Having to unfold in life as both an orphan and an unwanted child after I was adopted, I searched for a mother. Oftentimes the search felt futile, painful, endless. Throughout middle and high school I clung to characters in books, desperately hoping that they could show me myself, direct me to my own voice as a mother would. The more I read, the more I evolved, but oftentimes the characters were white and did not know about my experiences growing up in harsh poverty in the projects of Chicago, or the passively apathetic racism of Alabama. These characters did not share my face, my lips, the kinks in my hair; they did not look like me or my sister. They could not comfort me. I wasn’t looking for a fairy tale; fairy tales weren’t allowed people like me. I was looking for myself, my kin—my home.
Before I was aware that language was both my begetter and my friend, Toni Morrison knew. Morrison granted a place for me to see my reflection. I saw experiences from my indigent childhood mirrored in her work. When I arrived at Song of Solomon during my freshman year of high school, I discovered that Milkman’s plight resonated with my own need to belong to a family, to know that an ounce of familial blood was possibly knotted somewhere in history. We both shared the burden of being different. He had a deformed leg which he disguised by adjusting his stride; I walked the halls of my school parentless, a sorrow I could not grieve. He was plagued by what he had; I, by what I lacked. We both had to learn to maneuver through life with this profound loneliness. The loneliness we shared made me feel seen by someone, even if that person only existed on the page.
Toni wrote with the knowledge that Black people would need her characters to mirror our suffering and our own ability to travel towards liberty, as Milkman did to Shalimar. She guided me toward home, the residences of Black folk, and the history of hope which we come from. Words from Beloved sum up perfectly how she functions in my life: “She’s a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them right back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
As a wise matriarch and seer, through her life and her work, Toni bore witness to my need to be connected to a history that was mine. With an audacious love, she delivered me into a lineage stretching from Pecola Breedlove to Frank Money, Sula Peace and Milkman. These novels proved that our stories are not limited to a set of historical facts, but are expanded to contain the truth of all that is imaginable but not yet realized. Toni’s Sula granted me permission to view the truths of the women in my life. My sister and mother have their own identity, and it is not centered on my need of them. I was forced to reconcile that my mothers’ inability to love me properly did not exist independently, nor was it limited by my existence; they did not know how to love themselves well either. Encountering the sweet, knowing nature of Toni helped me to understand and forgive my own mother. In her own freedom, our mother Toni sought to free us as well.
As a wise matriarch and seer, through her life and her work, Toni bore witness to my need to be connected to a history that was mine. With an audacious love, she delivered me into a lineage stretching from Pecola Breedlove to Frank Money, Sula Peace and Milkman.
As a dark Black man, I found a deep liberation in The Bluest Eye. Although I did not desire blue eyes looking out from my dark skin like Pecola did, I did want to be lighter, to embody a standard of beauty that would not only be physically grotesque on my person but would also imprison me in a cage of self-loathing. Growing up in Alabama, the racism of my peers and white people accosted my dark skin, demanding I possess lighter skin; I felt as if I were in Lorain, Ohio with Pecola. The optics of Pecola’s struggle not only brought into sharp focus just how dynamic trauma had been for me, but the effect it has had on all Black folk operating under the assumption that our physical bodies were not beautiful enough. The Bluest Eye brought me home to myself, enabled me to say, “This is me, and I must love all that I am.”
Toni Morrison carries our truth to us and demands that we sit with this history, these lived experiences which have built for us a home—a home she herself walked through ahead of us with deliberate suspicion of its dilapidated infrastructure, with eyes that could see into the beauty, magic, and love that existed within its walls. It was a home where she had laid a key outside, underneath the welcome mat.
The home Toni invited us into was hope. This hope was birthed from walking with our memories, hand in hand, knowing that they will sober us as Frank in Home was sobered. “Sitting on the train to Atlanta, Frank suddenly realized that those memories, powerful as they were, did not crush him anymore or throw him into paralyzing despair. He could recall every detail, every sorrow, without needing alcohol to steady him. Was this the fruit of sobriety?”
And it was with a rare sobriety that Morrison addressed our experiences. Toni never sought to quiet the suffering or paint mute the happiness shared by our ancestors in the past, but audaciously called upon the living to host their memory. Toni Morrison used imagination as a tool to perform a kind of literary archaeology. In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison states that in order to access the viscerous mechanics of the slave, she had to employ imagination to fill in the cracks concerning the life of the slave. This was an enchanted guesswork of literary brilliance. The Nobel Laureate mothered us to a truth that memory coupled with imagination can be a vehicle used to interrogate the ghosts who haunt our present thinking, political ideologies, and social ramparts.
The Bluest Eye brought me home to myself, enabled me to say this is me, and I must love all that I am.
Combing memory and the imagined, pulling from “can see” to “can’t see,” Morrison’s insights became for me a blade of supernatural and an ecclesiastical truth. “Dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow judging; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”—her work is a truth that holds language accountable. Readers and believers of Toni Morrison must operate with a breadth of avant-garde imagination, driving forward with noble causes. We must challenge hateful rhetoric to ensure that language remains energized by the truth.
We must not gawk at evil but confront the issues at hand; the assault on reproductive rights seen in Alabama and Georgia, the onslaught of violence against Black trans women, the insidiousness of mass incarceration and police brutality, and the hostility towards reading the Constitution through the necessary imaginative lens that demands we honor and protect the inherent rights and dignity of non-white folks. Toni reminds us that “the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” We must understand that self-righteousness is dangerous; it refuses criticism and opens to doors to exploitation.
Combing memory and the imagined, pulling from “can see” to “can’t see,” Morrison’s insights became for me a blade of supernatural and an ecclesiastical truth.
Toni Morrison, a single Black mother who raised two children, refused this nation a lazy and unquestioned existence. Now she’s passing us the torch in hopes that we search for the courage and goodness to bring about reckoning. This reckoning does not find its legs by settling for happiness. Toni reminds us that happiness just isn’t good enough—she admonishes that “personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice—that's more than a barren life. It's a trivial one.” Toni Morrison has left us with a mandate that we pick up our white gloves, slip them on, and run them over our own bones, our muscles, down our spines and see what it is picked up in the search. We are so much more than dust! By presenting us with our history crafted from memory and the imagined, she rose in love. We all did.