Reflections on the death of America’s storyteller: An ode to Toni Morrison

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The greatest novels drop the floor out from under you. They take the world as you have come to understand it and shake it up irreversibly. Upon reading the news of Toni Morrison’s death, this power, and her ability to harness it, are what first came to mind.

In many ways, her death was utterly ordinary and predictable: She was not young and, while in the scope of human mortality her passing was not tragic, her loss most certainly is. It is the end of a profound life. If symbolism was one of Morrison’s greatest strengths, then her death is a terrifying omen. I am scared to live on a planet without Toni Morrison.

My first interaction with Morrison was, like that of most American high school students, via “The Bluest Eye.” A reader since childhood, I was not unfamiliar with the struggle of a difficult novel, and “The Bluest Eye” is not the most demanding of Morrison’s body of work. Still, in the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I cursed Morrison and the time she consumed from my very busy schedule. For the first time, reading became hard work. 

Only by putting in the work, however, could I fully receive the utmost reward — heart-stopping prose. I’m talking jaw-dropping, breathtaking, sheer bewilderment that these words came out of someone’s brain, that words themselves could have such visceral power. The power to make you think and feel, to force you to reassess the world and your place in it. 

And Morrison and I were just getting started. As I went through high school and then college, I unceremoniously worked my way through her prolific body of work. I learned that reading Morrison oftentimes meant returning to pages, whole chapters even, over and over and over again, unpacking and unraveling in an attempt to understand the depths of her stories. 

I was blessed with incredible English teachers who taught me how to engage with Morrison, both academically and personally. At the end of my senior year, my senioritis peaking, “Song of Solomon” entered my life. I had AP Lit at 8 a.m., but I refused to skip class and miss learning how to, essentially, read the world with this book. It seemed that each new Morrison work I read — whether inside the classroom or outside it — signaled another chapter in my life. From “Jazz” to “Sula” to “Paradise,” every new novel seemed to push me into a new stage of comprehension about my place in the world. 

Soon after Morrison’s death, I picked up “The Source of Self-Regard,” her final book: a series of meditations on the world. In the preface, Morrison theorizes about the utmost horror of a world with censored authorship — without the voices to, as she writes, “construct meaning in the face of chaos.” She depicts this absence as a “universe described in invisible ink.” This meditation feels especially pertinent in today’s political climate and made me reflect on Morrison’s personal bravery. 

Toni Morrison exposed, often violently and unabashedly, the invisible stories inked into the fabric of America when such an act was unheard of and unwelcomed — especially when a Black woman was behind it. She took apart the racialized literary canon, questioning fantasies of whiteness, constructs of Blackness and the entrenchment of authorship, readership and critical thought in a dangerous white gaze. With each of her novels, she retells history prophetically, yet also personally, with stunning individuality. 

She is, perhaps, America’s greatest historian. 

I recently came across a 2017 interview in which Morrison spoke on defining her audience. “I’m writing to, about, and for other black people,” she said. “And if it’s good enough, it will be read by and appreciated by people who are not African-Americans. That’s the simple way to put it. But the point is, I just thought we were interesting.” 

To be clear, I am a white woman. My first reaction upon being asked, as The Daily Californian’s literature beat, to write this article was that I am not the voice that should be heard on this subject. My experience of reading Morrison is entirely different from the experiences of the audience to whom her work is dedicated (here are some reflections on a variety of those experiences). In earnest, my reading of “Beloved” and the deep, generational, emotional trauma experienced post-slavery is limited, as is my experience of most of her work. So, when it became clear that sadly, it would be me writing for this newspaper or no one at all, I decided to do my best and talk honestly about my experience. 

Morrison’s beautiful exploration of Blackness forced me to unpack my whiteness and understand that this aspect of my identity not only shapes the way I read, but also the way I perceive and am perceived in this world. I want to acknowledge the privilege of this; I was forced to reconcile with my race a lot later than most people on this planet, and that process will never be finished. Unraveling the depths of my privilege — racially, nationally and socioeconomically — will be a lifelong journey. But Morrison didn’t just guide me in grappling with it; she forced me to begin to do so in the first place.

And that’s what scares me about a future without her. To lose someone, especially today, with an eye so sharply attuned to America’s lifeblood is a tragedy. There will be no more books, interviews or essays. The invisible ink of stories will no longer be exposed by such brilliant prose. 

But there will be others. Toni Morrison set the stage and opened the floodgates for an entire generation of authors to tell our untold stories and celebrate the beautiful diversity of humanity — to do the hard work of unpacking generations of trauma and injustice and force the rest of the world to do the same.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].