[su_quote cite="Toni Morrison"]Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination, it expands it.[/su_quote]What does it mean to reclaim, rename and re-own that which was not beloved as Beloved? Such a quest not only shapes the contours of Toni Morrison’s most celebrated work, but it also lies at the heart of her rich tapestry of written and spoken art, and the glimpses we saw of the life that she lived to the full. Her passing on 5th August 2019 reaffirmed this theoretical and lived commitment to writing about the lives of Black women in all their complexities and pain and joy and beauty and that which is so often forgotten: the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian.
5th August 2019 marked a lifetime spent reimagining what is made possible when our narratives are not positioned as marginal. Toni Morrison’s seminal five decades of centring, writing to and writing with Black women provided us with litanies that open up new ways of thought, that invite us to envisage otherwise. At every turn of her glittering career, she was firm in who she was speaking to. Her words were always for us.
Toni Morrison did not ask why we were excluded, why we were rendered invisible in disciplines spanning from the Western literary canon and the historical archive to art, cinema and everything else in between. Instead, her oeuvre asked a completely different question: “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence?”
In posing this question, she shifted the gaze through which Black womanhood is conceived; not as absence from the archive that must be corrected through white frames of understanding, but as the well from which liberation, hope and radical love are performed. She gave us a language to understand that freedom is not a singular march towards an elusive promise of progress. Instead, it is ongoing, present in the everyday of our lives and our imaginations. “If we don’t know what our past is,” she emphasised, “if we Third-World women in America don’t know it, it is not known by anybody at all.”
For Toni Morrison, grappling with the pathos and the jubilant truths of Black women’s lives was an endeavour that was not guided by the politics of respectability. Her characters found alternative modes of communal healing and restitution for Black American communities living in the many afterlives of chattel slavery. In one of the most poignant scenes in Beloved, we are introduced to the importance of maternal lineage when the ancestral character, Baby Suggs—“uncalled, unrobed, unanointed”—seeks to create a process of spiritual restoration for the formerly enslaved Black Americans within her community. As she encourages her congregation to cry “for the living and for the dead,” Baby Suggs’s ceremony—which takes place in a clearing, rather than a traditional church, outside of white colonial Christian doctrine —is akin to a baptism; through confronting the tragedy within their collective past, her congregation undergo a spiritual catharsis, in which a future, determined only by themselves, becomes possible.
As anti-blackness continues to shape our trajectories and positions us in close proximity to death of all kinds, this scene continues to resonate with me. Toni Morrison wrote an ode to the ways in which Black women have always crafted care for one another as a form of resistance, under slavery, under colonialism and under our contemporary political moment. She reminded us of the importance of refusal as foundational to the Black radical imagination; that instead of explaining our worth and our value to the purveying force of racism, there were more nourishing modes of inhabiting space together.
How do we mourn Toni Morrison? How do we celebrate her life and this, the closing chapter of her earthly presence in ours? In a world that ensures the premature deaths of so many Black women, it was a joy and an honour to see her age in front of our eyes. To behold old photographs from the seventies of her with her Black women’s writing group, lounging beside our beloved elders such as writers Ntozake Shange and June Jordan, foremothers we lost all too soon. To see her walking alongside her mentee, Angela Davis, with matching afros, or deep in conversation with James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. Since the news of her passing became public, Black women have led the chorus in eulogising what she meant to us. We have given voice to just how profound an impact she had on our lives. She saw us in ways that we are not seen by many, and in turn, we saw her too.
To Ms Morrison, on your homegoing: You gave us so many words, but there are not enough to express my eternal gratitude here. Thank you for seeing us as we are and as we can be. Thank you for holding us at the centre of your imagination, at the centre of your worlds. And thank you for walking in this world with us and creating an entire grammar for how we can come to know one another and ourselves.
At the 1978 Commencement ceremony at Spelman College, America’s oldest historically black liberal arts college for women, you beseeched an auditorium of Black women students with a sermon to live by: “I beg you, no matter what anyone tells you, do it all, my sisters, do it all!”
With these words, we hold you with us now as you make your ancestral journey home.