To Lavish a Life of Genius on Black People: On the Intimacy of Losing Toni Morrison
Photo credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
When I heard the news that Toni Morrison had died, I couldn’t help but start sobbing. This may seem fairly banal, an appropriate response to the loss of a cultural icon, but for those who know me the act of crying, especially in public, is unheard of. I can usually count the number of times I cry each year on one hand, and many of those are due to extreme stress or health issues. When my grandmothers passed away, I mourned them, but I didn’t really cry. I may have shed a few performative tears to demonstrate my sadness and prove that I am not, in fact, a sociopath, but the tears did not flow naturally. This level of loss is one I haven’t felt before.
On the day that I learned of Morrison’s passing, I was walking outside, trying to enjoy the hot Minnesota summer air on my lunch break. I was in public, surrounded by strangers, when I received an Instagram message from a former student. “Did you hear about Toni Morrison?” My heart dropped. Even though she was older, even though she had lived a full, accomplished life, I wasn’t prepared for this. I may not have known Morrison personally, but her presence in this world felt like a necessary assurance. As long as someone like her was in the world, it wasn’t so bad. So, when I heard of her passing, I felt a level of loss I couldn’t express through anything but tears.
This was a loss I knew no one in my immediate surroundings would understand. A few months ago, I left my tenure track job for the public sector. It was a nice change in many ways, but moments like this remind me of what I miss most about my old surroundings. My former colleagues understood what it felt like to open a book, encounter an entire world of knowledge and belonging—a world created, for me, by Toni Morrison—and then feel the indescribable drive to pass that on to others. Somethings just don’t translate across fields.
I take some comfort in the fact that, for the years I worked as a professor, I was able to instill an appreciation for Morrison in many of my students. I often joked in each class that my students were welcome to hate all the authors we read, except for Toni Morrison. For me, she remained the one unproblematic author. There are authors I love and authors whose skill I admire and appreciate, but Toni Morrison was a person I admired. For a millennial, black existentialist, finding someone like that is rare.
Despite feeling the weight of this solitary loss, I managed to make it through the rest of my workday without anyone noticing my brokenness. When I got home, I sought solace in Black Twitter. This online community has often helped me to cope with my sense of displacement in the world. As I scrolled through my feed, I noticed tweet after tweet expressing the same sense of grave loss. Many could not articulate the exact reason we collectively felt the weight of Morrison’s death. Instead, my feed was filled with stories of how Morrison’s work had touched or transformed lives.
Without a doubt, Toni Morrison is one of the greatest authors (read: the greatest) of all time. She is certainly one of the most prolific writers. Her legacy is indisputable. This is not the reason why I grieve her loss though. For me, it’s not just about the fact that Morrison successfully called out white supremacy in the literary canon and established an entirely new method for analyzing American literature (if you haven’t read Playing in the Dark already, do so!). Nor is it about the fact that she was a genius who put words together in such a way as to create new language. It’s not her expertise as a writer who excavated buried histories from the archives or that fact that she was a master theorist who changed our perceptions of literature, nationalism and belonging.
The reason Toni Morrison holds such a revered place in my life is that she had the skills and abilities to do absolutely anything she wanted, yet her desire was to read and write for people like me. She made it a point to prioritize black people as complex characters, readers and narrators of our own history. All that genius lavished on a people who are given scraps in nearly every other circumstance, this is what continues to bring me to tears. To dedicate her life in that way was to say to black people everywhere, "This is the kind of love and attention you deserve." Ultimately, it wasn't Pulitzer or Nobel prizes that enticed Morrison. It was love of herself, her blackness, her womaness, her people. To be counted among them feels like an undeserved honor, but that feeling is precisely one that Morrison would reject. The point of her writing wasn't to shed light on marginalized subjects or to teach us (or others) our value. Morrison simply wrote as if the world were as it should be, as if black people were seen as the worthy subject they are.
About the author: Dr. Yelena Bailey is a writer, researcher and educator working in the field of cultural studies. When she is not writing about popular culture, she enjoys spending time with her miniature schnauzer.