‘How We Weep for Our Beloved’: Writers and Thinkers Remember Toni Morrison

I have fond memories of Toni. She was a sympathetic soul to younger writers, myself included. We taught at Bread Loaf, where we had sons the same age; my Colin and her Slade hung out together. But Toni has most affected me as a writer because of what I’ve learned from her writing. I reviewed “Tar Baby,” her 4th novel, in these pages. I compared her to Hardy and Dickens, citing their ambitious novels, their willingness to elevate their characters to the level of myth. Dickens conveyed his ambitions in his titles — “Bleak House,” “Great Expectations,” “Hard Times.” Hardy was maligned for his intrusive instructions to mankind; he didn’t worry about interrupting his narrative. Toni Morrison routinely took these risks; she had fun with such mischief. She began “Song of Solomon” with a life insurance agent leaping off a hospital roof in an attempt to fly to the other side of Lake Superior. In “Sula,” the main character is such an upsetting heroine that her return to a town in a poor black part of Ohio is “accompanied by a plague of robins.” In “Tar Baby,” she gave us a candy manufacturer who marries a woman he sees riding a carnival float holding the paw of a polar bear. Toni Morrison wasn’t timid about dramatic exaggeration, but her enduring interest — as I wrote almost 40 years ago — was “in demonstrating the vast discrepancies between the places black people end up and the places they seek.” Toni was very much a social realist, too. I concluded my review with this sentence: “Thomas Hardy, full of his own instructions to damaged mankind, would have loved this book.” What I should have said was that Hardy would have loved this writer.

I’ve loved Toni Morrison ever since I read “Sula” and “The Bluest Eye” in college, but “Beloved” was a game changer for me. “Beloved” makes you feel like everything you’ve ever written is dull and lifeless by comparison. The level of craft, the flawlessness and beauty of the sentences, the scope of the imagination, the marshaling of language around unspeakable pain. It’s so good. And it’s our most American horror story; not just a great haunted house novel (though it is that), but a novel about how our country is a haunted house, and how we ignore the ghosts at our own moral peril. I know Toni Morrison wasn’t writing for me, but she shaped me anyway, and I am so grateful for that.

Almost 20 years ago, I was just out of college, walking into a public high school in central Harlem as a woefully underprepared 10th grade English teacher. I remember my principal directing me to a storage closet and instructing me to teach whatever book had the most copies. I sifted through a bunch of dusty, out-of-print monstrosities, my despair mounting, until I found a stack of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and rejoiced. Imagine writing one novel as perfect as that. In her staggering career, Toni Morrison did it several times. The way my students came to life in the company of that text is something I will always remember.

[ Read The Times’s obituary of Toni Morrison. ]

I was a brand-new assistant editor at The Times Book Review in the spring of 1985 when the head editor gave me the typescript of a review that was scheduled to run soon, saying, “Please edit this.” My first, panicked thought when I encountered “by Toni Morrison” on the first page was that this had been a mistake. How could I — a novice editor, smitten years earlier by the novels “Sula” and “Song of Solomon’’ — lay hands on the prose of a literary hero? She disagreed with a few of the changes I suggested. After we had discussed it at some length over the phone, she said with finality, in that irresistibly rich voice: “You have proved to them that you can edit me down. Now let me up.”

She gave me permission to be unapologetically Black. She informed me of the power that resided in me. She validated me when the world questioned my humanity. She was a queen, and we were blessed to live in a world in which she existed.

Toni always maintained that every one of her novels is a love story. Perversely, I enjoy the difficult pleasure of regarding her body of work as comprising an encyclopedia of love. Even as she fearlessly confronted its intricacies, complexities and ironies, she was never one to idealize it. Often I find myself brooding on this passage — a keen, if brutal, observation toward the end of “The Bluest Eye”: “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love.” Here is as bracing a thought as I know.

Toni Morrison was probably the first American author I ever read, and that book was “The Bluest Eye.” It is a devastating story about a black girl who is destroyed by the low self-esteem imposed on her by a society in which her type and color are diminished as ugly and unworthy. As a young boy in Nigeria who slowly came to the understanding that Africans and black people were perceived by the rest of the world much like the black people in the novel were, I saw the light in this grim story. It realized that if we begin to look deeper into ourselves and take pride in our heritage, we will see the true beauty of who we are. What the rest of the world says about us or how they see us will be unable to kill our spirit. Morrison herself credited Chinua Achebe for helping her discover this, what she called “the freedom to write,” but it was more a freedom to see that we can tell our own stories and by so doing, lift our people. Myself and a new generation of black writers, encouraged by the great work she has done, will continue to do just that.

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