“If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” -Toni Morrison
Sum-mer, sum-mer, sum-mertime (sing along by a fire hydrant)… Hey Black people (and everyone else.) I hope y’all had a fabulous Juneteenth last week and are thriving and making the ancestors proud. Happy Pride Month! We are a week into the summer solstice! Shout out to all of the graduates and teachers who made it through another year! I love June so much. It’s busy AF but it’s filled with celebration. And I’m hella excited about and proud of the way I brought in the summer. You know why?
Because my friends and I went to see the documentary, The Pieces I Am about none other than Toni thee Morrison: Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, necessary author, thinker, educator and Black woman extraordinaire.
When I heard that there would be a documentary on her life and her work, I had two thoughts:
- FIELD TRIP (yes, I will always think like an educator) and
- What the fuck took so long to give Mrs. Morrison her things?
I’m just gonna jump into it and share the ways that Mrs. Morrison has left her mark on the world as a living legend:
Who You Know This Deep?
“…We speak. We write. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.” – Toni Morrison
Any time someone asks me, “What’s your favorite book?” It’s an easy question but never an easy answer. For me, It’s Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. First of all, that book was everything I never knew I needed and not for the reasons you might think. I never grew up wanting to be White; that shit seemed like a curse. I did want what folks had materialistically at times but never their features or their raggedy ass ways.
But I read that people who read more have more empathy and tend to understand multiple perspectives. It was this book, which I did not read until I was a junior in college (middle fingers up to my wack ass K-12 education that hid this gem from me), that made me realize so clearly that nothing is ever black and white but everything is Black and White.
In the novel, a little Black girl named Pecola Breedlove believes that her life would be better if only she had blue eyes. Morrison discusses in the documentary that this is based on a comment that a girl she knew made about “not believing in God because He didn’t give her blue eyes.” Morrison begins the book the way most books end- by telling you the twist- which is that Pecola is pregnant by her father.
When I read the first page of the book, I was both repulsed and curious. If she reveals such a horrific thing so early on, there must be a lot more to this 206 page book. I was so thankful that I was able to process that book in a class with an amazing professor (shout out to Professor Ulen.) I’m not sure I would’ve been able to grapple with it alone as a 20 year old who, at the time, had very little exposure to Black authors, especially ones who were really getting to the heart of Black American life.
Throughout the novel, I began to understand the Breedloves: Cholly, Pauline and Pecola and despite what happens to Pecola throughout the novel, it is difficult to reduce Cholly to simply a man who rapes his daughter or Pauline (Polly) to a woman who simply values the white child she takes care of over her own daughter and Pecola to a girl who has been abused and is hopeless. That book didn’t allow me to support their choices and behavior but to somehow understand how conditions outside of themselves (i.e. racism, classism) become internalized and lead them to the choices and behavior that cause irreversible and possibly irreparable harm.
Listeeennnn, I needed all of the tissues by the time I finished that book because it hit me at the soul level. I felt something for every single character, especially that final image of Pecola “searching the garbage.” It was a profound connection that made me understand my people, my world and myself in a different way and made me want to examine my own motivations more. Simply put, I couldn’t hate any character and that’s what I tell people when I describe my love for this book. Love/hate is too simple and Morrison doesn’t make anything easy.
To judge the characters would be to judge someone I love and possibly to judge myself because it’s such a human text. I’m over here hyping it up so much, I’m gonna have to read it again. I usually don’t read books twice but Morrison is the type of writer that has to be returned to because there’s always something new about it.
Although I read the book, Sula, I know my young ass didn’t have a clue what the hell I was reading. In the documentary, one of the speakers mentioned that Sula sleeps with her best friend’s man and I was like “Word, that happened?” I feel embarrassed even claiming I read the damn book. But that’s OK because I think I can handle it and SEE a lot more now.
Needless to say, Morrison has had an incredible impact on me in her ability to show the power of fiction, the power of storytelling and the power of a Black woman story teller. We just do it differently and by different, I mean better.
Even if you’re talking shit about her, you’re still talking about her.
“ I wanted to feel free not to have the White gaze in this place that was precious to me, which is the work.” – Toni Morrison interview with Jana Wendt
Based on the above quote, it is evident that Morrison is the personification of “Boy Bye!” She is Queen Shut’Em Down. One of the most insulting and short-sighted parts to watch of the documentary was when critiques of her work were displayed on the screen or when she would talk about some of the hating ass comments that were made about her work.
Wack ass whites were saying things like her work was “limiting to Black people”, “provincial” and she needed to write a more “riskier, contemporary reality.” People wrote this as if she and other Black folks couldn’t see through the flowery language. So the message is Black folks aren’t worth writing about and if they are, they can’t be centered. To be Black should be to exist in the background, if at all. Blackness is limiting as though we are a monolith and don’t have range and depth and different experiences. The critics were basically saying, “When are you gonna write about White folks? We feel left out.”
I swear, for white people to think they’re supreme, they sure as hell need a lot of acknowledgment and validation. And why did these critics think that her writing choices were somehow by mistake? It was as though they were saying, “She forgot to mention us but she’ll do better and remember next time.” As though everything she does is not intentional. As though she wasn’t very deliberate about making sure that White folks didn’t suck the air out of her novels and the only way she could ensure that is by not putting their asses in her work in the first damn place.
One of the things she said that resonated with me so much was “If you don’t understand African American women, you don’t understand America.” I swear if I ain’t have a lap full of snacks, I would’ve stood up and Taraji clapped in the middle of the theater. It was as if Morrison was speaking to me and all of my Black girlfriends inside of the theater at that moment.
It’s not surprising that #ListenToBlackWomen was trending at one point and continues to be stated because what hasn’t America done to us? In order to understand pain, joy, struggle, resilience, survival, thriving, hope, fear, love and any other dichotomies, you have to listen to the stories of Black women. Morrison makes that clear in her interview and in her writing and never succumbs to the basic ass mentality of her critics.
As I listened to her speak and reflect, all I could think about was one of my favorite songs by Solange, “F.U.B.U.” The whole song is fly but here are the lyrics that capture the feeling:
All my niggas in the whole wide world
All my niggas in the whole wide world
Made this song to make it all y’all’s turn
For us, this shit is for us
All my niggas let the whole world know
Play this song and sing it on your terms
For us, this shit is for us
Don’t try to come for us
All my niggas got the whole wide world
Tell them niggas that it’s all our turn
This us, some shit is a must
Some shit is for us
Morrison knew that we had to have nice things for us, by us and for us alone. White people weren’t a part of her fictional world and weren’t significant in the real world. As Master P said on one of the interludes on Solange’s album, “If you don’t understand my music, then you don’t understand me so this is not for you.” NOT FOR YOU.
Black folks need to get clear that our worth is not based on White people’s validation. FOH with that bullshit. I love that she repeats that constantly. The white gaze is neither wanted or needed. She said it plainly, “Navigating a White male world wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t even interesting.” I laughed out loud because White men are mediocre AF and swear everyone wants to be them. BUH BYE!
FINALLY (and when I say, finally I just mean that I know I gotta start wrapping it up), She’s every woman!
“A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves- a special kind of double.” – Toni Morrison
Watching the documentary was like sitting in the living room listening to my grandmother speak. I was in awe of her but she also felt very familiar to me and relatable in many ways. She took pride in the mundane- in talking about her famous carrot cakes; about raising her two boys and working, teaching and writing. And early in the documentary, she says, sort of giggling, that in college “[she] was loose.” which I absolutely loved. Owwww. That’s right, Get your booty rubbed.
She didn’t go into detail but she struck me as a woman who knew what she wanted at a young age and someone who knew she deserved pleasure on her own terms which I can 100% get behind.
But it was the way that she stood for equity and knowing her worth that also made me bow down and rise up at the same damn time. When she found out she was making less money than her male counterparts as an editor, she demanded more money. Her rationale besides the fact that she was doing a damn good job was, “I’m head of household.” That needed to be said because so many Black women are heads of household and we need to live, pay our bills and take care of our children like everyone else. And we like to look nice- hair, nails and shoes ain’t cheap.
In the words of Rihanna, “Bitch better have [her] money.” And she got what she asked for. It was amazing to watch Mrs. Morrison make demands and get those demands met. She said it all very matter-of-fact. I loved watching her confident but calm demeanor. She’s so sure of herself and poised and regal that I could’ve sat there watching her forever.
The most human part of her interview is when she admits that it wasn’t until after she wrote her third book that she considered herself a writer. Despite her confidence and know-how and accomplishments (I couldn’t understand how someone who wrote The Bluest Eye could see herself as anything but a dope ass writer), she still wouldn’t give herself that label, that identity, that credit. It was almost as if she didn’t fully believe in her own talent. It always amazes me the way Black women play the background and minimize their accomplishments. I’m guilty of that as well but she is such a skilled writer and it inspires me to hear her journey of embracing it.
She’s not only every woman; she’s a phenomenal woman. Her work, although difficult AF to understand at times, has so much meaning. The emotion is never missed. The intention is always spot on. She did what many Black male writers couldn’t. She intentionally wrote for US. Zora Neale Hurston centered Blackness and received some of the same criticism as Morrison, even from Black male authors like Richard Wright.Wright stated that “Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction.” Hating much? Sounding White much?
Unlike Hurston, we were able to appreciate Morrison’s genius and give her her much-deserved flowers while she is still here. My friends and I came to the conclusion that she still doesn’t get all of the accolades that she deserves. But when have Black women ever gotten their things the way they should? All I know is that I feel blessed to have read her work, to understand the possibility and the power of the written word; to have seen her read at Barnes & Noble Union Square some years ago with my daughter when she read from her book, A Mercy; and now to have seen this masterpiece that is dedicated to her and spoken mostly in her own words.
If you haven’t seen the documentary, please do yourself a favor and go get your spirit right. Drop comments about your relationship with her work and your reactions to the documentary, if you’ve seen it.
I plan to re-read Sula, hopefully before the summer solstice comes to an end. Just know this:
Toni Morrison came.
Toni Morrison wrote.
Toni Morrison conquered the (literary) world.
And still is.
And if you don’t know, now you be knowing.