1127 GMT December 07, 2019
Toni Morrison was unparalleled. She will always be so. A novelist, essayist, woman and sage, she was a genius of uncommon grace. This is not hyperbolic. It is, simply, fact.
I was on a flight from Paris to New York when a friend messaged me about Ms. Morrison’s passing and I was stunned, saddened and overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessings of her work. I knew she was in her 80s, but I hoped she might be the first immortal among us.
Nonetheless, it was heartening to see the immediate and effusive outpouring of respect, admiration and affection for her work and her unimpeachable legacy. It was also a relief to know she was one of the greats lucky enough to be appreciated while she lived.
For the past couple of months, I have been slowly reading her collected essays and speeches, ‘The Source of Self-Regard.’
As I’ve been reading ‘The Source of Self-Regard,’ I have also been looking for the right, so very elusive, words to respond to President Trump’s embrace of white nationalism; the government’s unacceptable family separation program and internment camps; the politicians doing nothing but thinking and praying in the face of gun violence; women’s ever-precarious access to reproductive rights and bodily autonomy; and everything else that is so overwhelming and terrible in this country.
For the most vulnerable among us, there is a great deal at stake, and silence in the face of all this injustice is not acceptable. Then I read Toni Morrison and think, “Until I can write like that, I should say nothing.”
In 2015, I interviewed Ms. Morrison for an airline magazine, of all things. She was kind, gracious, charming, witty. It was easy to be awestruck. But throughout our conversation, I felt that I was speaking not to a god, but rather to a woman of uncanny genius, absolutely mortal and as such, so very impressive. What I remember most from our conversation was how important her ambition still was to her, how, in her words, “I don’t think I could do without it.”
I end nearly every interview with the question, “What do you like most about your writing?” Writers often equivocate and dance around the question, afraid to admit they think well of themselves and their work. With Ms. Morrison, there was no hesitation or equivocation. She said she appreciated her ability to “say more and write less,” and her “desire to give the reader space.”
Everything I am and ever will be as a black woman who writes begins with the work of Toni Morrison.
When I read each of Ms. Morrison’s novels for the first time, I saw far more than a reflection of what it means to live in a black woman’ body. I saw majesty and infinite possibility. I saw a writer wielding her craft masterfully, being bold and audacious, avoiding the facile choices despite the risks in doing so.
Ms. Morrison taught me and an entire generation of black writers to recognize that we are rich places to write from. She showed us that we must matter first to ourselves if we hope to matter to anyone else. She demonstrated that there is no shame in writing that is both work and a necessary political act.
She taught me that you can write about black girls and black women, unapologetically, and say necessary, meaningful things about our lives in a world that often tells us that our lives do not matter. She consistently centered blackness in her narratives, but not an idealized version of blackness.
Instead, she wrote, for black people in the truest ways she could. She was of us and wrote for us nuanced, complicated, authentic and honest representations of our culture, our lives, our triumphs, our sufferings, our failures. She demonstrated the importance of raising our voices and challenging power structures that harm vulnerable peoples.
Her brilliant books, stories, essays and speeches are certainly a significant part of her legacy. The many accolades she accumulated will always be a part of her story.
But, perhaps, her greatest legacy will be the direct lineage between her and so many black writers who are following in her footsteps as they create their own legacies. She broadened the scope of what I thought was possible for myself as a writer and a woman. I can never repay that gift.
When someone with as much staggering talent as Toni Morrison dies, it is easy to remember them as supernatural. It is particularly easy to do that with Ms. Morrison because her writing is so powerful. She wrote impeccable sentences. She imparted wisdom in ways that seemed effortless. She commanded attention and demanded respect. She told incredible, passionate, resonant stories. Her immense legacy will be discussed in perpetuity and her body of work will stand the test of time.
But to attribute her brilliance to some higher power would be a disservice to the very real life she lived, how hard she worked and how often she had to break through glass ceilings so that others could follow.
The best way we can honor Toni Morrison’s legacy is to remember her as the astonishing and brilliant and very human woman she was. It is her humanity that made her so extraordinary.
* Roxane Gay is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.