Remembering Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

Toni Morrison novels

 

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.

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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.

The Big Box by Toni Morrison with Slade Morrison

 

 

Possibility

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When I was in college, there was a girl in my dorm who loved pigs. I don’t think she was from a farming family, but she just found them to be adorable little beings. She had posters of them in her room, maybe even a few other pig-themed items. Aside from Wilbur in the book Charlotte’s Web, I thought of pigs as messy creatures, ones that lolled about in muck, ate and snorted at the same time, fleshy pink blobs with mottled brown spots. The three little pigs, with their homes made of straw, sticks and bricks were more industrious, but a wolf ended up eating two of them anyway. It was hard to fall in love with a pig.

I am from Cincinnati, home of the Flying Pig Marathon. This race winds through the city, its hills and neighborhoods, it even crosses the Ohio River into Kentucky for part of the race. It is a major attraction; over 30,000 get involved by running the marathon or one of the shorter races. The name Flying Pig sets a hopeful tone for runners, but it is also a nod to Cincinnati’s past. Cincinnati was at one time nicknamed Porkopolis, because it was the home of stockyards, slaughterhouses and the railroad system that carried meat to the cities of the Midwest. In the 1800s, the pigs were herded though the streets. The Flying Pig name evokes this history.

Any consideration of my running this race is quelled by the reality of what it would take to complete it – time spent away from goals about which I am more passionate, focused training, regardless of seasons, and the commitment to start and finish no matter the weather on race day. So I pursue other goals; a marathon is not in my future, although I did a half marathon many years ago. I have already decided I will run a race this long when pigs fly.

I dream of trips I want to take, books I will write, time spent with those I love, people that I want to meet. I visualize how I will feel when I choose the fruit over the chips, master the rollover in Pilates, or decorate the small cottage where I can go to restore my spirit. I imagine hikes I will take, strolls around botanical gardens, new cities I will explore, a girls’ trip with my daughter and granddaughter when the little one is older. And while I dream, visualize and imagine, I also plan. I write these ideas down in notebooks, jot them on my smartphone, or give them a home in my mind. At times, I share them with a friend, so we can dream out loud together, or give each other the support and accountability that a dream needs.

Sometimes I ask myself, what does the wish represent? Why is it important, are you sure that is what you really want, or is it a stand-in for something deeper? Then I sit with the thought, turning it over, volleying it back and forth as if in a tennis match, until I understand myself better or decide I can let it go.

I need to make sure that the dreaming and planning does not descend into grasping, craving, and yearning. If it seems like I am heading in that direction, I ask the why question again, and remind myself that where I am right now is a blessing, that I do not always have to be setting up the next thing.

Yet I love the idea of possibility – that there is more in this life if I open myself up, if I am less afraid, take a chance, work, ask for help and guidance, and yes, plan. Last month I was in a bookstore back home, and I came across this quirky statue of a fleshy pink pig, sitting on its haunches, snout lifted upwards, wings on its back as if it is getting ready for takeoff. The statue is ceramic, and if you look closely you can see the cracks in the glaze trailing off in a million different directions, each line leaving traces of its journey. I like that despite the apparent cracks in the piece, it is whole, entire, it has not fallen apart. Like me. A pig can fly.