Can We Not Then Go Higher: Things Toni Morrison Taught Me
Photo credit: instagram.com/tonimorrisonfilm
During my junior year as an undergraduate I sent my professor one of those late and wishful emails nearly every student sends. It said something to the effect of, “I’m having a difficult time with this text, may I have more time with this? It is taking me a bit longer than anticipated to get through.”
I was reading Toni Morrison’s Home for a Multi-Ethnic American Literature class. When I sent the email, I was sitting on the floor of my living room at a strange time of the night with my eyes wet and tired. I recall feeling like the meta-narrative of this story was one that I had seen in the lives of my friends and neighbors in the streets of the San Bernardino County, where I had grown up. Though my experience was very different from the events of the story, I felt this strange familiarity. I thought that if I were to have said how I had truly felt about the text no one in my class would have understood. I was not as surprised about this text as my peers, though what struck me was the truth of it—its longevity that made me understand that this was much like my community. I had felt something inside of me change once I read this text. I started to ask questions and found that my peers were often outspoken in their substantive relation to the text. There was more distance in their reading than in mine and that scared me. This was a narrative I had seen. This was a narrative that happened next-door. This was a narrative I found myself in.
Toni Morrison helped me embrace being a person of color. Instead of feeling “othered” by that situation, I began to understand that what I could bring to the table as a writer was not only important but necessary. There were parts of my story I began to share with other students in that class; mostly about addiction and mental illness, but also about modern-day segregation through outdated and discriminatory FHA housing policies. How district lines changed in my time at school and that dictated who got funding, who lived in poverty, who biked or bused thirty minutes to get a better, “safer” education. Redlands School District, alone, has spent over fifteen million dollars to combat nearly over a thousand sexual abuse cases. Toni Morrison helped me identify and embrace my own story though it was hard to come to terms with all it entailed.
In such a time of political turmoil and chaos, being a creative person of color comes with the responsibility of bringing awareness to oppression. It is humanity’s fatal flaw that chaos and injustice don’t seem significant enough to those who do not experience them. Instead, there are those of us who do often have to justify and validate our own oppression to people who are too privileged to understand.
As I read Toni Morrison’s work for my literature class, I found myself trying to explain this to my white friends who, upon trying to understand, did not. As a result, I sat in the back of the class and did not contribute as much as I could have. I stifled myself and my experience through reading this book as a queer, mentally ill, person of color who grew-up around poverty in California. I was a privileged, middle-class child who saw the effects of FHA housing segregation, addiction, gang violence, etc. in the lives of my peers and friends growing-up. I re-lived these experiences and these stories, both my own and those entrusted to me by others, while reading Home. A very difficult thing. This novel taught me how to overcome those images that haunted me through my adolescence and my time in college. Trying to embrace my whole-self in the face of adversity. The strong character of Frank Money, though tragically flawed, allowed me to see objectively how we can overcome the worst parts of ourselves. There was this sincere love for his sister near the end of the novel that really resonated with me. This beautiful parallel in their healing and the way they allowed their nostalgia of childhood to not be overrun by their trauma. I found strength in that.
“Come on, girl. Don't cry," whispered Frank. "Why not? I can be miserable if I want to. You don't need to try and make it go away. It shouldn't go away. It's just as sad as it ought to be and I'm not going to hide from what's true just because it hurts." Cee wasn't sobbing anymore, but the tears were still running down her cheeks.” – Home by Toni Morrison
Morrison unknowingly spoke into my life such provocative truth about the things we choose to omit and include within our personal narratives. The histories that maybe we were once afraid to admit or speak of because speaking them, or writing about them, would make them, somehow, more-true than they would be in our own minds—and which, due to trauma-responses, we can learn to hide from ourselves still. There are stories and messages I’ve taken from novels like Morrison’s, and Francisco Jimenez’s, The Circuit, that have inspired me to share these stories within my own work and in the relationships in my life. Due to these stories, I made the choice to not omit or censor the parts of me that hurt or are often hard to say.
Morrison, with the help of this caring and trustworthy professor, helped me to understand the sincerity and the authenticity writers of color can bring to the meta-narrative that is American literature itself. Though daunting and filled with weighty responsibility, this task—to create in the face of oppression and chaos—becomes a work of love and passion for the underrepresented story. I scoured library shelves, looking for these stories, when I was a child, but I found no such book, for it had not been written or I had not known, really, what it was I was looking for. Instead, I found it in my third year as an undergraduate, while I was laying on my living-room floor crying because, for the first time, I was able to understand the types of stories I wanted—needed—to write.
I emailed my professor and asked for more time with the text because, that night instead of going to bed, I began my manuscript. The next day in class, tired and filled with every story my body possessed, I asked, “What can we do, what can be done?”
The classroom fell silent. I sat there, not knowing if there’d be an answer. How, then, could there be an answer to such a loaded question that feels so heavy and out of our control? How do we invoke change in a system that has yet to be fixed by others and why would it be us, our generation, to fix it?
The answer is one I have ruminated over since in a series of questions: Is it because we ask the hard questions or because we have such a tortured and strange affinity for the truth, discovering and uncovering truth? I am not sure. All I know is that the stakes to create feel beautifully and inconceivably high. Toni Morrison taught me to ask, “Can we not then be truer? Can we not then work harder? Can we not then go higher?”
About the author: B. Spencer Vigil is a published poet and aspiring novelist who recently graduated from Seattle Pacific University. They are currently working on finishing their first manuscript inspired by collective stories of growing up in the San Bernardino County.