On this date in 1931 a baby girl was born in Lorain, Ohio, who would grow up to become a writer who changed not only how we think about black history and people but how we think about language in the service of fiction and reality. Yes, I mean Toni Morrison. We lost her physical being last year and people like me still have days when that loss is overwhelming. But all her words exist–the amazing novels, the raft of seeing essays on life in this country, her opera about an enslaved woman who chose to kill her children before she’d let them be enslaved, and a fragment of what was to be her next book that I keep hoping Knopf will choose to publish in its unfinished form.
I just listened to an interview from 2015 with a British woman journalist in which Morrison reminded me all over again how monumental her thinking is. She spoke about not wanting to “temporize” her writing, comparing that to what has happened to black music as it has become something played by anyone. When the interviewer asked a completely flat-footed question–“Would you ever consider expanding your subject matter to focus more on white people since they are not really very present in your work so far?”–Morrison paused, smiled wryly, and said “Do you have any idea how incredibly racist that question is? Would you ever even consider asking a white writer if s/he might begin writing more about black people? Or asking a Russian writer if s/he was going to start writing about non-Russian characters?” To her credit, the white interviewer heard the question and might even change her behavior should she find herself interviewing another writer who content reflects their own culture. And Morrison was wise enough not to yell her response, so the white woman couldn’t avoid it by becoming defensive.
What Toni Morrison managed to do in book after book was to make me see that her position from what a white supremacist world labels the “edge” or “margin” IS the center. So I am invited to move over into that new center and try to learn what life is like there. She ignored or conquered or just brushed aside the white gaze–surely an heroic feat for any artist–or human being. And I fancy I have some level of comprehension of how strenuous that exercise can be because I keep trying to free myself from the male gaze.
So “happy birthday, Toni,” and thank your mother and father for creating you so I will always have your writing even if I no longer can imagine you writing away in your own house.