When I was a boy, my mother made sure she read to me often. In the evenings, she climbed the linoleum stairs of our two-story row home on Philadelphia’s north side and sat at my bedside with a book in her hand. In the afternoons, after I returned home from school, I joined her at a glass table in the living room where she read to me from a plush seat. Together we read passages from Toni Morrison’s novels, my mother’s favorite author, who soon became my favorite as well. My mother made sure to pad my mind with the words of an American hero. I was a scrawny 6-year-old who could barely find my way to the neighborhood convenience store by myself, but I knew how to draw the cursive script of the title from the cover of The Bluest Eye. Morrison was an essential teacher for my mother when she was growing up in the same row home where I was raised, and she made sure the same would be true for me, Sarah Hinton’s only boy.
I wept when I heard Morrison died Monday night at the age of 88. I’m not ashamed to admit it, because one of the innumerable teachings Morrison left this world is that freedom is a bridge. “If you are free,” Morrison once said, “you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” Morrison was my bridge to emancipation in my youth. Her texts liberated my spirit. She changed the landscape of American writing with every sentence she wrote, and every sentence I read of hers changed me. She is gone, and our world became less brilliant overnight.
For a black boy turned a black writer in America, Morrison was a seer. There is no handbook for navigating life in this country as a person with black skin, yet Morrison’s blistering guides were the closest thing I had to a road map. Her sentences were piercing. Her writing was heavy to absorb and difficult to read. She preferred it that way. There was no reading Morrison once. You were meant to feel the grief contained in every page, to feel the pain and the pressure of the black experience in America. There was no holding back, no massaging—each paragraph was an anvil too heavy to carry.
In his review of Morrison’s 1981 novel Tar Baby, John Irving remarked in The New York Times that the book was “a black novel, a novel deeply perceptive of the black’s desire to create a mythology of his own to replace the stereotypes and myths the white man has constructed for him.” Irving didn’t mean it as a compliment, but he was describing one of Morrison’s best traits as a writer. Morrison was unafraid to tell her black story, to uplift our black stories, and refused to allow readers, critics, or publishers to deny her characters their fullness or meaning. Irving described Morrison’s work as “dramatic exaggeration.” Her narrative structure was something some readers will find “an irritation.”
Morrison never took for granted the centrality of blackness in her work and never felt the urge to apologize for it or explain it. It was one of her greatest gifts: Black people were the beginning, middle, and end of each story. Blackness was not a burden, but a resource to tell some of the greatest stories we have ever read. In a 1990 interview the former White House press secretary under Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Moyers, asked Morrison when she would begin writing about white people. “I don’t mean this to be a trick question,” Moyers said. “It just occurs to me, though, is it conceivable that you could write a novel in which blacks are not center stage?”
It was a common critique of Morrison’s work, and she later revealed her annoyance with that line of questioning in a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose.
“Yes, I can write about white people. White people can write about black people. Anything can happen in art. There are no boundaries there. Having to do it or having to prove that I can do it is what was embarrassing, or insulting,” Morrison said. When Rose asked what Morrison found insulting, she replied: “The question was posed as though it were a desirable thing to do: to write about white people or to write not about race, that’s what that means to me. That it was difficult to do, a higher level of artistic endeavor, or that it was more important, that I was still writing about marginal people, that I should come into the mainstream.”
“Aren’t you putting too much into the question?” Rose asked.
What Morrison objected to, she explained, was that similar questions are not asked of white writers. We do not question the authenticity of their stories or the frequency in which they illustrate the black experience in America. It is, she said, a sociological question, not a literary one. When will this black writer focus on someone else? Her answer has been a guiding light for me for several years.
“I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people,” Morrison said. It was as though “our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I’ve spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books. The people who helped me most arrive at that kind of language were African writers.” Morrison said the work of Bessie Head and Chinua Achebe freed her.
“They didn’t explain anything to white people. Those questions were incomprehensible to them,” she said. “Those questions that I would have as a minority living in an all-white country like the United States.” She finished her answer by saying, “The problem of being free to write the way you wish to without this other racialized gaze is a serious one for an African American writer.”
Morrison was a vital voice for a generation of black writers, as Hilton Als once declared in The New Yorker, because she articulated the experience of the black artist forcefully and without remorse. To Morrison, racism functions as a distraction. It is the unswattable gnat in a home on a hot summer day. It prevents us from progress. This has always been true for the black artist, who must continuously defend their work to a white audience. And once they’ve done that, they’ve forgotten why they’ve done the work at all. Morrison taught us to rid ourselves of this hindrance. The art must come from the soul and never be compromised for the sake of someone else’s understanding. This was one of Morrison’s key dissertations which she offered unflinchingly. The talents she wished to protect don’t matriculate easily in newsrooms and publishing houses. Black voices have historically been denied entrance to these places, or have been battered to the point of dismissal.
Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977. Tar Baby landed Morrison on the cover of Newsweek in 1981, and she was the first black woman to appear on the cover of a national magazine since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943. Beloved was so essential to black literature that when it didn’t win a National Book Award, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, and Henry Louis Gates were among those who huffed in protest in The New York Times Book Review. Morrison was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved. To read Toni Morrison as a young man was to know the power of language. It was to know there was a voice at the table for black people. It helped me understand the joy Morrison’s work brought to my mother, and her aunts, her sisters, and her mother, as they sat in our living room and beamed because the stories of black women were inescapably felt and seen. Morrison was a gift we didn’t deserve, and now that she’s left us, there’s a pit in my stomach. She’s gone, and it feels unfair.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Morrison said during her Nobel Prize address in 1993.
I don’t know whether any writer I’ve read had a firmer grasp of America’s failure to adhere to the promise of its founders at its inception. Morrison had the moral clarity to tell us about ourselves and didn’t care whether we listened. She wrote America’s letters, for which we are forever indebted. She was a national treasure, and her writing challenged the grandiosity of the American experiment through its exploration of black life in this country. What a gift it has been to trace her footprints, to breathe her air, to be black in America during the same time Toni was alive.