Toni Morrison and I had that certain kind of friendship common among writers; we saw each other at literary gatherings such as readings, galas and sometimes at special events. So, it was a surprise some 18 years ago when she asked me, along with the poet Rita Dove, to emcee her 70th birthday. I was deeply honoured and had a great time with Rita winnowing down the long introductions that some of the presenters asked for.
That was a room filled with love. Everyone, it seemed, was there, from Angela Davis to Oprah Winfrey to the great Igbo novelist Chinua Achebe. The love contained in that room was cast from a material drawn from the soul of suffering, liberation, and gratitude for the great woman’s ability to shine a light on wounds so deep and so old that the victims were barely aware of their infirmities.
From that night on there was a difference in our connection. Toni would give me that toothy, one-on-one grin that was her trademark and we’d share jokes from time to time.
I loved Toni, but remembering her now in this public manner I am reminded that she didn’t appreciate fawning or protestations of love that seemed to lay claim on her person. Toni wanted a pleasant dinner with good friends and respect that had been earned by a lifetime of hard work, deep thought, and kinship that had no hierarchy, no obeisance.
Toni Morrison never picked a side. Nor would she let her readers rest easy with simple, static stances of unshifting certainty. And her readers, in turn, spread her word, her words, around the world. Kicking and screaming she dragged us, also kicking and screaming, through the muck of a history that almost everyone else has tried to hide from the heirs of the modern world; the inheritors of all that came from genocide and slavery, strong bodies and empty minds, certainty and death.
Toni never complained for herself, but she did protest the treatment of her people. Her people: women and men who search for the truth in their hearts and minds, their commitments and, most importantly, their words.
She believed in words. She lived in an ocean of language. And in that turbulent, hypnotic, continually transforming atmosphere she whirled and turned, became us and then herself.
She was an introverted thinker and an imperial presence. She came from humble stock and won worldwide acclaim while never abandoning her roots. As a matter of fact, little Chloe Wofford, as she was called when she was born in Lorain, Ohio 88 years ago, was able to grow into Toni Morrison by sending those roots deeper still into the soil of our histories, sucking the blood and pain, beauty and heartbreak, the passion and the art of blackness up into uncompromising light.
My words of goodbye will not be, could never be the marker of Toni’s passage. She will be remembered for and by her own words, like Emily Dickinson, like Shakespeare like Abe Lincoln and Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman. Her words are both her epitaph and our bookmarks to return to when we get lost along the way. Because most of us expect that we will get lost… at least, we suspect that eventuality. And when we find ourselves adrift, marooned upon that foggy sea, Morrison’s words will call out to us, promising that if we follow we will return to our best selves. Toni is our buoy doing its herky-jerky dance on the quixotic tide, ringing out possible danger and, at the same time, reminding us to celebrate our lives and those lives of our ancestors who died for us and our children.
Toni Morrison was an unapologetic sensualist and a deep intellect. She wielded her words so that there could be no mistake about the anger and violence, the love and respite of the lives of black folk who, in turn, created the world that so-called white people call home.
I miss Toni, my friend and fellow writer, but I do not admit to her passing: I do not, in the same way a son holds on to mother-love even though his mother died decades before. Some people leave a mark on the world the way a mother leaves her brand on her progeny.
Toni created much of the black American voice in the early 21st century. She carries us, swaddled to her breast into a world that happily awaits our arrival.