Photo: I’ve been in a beautiful private school library all week. In there, I learned Toni Morrison died. In there, I found a portrait of her. In there, I shed tears of gratitude and mourning. Here is her photo as found in a photobook of writers and their profiles.
Mom always called Toni Morrison’s books “winter books.” She’d preserve them for the cold months of the year because they are books “you need to spend time with, cozy up to, think your way through.” Where her James Pattersons were summer reads and buzzy bestsellers being sold at Politics & Prose might show up at the house in the Fall and in the Spring, Mom preserved certain books for the winter, and Toni’s books were often on the pile. This was my introduction to Toni—a daughter paying attention to a mother’s language and intention. They would soon became my winter books, too.
As I came to read Morrison’s work as I got older, my fandom of her literature was a nice thing I got to share with my Mom. When a new book came out, Mom and I would read and discuss. When an interview popped up on NPR or in a newspaper, we’d share, consume, and then discuss. Where Mom and I have had ongoing discussions about many a thing, Toni has been, in many ways, a facilitator of one of our best. In a precious and rare way, Mom and I have had a shared language and experience in our Black Womanhood thanks to the spaces that Toni crafted with such masterful care.
And that matters now, these spaces crafted just for us. These are part of the inheritance left for us to have and to cherish, to use as necessary, to preserve for others for their future needs. These crafted spaces have been left for us to hold up as a reminder of our full humanity, our lyrical narratives, our sustained resilience, our inconceivably beautiful souls.
There are so many generations of little Black girls who will be seen and known because of these crafted spaces. I’m such a little Black girl. So is my mother. We are so grateful.
In all that I’ve been reading after Morrison’s passing, there is much celebration and mourning of the words. Here we have these books that we’ll now read and re-read and discuss all over again, death now adding something new to each syllable. Without the artist to vehemently object and defend, a wave of new interpretation will dust and shade and swallow the work in ways hopefully only bored highschoolers in an over-ambitious English classes will know. The language will become less hers than theirs, where the words were written as hers and ours. Exquisite gifts, each one, returning to us the elegance that our lives have always had but went unrecognized until her illumination.
And that matters now, the words written just for us. These are part of the inheritance left for us to speak and to emulate, to quote and to rearrange, to wrap around new stories, to put the spotlight on new characters and new aspects of the Black experience.
There are so many generations of little Black girls who will have an entire vernacular all their own, a language written custom just for them. I’m such a little Black girl. So is my mother. We are so grateful.
But beyond the words and (I think) even better, are the photographs and the videos. The rediscovery of the badass woman before she bloomed into an eminent one. The photos of her with her afro and her discerning eye, of her walking with the women she mentored and loved. The photos of her dancing and laughing and smiling. The woman who looked like the women I know now: natural and knowing, bigger-than and powerful and not here for bullshit though dealing with it on the daily. She who was doulaing for other women’s good dreams and fine works, undiminished by shepherding the greatness of others.
And oh how that matters now, the badassery of the woman who was us before she represented us. The knowing that she, too, did the work of Black womanhood. She, too, walked our steps and spoke with our voices and groaned at the nonsense and rolled her eyes at the audacity. This is an important inheritance, the knowledge that ours can be a full and glorious knowing, that ours is a full experience that doesn’t start and end when we’re “discovered” but is active and brilliant in the anonymous moments, too. The threads that bind us together, too, matter now. We are left with her good example of seeing, knowing, advocating, advancing. Using her gifts to uplift others and never faltering or abandoning them along the way.
There are so many generations of little Black girls who will be free to be their fully powerful selves. They will be celebrated for their gifts instead of feared. They will be given opportunities to shine instead of shut away. They will be as God built them to be: world changers, change agents, artists of justice, leaders of purpose, philosopher queens. I’m such a little Black girl. So is my mother. We are so grateful.
There is heartache when heroes die. When I read the headline announcing Toni Morrison’s death, I threw my phone and let out a screech of pain. Mourning is a physical pain, and losing heroes hurts like losing family hurts. In the anguish of the moment, I asked out loud, “what do you mean I have to live in a world of [asshole president], but not Toni Morrison? How the hell is that fair?” What do you mean we have to keep living in this world, right now, with all of the injustice that’s happening, and not have the powerful thoughts, the eminent presence, the undeniable truths, the irreproachable words? How can we do this? How?
With the inheritance she left us. So many, many gifts. A body of work. A generation of Black authors inspired, mentored, and working. The words… all the words. So many and so beautiful. Not just the novels, but the essays and the speeches and the interviews and the quotes. A life in images, from she as unknown to she as known, she as she is and she as she is: the badass in Black and ‘fro lifting to the Gods to the grey-locked Nobel Laureate queen of literature. When we see her photos and she’s looking straight at the camera, straight at you, can you practically here her ask “and who might you be?”
And that’s the best inheritance of all… the opportunity to answer with the fullness of our voice, the fullness of our hearts, the fullness of our souls.
Who might you be?
In this space that has been made for you and your dreams, who might you be?
In this time when you may be seen, but so many others are not, who might you be?
In this place where justice is scarce and scarcer, voices of protest snuffed out, who might you be?
In this moment of humanity in question, government run amok, liberty in peril, who might you be?
She seemed to know.
Lord, may we meet her expectations.
It is a beautiful day here in Massachusetts. The heat has broken again. The sun shines and there is a nice breeze. The harvest is on, with a lot ripe stuff being plucked from the vine and lots of new stuff still preparing to grow. Summer is so old-hat now. Have you noticed, Dear Reader? The deep green has an almost forgettable quality to it. The eye often goes to the bug-bitten holes or the too-tall weeds. Gone is the wonder of the new green. Here instead is the anticipation for new colors. Unfortunately, new colors means new temperatures… so why don’t we love what we’ve got for just a little longer?
My wishes for you are simple: crisp things, green things, grown things. I wish that your garden is so abundant that you have enough to share with a neighbor. And if you don’t have a garden, I wish that your neighbor’s is so abundant that they have enough to share with you. Be brave enough to give. Be brave enough to accept. Yeah, actually, I think that takes a little bravery. That’s how far we’ve come—connection or any kind seems to take a little bravery. I wish you a cool breeze… one that blows through these late-summer leaves, and makes that sound that nothing else makes, and gives you goosebumps on your skin. Let this world speak to you this weekend. Let it tell you something and call you by name. Remember how small you are in it, yet how big your actions can be for it. I wish you a good story, one rediscovered that you haven’t read in a while or a new one by a great new voice. I wish you a long hug that lingers, two kisses on your cheek, and someone telling you just how much you’ve grown or how great you look. Accept it all, Dear Reader, ever single ounce of it. Be loved. You deserve it.
You are loved. What you do matters. What you give to this world is noticed and admired. Shine your light as brightly as you can. When you choose to be yourself, you give permission to do the same. This is how we hold back the darkness, Dear Reader. One inspired action at a time.
I’m shepherding my boys through these last two weeks before school starts. I’m going to do some reading and some writing and some sleeping, too. It’s been a long, long summer and I’ve earned a bit of a break. I promise to come back fresh in September, back to 3 posts a week. I look forward to getting back to normal. Thank you, so much, for your patience with me.
Until September, take care.