Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders | TonyMorrisonSociety.org
In the midst of re-launching the anniversary issue of my first book, I was giddy that I was at a point of completion after working like a madwoman all summer long and fighting doubt and circumstances beyond my control. I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s death while sitting at Convocation and listening to this year’s speaker and his many Tweetable moments focused on increasing literacy in the classroom, a district initiative. I glanced down at my phone…and gasped when I read the headline announcing her passing. I know like anyone, death is inevitable, but my heart sank. I am so glad I had moral support to my left, another reader. I turned to my friend, a fellow English teacher who was touched by Toni Morrison’s work. Believe it or not, one who even gave me the biggest compliment years ago – saying that my writing in a piece I was working on, actually reminded her of this great … because of the metaphors. Let me just say, we need friends like this. But, in that moment, in a sea of teachers, we both reread the headline and let it sink in, that a woman, whose books were once banned from Texas schools for years, yet found their way back to the forefront … was no longer here. A part of me wanted to yell out, “Heyyyyyy everybody … Toni Morrison just passed away. We need a moment of silence in honor of her.” But I sat there, taking it all in, thinking about a lot of things.
Last month, after leaving the screening of the documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” I knew I had what I needed to go into a new season, one she knew so well and mastered so magically. I, like a lot of writers, think of Toni Morrison as medicine. In so many ways, writing is a battlefield. Like any battleground, you encounter many obstacles that can keep you from your target and while protecting who and what you love and honor, you can get … hurt. The first days of August, I was on the verge of celebrating a 10-year anniversary of my debut novel and I had a lot of struggles to overcome in order to meet a specific goal. To continue on, with a warrior spirit, I needed my dose of Toni Morrison, and I got it!
Even though I am a teacher, I watched the documentary as a student in need of my own instructor. By all means, Morrison has charted territory I could only hope my pinky toe could be so lucky to touch. While watching the film, I listened to this feathery voice, journey-through, like the matriarch of families, commanding their audience, telling stories of history while passing out tradition that you take with you and carry wisely, with reverence and pride, but most importantly, with care. I met the intimidating gaze, of someone, I wished I knew personally, but was grateful to know through pages. Through story, I knew her and I felt she knew me very well … I truly believe she knew what I needed to hear in order to have the courage to continue to write, fearlessly. The courage to write about stories that are not always welcomed with open arms, but stories that fight their way through to the consciousness of intended audiences and some surprise guests along the way. That’s what I think about when I think of this iconic figure: she is an undeniable force that takes you by storm.
In awe, her epic journey is one I became familiar with years ago. In college at PVAMU, I was an exuberant Mass Comm. major and inquisitive English minor. I remember my Afro Lit Studies class being my all-time favorite course. It was also a safe haven and there, I found the push I needed to think about intended messages through contemporary literature. In a silo of sorts, being introduced to all these greats – these authors, who happened to be black and proud, gave me a rush like never experienced before. And for me, reading behind the stories was even more fun and more of the reason I knew I wanted to write fiction with a message for my community.
Reading Morrison not only opened my eyes but my senses, altogether. Many from ALL walks of life have been touched by her fiction. My professor assigned autobiographical reading before we read the fictional pieces. It was Morrison talking about the writing process that got me to stop in my tracks and take notes like never before. I had never read anyone break it down like she did. My textbook was filled with annotations, but more like revelations on how to stay true to yourself and your story.
When I published my first book, I knew I leaned on those college days … I used to write as a kid in a way that allowed my imagination to run free, but as an adult, I found myself second-guessing that freedom until that class. To me, Morrison indirectly gives permission to explore and validate imagination. She commands that you tap into the courage to put what is imagined, on paper.
I feel that, in reading Morrison, you, as a writer, understand your unique power. She inspired me to unapologetically incorporate mystical aspects to what my characters go through.
What will we do now? Without our literary legend, living? Writers and readers know we lost someone VERY special. She is family. But really, she is literature. Rightfully so, I will pull from one of the rules. I will write in literary present tense when referring to this author … for she is THE mother of all narrative writers. She is an impactful voice. And she is a woman first. A woman who takes care of the people she loves. She fights for people who don’t have the weapons. And she manages to write masterpieces that change the scope and landscape of a world as we know it. To say that her career is inspiring is an understatement! She is a literary genius. She is a crusader. She is literally, still here.
Evidence of her influence is all-around. I have “The Bluest Eye” in my purse as we speak. Since hearing of her passing, I have been watching YouTube videos, knowing that I will find something meaningful in her interviews about craft. I have been hearing the tributes by those who had the privilege to know her. I know I am not alone. She is still here.
In our writing and our reading, we can find our way. That is where she stood her ground like a resilient soldier…We celebrate her then…and now…and always.
Micole Williams, A Public Admirer
Micole is a contributing entertainment and feature freelance writer for Empower Magazine. She is author of Tangled Web of True Love Tales and recently launched a 10-year anniversary Virtual Book tour in celebration of her debut book on YouTube. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.