Toni Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, when she was 39 years old. By this time she was a divorced single mother of two sons and a respected teacher with a master’s degree in English from Cornell. She was an established a senior editor at Random House, the only Black woman in that position at the publisher. She’d championed Black authors and emphasized Black literature in the mainstream, including developing and strategically bringing out autobiographies by such Black Power luminaries as Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. She was a close friend of influential participants in the Black Arts Movement, like the poet Sonia Sanchez. Yet in Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the most recent documentary released on Morrison, she recalls being unwilling to submit The Bluest Eye, a novel about a little Black girl that longs above all else to have blue eyes, to Random House because she was, in her own words, “Just an editor. Not a writer.”
It’s a marvel to think that the famed Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winner did not consider herself a writer. Her works are a staple in the classic American literary canon, taught in universities everywhere. Her musings on Black American history and culture, especially that of Black American women, were the voice of the forgotten Black American underclass, creating rich narratives entirely apart from the influence of whiteness. Her lectures and interviews were prescient and cutting, eternally challenging the white mainstream status quo and insisting that the system of racism white supremacy was white people’s problem, and that Black people had more important things to center our intelligence and creativity on than convincing them of our humanity. Her brilliance was unparalleled, her imagination was boundless, endless, and her drive unmatched: she wrote four books in the early mornings before her sons got up to go to school, jotting down notes to and from work, even carrying a pen and paper in her car to write down plot points while sitting in New York traffic. Carving out time to write around her busy day to day life, it wasn’t until a fellow editor at Random House — the famed Robert Gottlieb, who edited most of her work after The Bluest Eye — sat her down to discuss the possibility of quitting her job to be a ‘serious’ writer, did she commit to it full-time. And that’s just one tale of many expressed in Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am, the recently released documentary that features Morrison speaking on her own life, alongside interviews and clips from those close to her. Her voice rises to the surface throughout, irreverent, funny, and eternally evocative of the bravado it took for her to commit to writing as not only a career, but also a calling. It is reminiscent of an autobiography on film.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (clip): “Eliminating the White Gaze”
Beginning before her birth, the documentary explores her family’s movement from Alabama to Ohio during the Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of Black Americans fled racial violence. Born Chloe Wofford in 1931 in the small town of Lorain, Morrison recalled the first time she knew words had power: when she and her sister wrote a new word in chalk on the sidewalk outside of their house; they got through “F-U-C-” before their mother ran out and forced them to scrub it away. The tale is a wildly appropriate blend of humor and gravitas, a thread that follows throughout the life of the author. Part of what makes Morrison’s prose so devastatingly effective is the quick wit, the undercurrent of laughing through, and despite, the pain. Her genius is in the creation of characters and situations you know so intimately you have to laugh, and then cry.
Growing up in Lorain, Morrison showed an aptitude for English, and majored in it at Howard University in Washington, D.C. There she terrorized professors with her intended final project, a retelling of Shakespeare through a Black perspective. When her professors, aghast, refused to let her write the ‘radical’ piece, she was forced to do something else for her final thesis. Yet Morrison knew that Black people had our own stories to tell, and needed to be the center of our own worlds. She refused to create white characters or write for white audiences, often wondering when she read Black authors ‘who’ exactly were they writing for. She didn’t wish to have a running narration, an explanation of Black life or identity for outsiders. “I was writing for myself,” she explains. “I was speaking to me. I was speaking to Black people.”
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (clip): Farah Griffin on Sula
This centering of the Black experience, in spite of it being seen as radical or controversial, became the hallmark of her professional career. After receiving a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955, she taught at Howard, got married, and then divorced. In 1965, she applied to Random House on a lark after seeing an advertisement in the newspaper. And thus, with two small sons, she rose through the ranks to become a senior editor. In the documentary, interviews intercut with Morrison speaking on this time have a transcendent quality. Her trademark humor — so witty and sharp it’s almost deadpan — shines as she recalls how uninteresting the white men of the publishing industry were. How she absolved herself of the white gaze and resolved to develop Black authors, many of whom went on to become seminal voices in literature. It was during this time that Morrison solidified her position as a steward of Black art, long before writing a novel herself.
And when she did put paper to pen, in those stolen moments around her life and career, the doors of literature did not immediately open to Morrison. The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, was a slow burn that didn’t take off until it was assigned on the curriculum at several major colleges. She wrote more novels, all of which revolved unapologetically around Black American culture and characters and often unflinchingly examined American racism. They were meticulously plotted and outlined, with pages of her notebooks including full sketches of the homes of her protagonists. (These drawings are shown in full in the documentary, like the drafts of an architect set out to make their mark on a city.) She received critical acclaim and commercial success, yet major literary awards eluded her. White publications lauded her undeniable talent while simultaneously deriding the unyielding Blackness of her characters. They wondered when she would write about ‘real’ – i.e. white – subjects. They questioned her credentials, implying her writing was getting by on being ‘controversial,’ or overly womanist. That she was relying too heavily on the ‘Black’ thing, the ‘woman’ thing.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (clip): “Navigating a White, Male World”
After her fifth novel, Beloved, was published in 1987 to tremendous amounts of acclaim and weeks on best-seller lists but no major book awards, 48 Black writers and critics protested her lack of recognition in a public statement. Again, Morrison relates how uninteresting this period was to her, where it might have crippled other writers with self-doubt. She’d written Beloved about the spectre of a dead child come back to haunt her mother, and had created a modern literary masterpiece ruminating on Black love and family in the shadow of American chattel slavery. The book – and later feature film, developed by and starring Oprah – was based off of the real life woman Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who’d killed one of her children rather than allow the baby to be returned to slavery when she was found by her former master. Beloved is crediting with altering the academic and pop culture landscape in how slavery is discussed and taught. Morrison’s complete lack of regard for mainstream white society extended to her view of awards, her work so genius a quibble over an award seems almost shallow. The question is raised of why should any Black artist fight for white validation? She was writing for herself, for us Black people, and nothing and no one else. Morrison was constantly observing the way that the white gaze and racism were intruding on her life, and actively resisting it. Two months after the public protest, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The documentary is reminiscent of the oral tradition that is a cornerstone of Black American culture, where stories had to be handed down via word of mouth due to it being illegal for us to read and write (and this goes back to the West African griot tradition in and of itself, where traveling poets, musicians, and storytellers maintain an oral history of their communities and culture). Friends, family members, and co-workers tell their stories of the famed ‘Toni Morrison’ in the style of a fable, relaying real life events with a sense of wonder. That time Oprah called the local fire department to get Morrison’s phone number, which was unlisted. That time a friend called to inform her she had won the Nobel Prize, and she asked if they were drunk. That time she looked out the window, shortly after deciding to write full-time, and saw a girl in a hat sitting on her pier- the inspiration for a dead daughter named Beloved. The firsthand accounts and recollections are woven like a tapestry with pictures, video clips and other archival footage of Morrison’s life and career, until the story of her life emerges.
Toni Morrison died while I was writing this piece. So here, we take a turn to the more personal: I am gutted. Morrison was my mentor in my head. I had always read her fiction, but was late to find her interviews and lectures (she was a fixture on the interview circuit and an avid lecturer and professor, even doing a stint at Princeton). But once I found them, they took hold of me. The words she spoke at Portland State in 1975 especially became a mantra to live by:
“The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again why you are here. Somebody says you don’t have any language so you spend 20 years proving you do. Somebody says you don’t have any culture so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. Complete your work without worry. Do not be confused. Don’t waste your energy fighting the fever, you must only fight the disease. And I urge you to be careful, for there is a deadly prison. The prison that is erected when one spends their life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your culture, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You don’t have to dwell on changing the minds of racists. Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there are no doors, and there are old, old men and old, old women who need to believe in their racism, and need you to focus all of your creative energy on them. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them. They are in prisons of their own construction. But you must know the truth. That you are free.”
These words provided me with clarity in a time where nothing seemed to make sense. They imparted the lesson upon me that I alone was enough, my existence itself a form of freedom. It was a lesson Morrison had laid the foundation with with her novels centering Blackness and Black life, and reinforced by the steadfast clarity of her convictions in a publishing and literary world unready for her. Above all else, Morrison gave me the permission to center myself, to look unflinchingly inward and champion my people above all else. Our stories, our culture, our lives do not need to be proven valuable. We already are. The words of Toni Morrison will never die. They will live on in our hearts and minds, imparting upon us wit, courage, and clarity in the face of the system of racism white supremacy. I want to say I’m crushed. Is that hyperbolic? I never met Toni Morrison in person, but she reached me. She helped me. Toni Morrison was a force, a Black creative juggernaut that created life-changing work. My life is forever changed. Thank you, Toni.
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1931 – 2019
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Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video contentand also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.