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Arts & Culture Opinion

On Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye was the first book I read in the year 2016. My AP English teacher recommended it to me, and I took home a worn copy from her classroom in my bookbag for winter break. I read the entire book, straight through, on New Year’s Day.

I can’t decide if Toni Morrison is an appropriate read for New Year’s; certainly, her novels lack the festive optimism that traditionally characterizes the holiday. But the raw, intense humanity of The Bluest Eye served as an apt introduction to perhaps the worst year of my life, and Morrison’s characters, in all their resilience, inspired me when I felt I had no fight left.

I must have reread the book a dozen times that year, each time treasuring the venture into the same English classroom again and again to recover the same copy, always where I left it on the bottom shelf. I came after school and between classes. I snuck out to find it on “bathroom breaks.” I felt Pecola’s insecurity when my abusive on-again, off-again boyfriend berated me, her grief as my grandmother’s health declined. The novel became a crutch for me in a way that no other book has. My favorite color is marigold yellow, a nod to The Bluest Eye’s iconic opening line: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.I raced through copies of Morrison’s other worksSula, Beloved, Love—and started keeping a thrifted copy of Song of Solomon under the passenger seat in my car, just in case.

It is difficult to reflect on the passage of a literary giant, especially one whose work means so much to me. Toni Morrison, without a doubt, served as the greatest Anglophone writer of the twentieth century. She both reshaped the English language and crystallized the novel form. She also explicitly stated her audience: Morrison wrote as a Black woman, about Black women, for Black women.

This is important. The out-of-context quotes, the Twitter bios, the seemingly-universal nuggets of writing advice that have become ubiquitous in the days since Morrison’s passing were often messages about Black womanhood. The piece of Morrison’s advice most often circulated by lovers of literature is that writers ought to “write the books they want to read.” But Morrison’s original quote illustrates that she did much more than that: “I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.’” Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye because she could not find other books about Black feminine identity, about the devastation and grief of racism in day-to-day life. She didn’t merely write the words that she wanted to read; she wrote the books that Black women have been prevented from writing (and reading) for centuries.

This is not to say that some parts of Morrison’s work do not call to a broader, more universal message. Indeed, experiences of grief and pain, insecurity and loss, faith and love transcend language, race, and identity. But what makes Morrison revolutionary is that she depicts these emotions within the context of a society that is deeply racist through the eyes of the Black women all-too-often silenced by that racism. The universality of some of her message only serves to punctuate her statement that Black feminine humanity is humanity at its core.

Morrison’s value is in her specificity as much as her universality. Morrison wrote stories about Black folks that white people could not ignore, wrote novels so Black and so human that reading them forced the reader to confront centuries of American history that white folks like myself can all too easily set aside. “What’s past is past” can never be an excuse, because she reminds us at every turn: This is not just the American past. This is the American present. It also felt like a challenge: This cannot be the American future.

Toni Morrison taught me more about whiteness in one novel than I had learned in the previous 16 years of my life and gave me more to confront about myself than I had ever been forced to confront before. Even now, I read The Bluest Eye—the most significant symbol of which is the blue-eyed, blonde-haired dolls that represent beauty and whiteness, two things Pecola feels she can never have—and relate, in a broad sense, to Pecola’s insecurity. But I feel insecure because my hips are too wide or my nose is too large. I still have the whiteness that Pecola sees as beauty. My eyes are bright blue.

Reading Morrison is visceral and emotional, the kind of writing you read when you don’t need to feel good or bad—you just need to feel, period. I’ve read Morrison at hospital bedsides. I sobbed into Beloved the night Donald Trump was elected President. Her books were witness to many of the past three years’ horrors and triumphs. Morrison shows us grief and gives us solace. But she also reminds us of the necessity of the fight, the responsibility we have to ourselves and each other. She made me promise to combat injustice where I found it and learn from my mistakes whenever I could (“If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”).

Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it. She wrote it for Black women. She wrote it because other novels by Black women had been stifled or ignored, not sent to publication or trapped in the minds of those kept illiterate by racist education practices. My experience of Morrison’s works is as a bystander, a mere consequence of her efforts to speak directly to Black women and instead, inadvertently, reach the world.

What a privilege it is to have lived in that world she reached.