were more attuned to her fantastic works of fiction (as spellbinding as they are), I was always more enthralled with her non-fiction and academic essays. Unlike many writers, perhaps due to her life experiences, pedigree and background, she did not shy away from engaging in deeply controversial subjects that a number of authors (including some Black ones) were/have been fearful, or at the very least, apprehensive of venturing into.
Frank, forceful, fearless and without apology, Morrison deftly and eloquently described, detailed and dissected the undeniable impositions, indignities and injustices that had and are still being perpetrated upon Black Americans. Without hesitation, she informed Americans as well as the entire world of the rich, abundant and bountiful history of people of African descent. In all aspects of her work, she unabashedly recounted the wanton violence, brutal barbarity and pervasive psychological perversity that has been an ongoing staple of American culture as it relates to its citizens of color, in particular, Black Americans
Toni Morrison beautifully showcased the vibrant rhymes and audacious rhythms of the Black experience. A group of people who are largely (this is still primarily the case) viewed condescendingly by many in mainstream America and are still not acknowledged as fully human in some racially hostile, retrograde communities.
Her writings transmitted the unambiguous message to Black people, that despite hyper and abject levels of societal marginalization due to centuries of political, social, economic and to large degree psychological disenfranchisement, that they too,(especially Black women) were beautiful, intelligent, resilient, cultured and accomplished. Moreover, she did so with unmistakable and unapologetic candor. While her unapologetic bluntness garnered the ire of certain Whites, not even her most ardent detractors (and there were some), particularly on the conservative right, could abnegate the undisputed and unalterable truths deeply etched in the pages of in her writings.
Despite her immense pride for Black culture, Morrison did not hesitate to discuss the conflicts and internal, in house conflicts that plagued the Black community itself. Skin color, class issues, religious preferences, sexism, sexual politics and others dynamics that have consistently roiled the Black community and Morrison, with her keen precision, occasional biting sarcasm and humorous wit, fearlessly addressed such issues. Such pensive commentary caused segments of the Black community to engage in some serious reflection and soul searching.
Indeed, her intuition was so sophisticated that many people eagerly hung on to her every written word even if they failed to comprehend the meaning of her comments. A specific case in point is when Ms. Morrison referred to former president Bill Clinton as “our first Black president.” Upon this revelation, individuals of all ethnic groups and across the social and political spectrum readily embraced Morrison’s words believing that she attributed such a remark to Clinton’s seemingly affinity for various aspects of Black culture.
His ability to play the saxophone. His fondness for soul food etc.….. For the record, many White people, in particular, White southerners, which Bill Clinton is, love and consume soul food on a regular basis. His deep admiration of soul music, (he adored Aretha Franklin) and other trappings of Black culture.
Years later, Morrison made it clear that her remarks had nothing do with any cultural affinity or adaptation, but rather, was referring to the level of intense scrutiny and harassment that the 42nd president underwent. Indeed, Clinton’s frequently controversial tenure in office (some of it of his own doing, i.e.. Monica Lewinsky) mirrored the tumultuous life experiences that more than a few rank and file Black people endure on a regular, if not, daily basis. She was right on target!
Toni Morrison was one of a kind. Her level of talent, intellect, insight, skill and other assets were unparalleled. The ample degree of outpouring of admiration and respect she has received was well deserved. She was a legend during her time on earth. She will be missed but her literary work, legacy and genius lives on. May she rest in peace.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor, author and public speaker. His forthcoming book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America will be published by the University of Chicago Press later this year. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/K/bo40060337.html