Celebrated writer and Princeton University professor emeritus Toni Morrison died Monday at the age of 88. Her most renowned works included The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for Beloved and in 1993, she became the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2012, she was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition," Princeton president Chris Eisgruber said in a statement. “Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors.”
The Inquirer reached out to several Philadelphia-area writers, asking them to choose a particular passage from Morrison’s work and reflect on why it still resonates with them today.
» JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Do you have a favorite passage from Toni Morrison’s writing? Share it and tell us why it resonates with you today. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Some answers may appear in The Inquirer.
“My older son was barely walking, and he spit up on the [paper]. … I wrote around the puke because I figured I could always wipe that away, but I might not get that sentence again.” (In an interview on Fresh Air on April 20, 2015.)
When I heard Toni Morrison tell this to Terry Gross, I felt mentored from afar. How to let down the imagination like milk, flowing, spilling, sloshing? How to do that in a life already full to bursting with Big Booby Love for children who sucked down your milk and then puked it back onto your rushed, rough draft?
Later, Morrison’s brilliant Playing in the Dark gave me similar, life-changing intellectual mentoring: “This is what I did, how I saw through structures meant to keep the mind and life unfree. Look, see? You can, too.
Lorene Cary is author of “Ladysitting: My Year With Nana at the End of Her Century,” a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder of SafeKidsStories.com.
Sula felt her face smiling. “Well, I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.” (Sula)
I grew up with a mother who lived for black women’s writing, so Morrison’s work is sacred text to me. This passage is one of countless that destroys me when I reread it. The girlhood friend she once betrayed has just confronted Sula on her sickbed. After she dies (you read that right), she smiles, thinking of Nel. Their drama perished with her body; their love lives on. The passage is audacious and enormously moving. Toni Morrison flaunted more knowledge of life than anyone I can think of. She was just as conversant with the dead; I’ll await her dispatches from that other country.
Asali Solomon is the author of the novel “Disgruntled” and an associate professor of English at Haverford College. She was born, raised, and resides in West Philadelphia.
“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.” (Beloved)
In this moment, when we find the American body politic caught in a state of near-constant vexation, these words from Toni Morrison’s master work, Beloved, give me pause. Not a negative, bewildered pause, mind you, but a sense of spiritual stillness. As uttered by Baby Suggs, holy, to a community made up largely of former slaves in a space known as the Clearing, they represent a necessary reminder that, as freed persons who must take responsibility for every single aspect of their lives, the word imagine denotes grace as a palpable, tangible thing. For Baby Suggs, holy, imagining grace has nothing to do with casting wishes blindly and haphazardly into the dark, nor does it indicate that one should wait for it to be bestowed. No. Grace, as Morrison fashions it, is the product of a new-found agency in the lives of men, women, and children learning that body and soul combine to produce citizens, marvelous, wondrous, and whole.
Herman Beavers is professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Geography and the Political Imaginary in the Novels of Toni Morrison” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
“We took as our own the most dramatic, and the most obvious, of our white master’s characteristics, which were, of course, their worst. ... We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure and thought recklessness was freedom. Our manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence.” (Elihue “Soaphead Church” Whitcomb in The Bluest Eye)
Morrison was never one to diverge from the personal or the political, and these words warn against subscribing to any institutional propaganda that corrupts our individual beliefs and identity. This passage reminds us to consider how political agendas are substituted for cultural norms, affecting our selfhood and worldviews. Power is persuasive. Power will have the vulnerable believe they are powerless. What would it mean to accept our own complexities and resist inherited and flawed definitions? What would it mean to acknowledge that the lies we believe about ourselves have never been true?
Airea D. Matthews is the author of “Simulacra,” winner of the 2016 Yale Younger Poets Award, and is an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College.
“In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings: had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.” (Sula)
When I first came across this quotation in young adulthood, I thought of my grandmothers, aunts, and mother. Working-class Black women raising children in the 1950s-1970s, they lived artfully amid struggle, infusing everything they did with creativity, the source of their power and resistance. Without artist training or credentials, they told stories through food, clothes, slang, the way they possessed their bodies. Morrison wrote my womenfolk and their desires into the body of American lit. She saw Black people and loved us as full, complex human beings, our lives worthy of the beauty and drama of great stories.
Yolanda Wisher is a two-time poet laureate, educator, and Curator of Spoken Word for Philadelphia Contemporary.
“It was raining the next day. Bullet taps on the windows followed by crystal lines of water. I avoided the temptation to glance through the panes at the sidewalk beneath my condo. Besides, I knew what was out there — nasty-looking palm trees lining the road, benches in that tacky little park, few if any pedestrians, a sliver of sea far beyond. I fought giving in to any wish that he was coming back. When a tiny ripple of missing him surfaced, I beat it back. Around noon I opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio and sank into the sofa, its suede and silk cushions as comfy as any arms. Almost. Because I have to admit he is one beautiful man, flawless even, except for a tiny scar on his upper lip and an ugly one on his shoulder — an orange-red blob with a tail. Otherwise, head to toe, he is one gorgeous man. I’m not so bad myself, so imagine how we looked as a couple. After a glass or two of the wine I was a little buzzed, and decided to call my friend Brooklyn, tell her all about it. How he hit me harder than a fist with six words: You not the woman I want.” (God Help the Child)
Back when I read Morrison’s God Help the Child, I found myself in constant recovery mode from a breakup with a dude who just didn’t love me as I needed to be loved. And like Morrison’s character Bride in this 2015 novel about how colorism still affects the psyche of black women — whether or not you are darker than a paper bag — I’d spend the morning fighting back tears and the afternoons sipping on wine trying to numb the pain.
What’s amazing in this, Morrison’s first contemporary novel, is not only is she writing about the experiences of women half her age, but her fierce, sumptuous, and accurate prose captures the angst of what it’s like to be a professional woman of color trying to have it all: the man, the job, and the love of family who really didn’t think you had a chance in the first place. Like Bride, many of us never feel smart enough, beautiful enough, and in some cases still, light enough. So no matter what we do, total happiness feels like an impossibility — until, of course, we begin to define it for ourselves. Then, booyah, the world is ours.
Elizabeth Wellington is The Inquirer’s lifestyle columnist.