Middle School. The Bluest Eye.
The first Toni Morrison book I ever noticed was The Bluest Eye. I was in middle school (in the early 90s) and haunting the aisles of my favorite library in Downtown Tampa. The book was there, face front, on the featured titles shelf. The world Toni revealed to me between those pages – and the sheer power of her words – frightened me and made me take notice. I’d never read anything like it before. The Bluest Eyewas the first Toni Morrison book to unsettle me, but it wouldn’t be the last.
High School. Beloved.
It seemed like an ordinary enough day in my English class. Our teacher made ridiculous jokes, his fuzzy salt and pepper beard wagging with every word. Exams were looming. At that moment, I had no idea that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize a day or so before. Then, after finishing up his literary comedy routine, our teacher announced that we’d had a small change in our scheduled semester reading. Instead of Hemingway or Kerouac or any of the other white male writers we’d been given a steady diet of over the months, we’d be reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. With her Nobel win, he said, she might be on the AP exam. It simmered in me, this rejection of her—or any person of color—on the class syllabus until she’d been “validated” by this committee of white men. It’s something I never forgot.
College. Playing in the Dark.
It was an accident, me stumbling into this book of literary criticism. Maybe I saw it on someone’s shelf, maybe a new friend lent it to me after we spent a drunken evening trying to impress each other with things we thought we knew. All I know for sure is that this is the first book of essays/literary critique that I ever picked up on my own and pushed myself through, despite the weighty language. Absolutely worth it. Toni’s razor sharp insight and seemingly effortless brilliance held me spellbound. With every word I read, she made me want to be a better writer and reader.
No School. Sula.
The cover was so pretty. Bright yellow with a painting of a woman, her gaze aslant yet challenging, the cocked hat covering most of her thick hair a reflection of her confidence. She reminded me of someone I’d just met in my new city of Atlanta. The back cover said it was a novel of female friendship, baiting the already alluring hook. I grabbed the book and devoured it in small but greedy bites, sinking into its crackling and complex center, savoring the way Toni broke and re-made rules of novel writing. At its heartrending end, I cried like a baby. This novel is one of my favorites of all time.
Graduate School. Tar Baby.
It goes without saying that Toni’s prose in this novel is incredible. Here, she unfurls the relationship between the two main characters in a way that’s rich, nuanced, and unexpectedly sensual. To this day, that particular scene with the seal skin coat makes me catch my breath just thinking about it.
Of course, there are other books and other periods of my life when I’ve felt a connection with Toni Morrison’s work and her words, but these are just the highlights. For me, she’s been a literary beacon, an example, a powerhouse. All these things and more. I feel privileged to have been alive at the same time that she too breathed air and wrote Black characters into being who had been long absent from the American literary landscape.
Rest well, Toni Morrison. You’ve enriched us all.