In Memoriam

Toni Morrison Told the Story of America

Morrison died Tuesday at the age of 88. Her life was not just the American dream; it was the inherent impossibility of the Black American dream made real.

by Britt Julious
08 August 2019, 5:37am

Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images

Toni Morrison is free from this earth, but she was free long before this moment, too. To look back at Morrison’s life is to look back at a dream fulfilled, a life made possible. Throughout 11 solo books, numerous children’s books, scores of essays, plays, and even a libretto, Morrison embodied the possibility of Black artistry and freedom.

Morrison‘s life was not just the American dream; it was the supposedly inherent impossibility of the Black American dream made real. Her righteous deconstructions of America are now the backbone of contemporary American literature. The lesson—both in her words and in her life—is that all of this can be yours. Toni was and is America written.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 to a working-class family in the Lorain, Ohio, Morrison converted to Catholicism at age 12 and took on the baptismal name of Anthony, or “Toni” (her eventual pen name) for short. Storytelling was at the very root of her life. From a young age, Morrison’s parents shared the vibrant tradition of Black American folk tales and singing with her. It was likely this ritual of narrative that imbued Morrison with a love of words, and later, a need to write.

After receiving an undergraduate degree from the celebrated HBCU Howard University in 1953 and a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955, Morrison briefly taught before embarking on a career as a publishing editor. In 1967, she became the first Black woman senior editor in fiction at Random House, working with such celebrated Black writers and public figures as Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton.

Perhaps it was Morrison’s life well-lived that made her work so immediately impactful. She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, at the age of 39. By then, she had married and divorced, and had two kids along the way. The novel, about a young, Black American girl named Pecola, who is bullied and demeaned by the people around her for her mannerisms and dark skin, immediately struck a chord in audiences. It struck a chord in me, too.

Reading Toni Morrison is a rite of passage for a particular type of Black girlhood, one built on the purpose of rising above while still very much entrenched in the recesses of white supremacy. My mother gave me a copy of The Bluest Eye during late elementary school. Days before, I rode home from school, my mother driving, on the brink of tears.

“Do you think my nose is big?” I asked her.

“Why are you asking me that?” she replied.

Because two girls at my school, one white and one Black, told me so, I said. “They said it made me ugly.”

She pulled the car over, turned off the engine, and paused for a moment before she said, “Your lips and nose are like my own. And you don’t think I’m ugly, do you?”

I didn’t. How could I? But something began to register in me, an observation and confusion and resignation of the world at large. Never before had I doubted myself. But my mother knew it would come and with it, a trove of questions about my worth in the world. Who was I to doubt what the rest of the world told me?

The Bluest Eye, for all of its darkness (including rape and incest) was very much a lesson in the false ideas of society, how they diminish and demean, how they cast people aside. You are not alone in this fight against hatred, Morrison said. But also, it is far from over. Reading The Bluest Eye is an affirmation that the world is this cruel, but people's cruelty lies in their self-hatred. It must.

Morrison was a master of words as much as she was a truth-teller. The truth of America resides in its ugliness. It is not free and never has been, at least not for those of us perpetually left on its fringes. This idea was never as clear as in later books like Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987), her best-known masterpiece. Based on the story of Margaret Garner, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a Black American slave who escaped to freedom with her daughter, Denver. A revenant haunts their new home. Sethe believes the ghost is her first-born child who she killed after her master found her during her escape.

It is a story of mothers and daughters, of the remnants of slavery, of how the trauma of the past can trap us. That it became her best-known work, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, is no surprise. Beloved is as much a ghost story as it is an unmasking of the core of America. What we were defines where we are. To pretend the past never happened is to keep us confined and immobile. We are either running away from what haunts us (like two of Sethe’s children did in the book) or unable to fully develop into actualized beings (like Sethe’s youngest daughter, Denver).

Morrison proved the specific is universal. For too long did the words of straight white men define the stories of America. Literature, like history, is made by the victors. What is right and what is worthy is defined by those with the firmest grip on power. Morrison’s success became a direct challenge to this notion.

There are Black girls who dream big now because Toni showed them it was possible. Temperate dreams are the death of beauty. What art is born from a dream deferred? Morrison was the living embodiment of a life fulfilled. Who could us Black girls be if our visions are seen as a gift instead of a curse? Who could us Black girls be if our art bore the fruit of a creative mind uninhibited and unburdened by the limitations of our bodies and the world around us?

Morrison was a gift for those of us of a certain age, for as long as we existed, so too did the impact of her words. Her legacy was written on her very first line and grew with each subsequent word. Here lies a snapshot of America, of Black womanhood, of the body. And in these snapshots, we see the truth. It is not clean and masculine and almighty. No, it is messy and unforgiving and righteously brutal.

Morrison strove for an impact, something showing her life and work mattered. In thinking of Morrison, I think about the immediacy of her legacy and how the work she created was imbued with natural storytelling that underlined the truth of it all. There was a sense of urgency in what she created, meaning the words were as much hers as they were our own. The stories she began to tell then were not just stories born out of that brilliant mind. No, they were stories—the Blackness, the dark Americana—that define the history of this country. She gave truth to history, real history, the kind of history we often like to say is just a fraction—and not the defining elements—of our past and present.

Her words are a dedication to a reimagined Black future, one truly free, one unburdened by the trauma of her history. A better world is not one that is born out of the false tales we tell. Morrison understood inherently the importance of creating art that, no matter how fantastical or horrifying or mysterious, was underwritten with the truth. That is why her words were so profoundly affecting. She cut through to the heart of the matter. This is our legacy, she said. Now what will we do with this?

This article originally appeared on VICE US.