Another legend gone. And more than a legend, she was a force! Novelist, editor, professor, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died on August 5 at age eighty-eight. Pick any book from her bibliography, and you will be mesmerized by her command of prose, her power to conjure up the ambience and lived-in feeling of Black communities and their heroines and heroes to the finest, vibrant detail. She was Black love, Black resilience, and Black brilliance personified. There won’t be another writer like her.
She meant a lot to our authors. Poet Sonia Sanchez was interviewed in the latest documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am and spoke reverently about her and her work. If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, you’re missing out! Sanchez also wrote fifteen haiku in honor of Morrison in her collection Morning Haiku. Here are a few of them:
in the beginning
there wuz we and they and others
too mournful to be named;
or brought before elders
even held in contempt. they were
so young in their slaughterings;
in the beginning
when memory was sound. there was
bonesmell. bloodtear. whisperscream;
and we arrived
carrying flesh and disguise
For award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist Rashod Ollison, Morrison was an incredible source of inspiration. “Toni Morrison’s work gave me permission to write,” he said in his Q&A about his memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues, and Coming of Age Through Vinyl. “She assumed the centrality of being Black and steeped the narrative in all these cultural nuances that were very familiar to me, which enriched the humanity of the characters. I knew I wanted to write like that.” Ollison’s first introduction to her work was in a class for advanced students when he was middle school. In his memoir, he wrote about how life-changing reading The Bluest Eye was.
When I was moved to advance classes, I was assigned a Talented and Gifted coordinator, Mrs. Baugh, whose trailer we reported to twice a day—first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon. In the sparsely decorated room, we worked on artsy projects and assignments from other classes, and we talked about current events, like the Gulf War, to which I paid no attention
Toward the end of class on the Friday before winter break, she called me to her desk and explained that she was taking a course in African American literature.
“I have a few books here I think you’d like, Rashod.”
There on her desk was a small stack of paperbacks: a slim short-story collection by Alice Walker, The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor, and a dog-eared copy of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
“It’s not homework,” she said, smiling. “But I think you’d like these books.”
During the time off I devoured all three, but The Bluest Eye left the deepest impression. The story of Pecola Breedlove, a girl nobody validated and who ultimately surrendered to insanity because of a woeful lack of aﬃrming love, wasn’t my story. But I was able to engage it—the pain of isolation, of loneliness, of longing for a parent to shine a light your way.
Pecola had no one, and I often felt that I had no one, but music was always a harbor. And there was music in the way Morrison wrote—a prose suffused with a blues impulse, beautiful lines weaving an ugly tale. The oppressive funkiness of the people in the novel’s Ohio city reminded me of Happy Street and all the sad-eyed neighbors who streamed in and out of Mama Teacake’s. What she sold helped them get from day to day—a fifth of brown liquor in which to down their sorrows and fried pork skins drenched with her homemade barbecue sauce, among the many salty and fatty foods that pacified them.
After reading The Bluest Eye, I knew what I was going to do one day: tell stories. In the meantime, I continued writing poems and reciting them in front of the dignified congregation at Emmanuel Baptist.
And tell stories he did. Ollison dedicated his life to journalism up until he died from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year at forty-one.
Some of our authors took to Twitter to pay their respects.
Rest in power, Toni Morrison. We’ll close our tribute with a few more haikus from Sonia Sanchez.
in the beginning
there was a conspiracy of blue eyes
to iron eyes;
new memory falling into death
O will we ever know
what is no more with us;
O will weselves ever
convalesce as we ascend into wave after
wave of bloodmilk?