I first read Toni Morrison in my twenties; it was the novel Tar Baby. Three decades later, I find her to be the most compelling writer in my lifetime. In her writing she chronicles and lays bare the experience of black people in this country in a way that is both affirming and gut wrenching in its truth. When I heard the news she had passed on I felt compelled to try to explain what her work has meant to me, but it is nearly impossible to do.
Maybe the best way is with a story, one related to her book Beloved. I had read Beloved before, but it was only after rereading it a couple of years ago that I truly immersed myself in the history and legacy of the story. In the book, Sethe makes the lifechanging decision to escape the cruelty of slavery in Kentucky and cross the Ohio River with one toddler child, and another on the way. When the slave catchers come after her, she attempts to kill her children rather than have them be enslaved again. It is hard to imagine making that choice as a mother, but then again, only one who had known how horrific life would be if she returned, for all of them, could understand the choice she made. Sethe kills one child before she is stopped and captured.
The story of Beloved was based, or maybe inspired is a better word, by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky, got to Cincinnati,(my hometown) and like Sethe in the novel Beloved, killed her child rather than have it taken away. Margaret Garner was captured as she killed the child, and was later tried. In another insult to her humanity, and the humanity of her children, she was not tried for murder. She was tried for destruction of property, because the child was not considered anything more than the property belonging to another human being, the slaveowner.
In Beloved, Ms. Morrison accomplished a major feat—addressing the devastating and ongoing impact of slavery on the minds, spirits, and bodies of black people, as well as the daily cruelties and suffering they endured. It is not easy to read, but I felt as if she had explained my story and the story of my ancestors in this novel. She wrote in her foreword, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”
I read Beloved and I realized the river I grew up looking at from the bluffs of Eden Park had helped Margaret Garner pass over, and streets I knew in downtown Cincinnati had sheltered her and many others seeking freedom. Other forms of oppression awaited them, even in the north, but they sought relief from physical slavery and a chance to start new lives.
The Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned the opera Margaret Garner, and I was involved in a community engagement project to expand the audience for this opera. Margaret Garner was performed in 2005, each night sold out, and it was the most diverse audience in the history of Cincinnati Opera. There was a private reception before its opening and I was among the guests. I looked towards the door, and in walked Ms. Morrison. She was regal, her gray locks flowing, eyes scanning the room. There were so many people in the room, all eager to meet her, have their time with her. But in one moment, she saw me looking at her, and I smiled, and whispered “Hi”, trying to communicate I see you and I’m glad to see you, but I know everyone in this room wants to have your time, and I don’t want to be another person pulling at you. She smiled back, I nodded, and I left soon after. I had seen Toni Morrison, her books had already touched me, and there was no other reason for me to stay.
Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel in Literature in 1993. Our country’s greatest writer has passed on. She has been an inspiration to me because her prose was so powerful and evocative and gave attention to stories about people that had remained unknown, ignored or unexamined by many. I am grateful for the richness of her legacy and the magnificence of her writing.
One other note: I have heard many adults say that Morrison’s work is difficult. I believe it requires careful reading, but the topics and her unflinching look at our culture are very likely what people find difficult. However, she wrote a children’s book, The Big Box, with her son Slade Morrison, which I gave out as a graduation gift for years while it was still in print. I will make sure that my granddaughters do not wait until they are 20 to pick up their first Morrison book; I am so glad to have a copy of that book in my collection.