fb-pixel
JENEÉ OSTERHELDT

A song for Toni Morrison

In this April 5, 1994 file photo, Toni Morrison holds an orchid at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The Nobel Prize-winning author died Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 at 88.
In this April 5, 1994 file photo, Toni Morrison holds an orchid at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. The Nobel Prize-winning author died Monday, Aug. 5, 2019 at 88. AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File/Associated Press

Toni Morrison is a love language. Even in her death, her words are alive to comfort us.

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

Morrison wrote those words, an illumination of love, for Sixo in “Beloved.” He described the woman he loved this way. Years later, my sister used those words to tell me what I meant to her.

Now, I use those words, Morrison’s words, to define who she was to so many little black girls and black women:

Advertisement



A friend of our minds.

There are few spaces where a black girl can be her whole self without being told she’s too loud, too angry, too black, too much. Sparse are the places where a black girl can be in her own world, free of the white lens that so often measures her muchness.

“In this country American means white,” Morrison once told The Guardian. “Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

But in the world she created for us, through “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved,” through “Sula” and “Song of Solomon,” through “Jazz” and every piece of art she made, we did not have to imagine ourselves on the page. We were the center. We were the story. We were the celebration.

She gave us a protected space, inspiring writers to give others that same solace.

“Remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else,” she told O, The Oprah Magazine. “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Jessicah Pierre saw herself for the first time in a book when she read “The Bluest Eye.”

The liberation in that moment is partly what motivates her to write and why she created Queens Co., a networking collective for black women.

Advertisement



“The safe space she provided in her books is what inspired me to create safe spaces for other black women,” says Pierre, 27. “I always admired the rawness and authenticity in Toni’s storytelling. It made me feel safe in owning my truths but also not letting it define me. This realization is what fuels my empowerment of other black women.”

Arielle Gray’s grandmother gave her “The Bluest Eye” when she was 12 or 13 years old. As a black girl in a mostly white school in Newton, those pages helped her process and gave her peace.

Now, at 28, the writer is co-founder of Print Ain’t Dead, a pop-up bookshop dedicated to books by black and marginalized others at affordable prices.

Morrison’s books and the black American literary canon are not just classic reads. They are an archive of the black American experience we all deserve to access.

“We don’t always have a record of those who came before us,” Gray says. “Through narrative, Morrison gave them life, using narrative to expand the archive. Morrison’s work is so essential to capturing the black experience. Through black literature you get a taste of the black experience. It is a living document. Being black, it’s rare we have that. Books are one of the ways we can archive our collective history.”

Morrison did not give voice to the voiceless. In her world, through her characters, and the way she and they spoke to us, she destroyed voicelessness. Where people have been erased, she brought them to life.

Advertisement



We were empowered by not only seeing ourselves, but by the language. It’s not just black people who are better because of her words. Everyone is.

She painted nouns, adjectives, and verbs on a canvas coloring our spirit like a Basquiat.

You give her work to friends as a gift because Morrison’s work is something that lives with you.

Her work leaves a mark on the reader, a mark of rebirth, her words a salve, a reminder to live your truth in all its brutal beauty.

Her words dance in my mind, affirming me, reminding me not to be distracted. I do not dare try to write like Morrison. No one ever could. I do use her, like James Baldwin, as a guide.

Living in a black body in a white country, it is easy to get lost in trying to validate yourself to those who otherize you.

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being,” Morrison said in a 1975 lecture at Portland State University. “None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

We are haunted by the wheel that spins round racism, that keeps us running to prove our worth. I revisit Morrison often to keep me grounded in my writing, in my body, in my spirit.

Advertisement



Her body is gone. But Morrison — Mother Morrison — as some of us call her, is still teaching us.

She will teach generations to come, raising new writers and thought leaders to love us with language like she did. Rather than weep for us in grief at the loss of her, I delight in their discovery of her words.

Morrison said it best in her article for The Nation:

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Toni Morrison is forever a friend of our minds. She gather us, man.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.