When we speak these days of “queens,” it is a sweet and well-meaning hyperbole. Beyonce is a queen. Your girlfriend is a queen. We get that those instances are a caprice. But when you use the word in relation to Toni Morrison, it must be said with all of the qualities the word “queen” possesses.
Toni Morrison ruled American letters. She guided several generations of writers, creating a bar so high none of us may ever reach it. She presided over perceptions of black life in a way that made it come alive for not only the reader but the dead, seeming to call forth actual ancestors to her cause to live out new lives on the page and teach us how to fight and love and remember.
Morrison, who died Monday at the age of 88, created a canon of work that changed the way the world perceived not only U.S. slavery — which would be accomplishment enough — but African American life altogether. There were things you could no longer say and be taken seriously once Morrison and her canon entered the conversation.
You could no longer say black culture has no meaningful interior after reading Sula.
You could no longer adhere to an idea of black people as intellectually inferior given the mythic sweep of Song of Solomon.
You had to let loose any preconceived notion of what black art was capable of in the monumental achievement that was Beloved.
In fact, not only do you have to adjust the conversation; you have to adjust your entire notion of blackness. You have to learn it, and you have to do so as she sees fit to teach it. You have to learn the language of the values she presents, and she doesn’t give Cliff Notes or grade on a scale.
Much is made of how she eschewed the white gaze upon her work — how she did not find white concerns interesting enough to delve into for any long period of time, or how she did not particularly care what white critics thought — but it must be noted that she did this first in her life, and that her work is merely a manifestation of a purely unapologetic being bordering on the monastic. She did not “carry herself” as being as good as anyone else in the room. She simply was, and there was no way you could contest it once she deigned to open her mouth or to gaze back.
People know when they are being sized up and when they are not, and Morrison had a way of angering power by not caring what it held, not concerning herself with what it saw as its value, by not seeing anything worth sizing up of value.
She was constantly tapped into a reserve of self-love and culture that, in her hands, became an unending spin of fascination. She didn’t have time to worry about what white people were thinking about her or her work. She had all of this wondrous blackness to explore.
Morrison wrote fiction like a poet, weighing every word, wringing every sentence for its substantive juice, cutting every sentence to its rind. Every writer likes to pretend they do this, but Morrison so clearly subscribes to the practice that it can be hard to find purchase in her work, even when you sorely wish to. Her work can be hard to read, and I mean that in both the structural and emotional sense. The paragraphs are dense, her metaphors more concrete than dressing. Buildings are not “like” people; they are people. The scent of cologne becomes a “noisome… signal.”
She was creating a mythology that might become a religion if we approached the work correctly, if we supplicated ourselves to it, if we recognized the holiness of her characters, by which I mean her people (wrought so perfect as to come alive), by which she meant her people (us). There are tracts in her work that seem impenetrable, that sit on the page like a bear trap and then, upon unlocking their meaning, ricochet through the mind like a new favorite jazz song.
A part of me is actively trying to feel sad about her passing but cannot cross the finish line to a genuine emotive reality. Grief is a thing I know I am supposed to feel when someone monumental to my development as not only a writer but a person moves on. Yet there is only a stillness where grief rests its head. I have narrowed this dilemma (should it be one) down to two reasons.
First, she delivered unto millions of readers over several generations a body of work that was not only unassailable in its genius, but working work. Morrison changed both literature and the world in her lifetime, and because she could see those changes she was able to pivot on those results and come at the world anew with deeper and more powerful work and thoughts. It is a beautiful and awesome thing to be able to see genius working not only unfolding before you as you grow, but in your interest.
The second reason is because she still feels very present.
Within an hour of learning of her passing, I cancelled a very important evening plan to instead curate a “reading wake” to celebrate Morrison’s work and ideas. I invited a good friend and performance poet to help with the reading duties and set about curating and advertising the event. When introducing the reading, I found myself struggling for an anecdote about how Morrison had influenced me. Her influence was clear, of course. I simply could not put my finger to any concrete instance in which that exchange had occurred. Upon reflection, I realize that it is because she is so embedded in being as a person first, and a writer second. I have taken her into me whole, an education working to the bone of my philosophies and values.
Whatever I have learned from her as a writer, I first absorbed as a person: the lessons of she who cuts journalists to the quick; who obliterated myths about black writing and culture every time she put a pen to paper; who demolished racists without infantilizing her language, ideas or person. That curriculum is the best inspiration an artist could hope for whether you’re black or not.
When you look at her body of work, you discover a life perfectly captured. Whatever you needed to know about Toni Morrison is there in eleven novels, a score of essays, and a clutch of children’s books if you want your kid to get a head start. In that body of work she has laid out every value necessary for a better world, every question that must be answered by those who mean to participate in change. And because she did so with such care and craft, the work is always relevant, always giving good answers.
Her friend James Baldwin wrote like this. You could turn to any page of either writer’s work and be confronted with an unassailable line or idea. You can turn to those pages as a teenager or as a septuagenarian and the magic still work. You can turn that page in 1978 or you can turn that page yesterday. I did it last night during her reading wake with a speech she gave in 1995 entitled “Racism and Fascism” and she laid out a ten-point checklist that read like a prescient dissection of the world we live in today, right down to the abuse of social media and immigrant children locked in cages.
When you can do that with a writer’s work, it is as if they never left at all. So if you miss Toni Morrison, ever, all you need do is pick up one of her books. She is thoroughly captured within.
There is almost no praise that can be laid at Toni Morrison’s feet that she did not hear in her lifetime first, but I think my favorite one is “towering.” It fits. She stood, almost from the beginning, head and shoulders over her contemporaries, forcing them to adjust and re-adjust how she should be recognized, always graduating the praise upward. No award seemed worthy enough, no interview ever worth her actual time. She is not impossible to praise, but it is an unending task, like a religion or a monarchy.
Toni Morrison gave us everything she had, but more importantly, everything we needed. The temptation in that line is to assume that I mean black people, since she made no secret of her touchstones or her first loves; and because I, too, am black. I suppose the line works either way, but to be clear I mean the non-royal “us” here, the us that is society. She gave us the tools, the ideas, and the strength to use them. She left behind a religion of self-pride. She left us every quip and the face you need to go with it. She left us a workshop of tools with which to repair not only the world, but ourselves, and she was very clear about the need to use them to that end. Her work is not a collection of entertainments so much as a curriculum for change. Her fiction implores you to remember who we are and what we have overcome, and the rest of her catalog explains how you should apply such information.
Scott Woods is the founder and president of the Streetlight Guild and the author of the books Urban Contemporary History Month, We Over Here Now, and Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods. He has been featured multiple times in national press, including multiple appearances on National Public Radio. He was the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. and is the co-founder of the Writers’ Block Poetry Night. In April of 2006 he became the first poet to ever complete a 24-hour solo poetry reading, a feat he bested in 2007 by performing for another 24 hours, but without repeating a single poem. His last piece for Legacy was R.I.P. 2018: Black Lives That Changed the World.