In 1998, Black Star’s “Thieves In The Night” initially alerted me to Toni Morrison’s genius. In the song, the hip-hop duo paraphrased the following passage from “The Bluest Eye”:
“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”
I didn’t delve in immediately. Morrison’s work wasn’t included in my high school’s literature curriculum. If I remember correctly, the teachers thought her novels were too challenging. I continued to run from that “challenge” for another year or so. A college freshman year of nouveau wokeness and subsequent self-realization erased my trepidation. I read “The Bluest Eye” the following summer. It was the tale of a young, Black girl grappling with America’s standards of beauty. Standards many of us have adhered to in some form or fashion. Nothing was the same after.
Morrison’s work was incandescent. The voices of her characters were vivid. Her stories were familiar. Reminiscent of musings of my mother, grandmothers, aunties, cousins, friends and any other Black woman worth her salt. Just as sage, but poetic and eloquent in ways that felt too grandeur for this stratosphere. The buck didn’t stop there. This revolutionary would floor me with “Sula” a few semesters later. A novel that further defined liberation for me. Expanded the confines of womanhood. A standard was set. An unfair one to measure other writers against. Morrison was operating on unicorn levels.
A good writer always forces you to think. An even greater one forces you to excavate the surface. To penetrate its layers until you arrive at uncomfortable truths. Morrison was beyond great. She swaddled and exalted us in our Blackness. Held up a mirror to the world around us while weaving truths that gave us wings. Now that she’s flying in the ancestral realm, I feel a slight tinge of sorrow. However, no tears. Above all, sheer gratitude. Eventual joy, as I explore her collection once more, knowing that her canon will justly soar along with her for ages.