The righteous and limitless Toni Morrison has finally departed, leaving us behind. She has left, but she is not gone. Her leaving is not too soon, though it might have always felt too soon for those of us who fingered the creases on the spine of Beloved or Sula or Jazz after pulling the book from a library shelf or the open palms of a parent. Toni dreamed up an honest and complicated world to counter the one we have always been immersed in. She made it plain that she was writing for her people and didn’t need to make room for anyone else. And never let anyone speak on writing for your people as anything but generosity. I am thinking about the generosity of Toni Morrison today. The generosity of moonlight, which cradled me against its shoulder and allowed me to read Beloved when I was a boy, awake past bedtime and obsessed with language, even if my obsession outpaced my understanding. I am thinking about the generosity of Morrison’s work, which stitched together an understanding of death, and what might or might not come after.
I am thinking about Ohio, as I often am. There are black people in the Midwest. In places other than Chicago and St. Louis, I promise. There are black people who trudge through the unforgiving winters of the Upper Midwest, in Madison or Milwaukee or Duluth. There are black people among the golden and greens of Indiana — in Evansville, in Fort Wayne. And there are certainly black people in Ohio. All of them (knowingly or unknowingly) carrying something unique to their relationship with lineage, place, and history. Lorain, Ohio, sits at the long and yawning mouth of the Black River, a strong few stones' throws outside of Cleveland. In the early 1920s in Cartersville, Georgia, white people lynched two black people who lived on the same street as 15-year-old George Wofford. Soon after the lynching, Wofford moved to Lorain, which was an integrated town of industry. He married Ramah Willis Wofford, who gave birth to Toni Morrison in February 1931.
The story goes, the family fell behind on the rent when Morrison was 2. The rent was four dollars a month. The landlord set fire to the home with the family inside of it. As Morrsion tells it, her family laughed at the absurdity of the landlord’s cruelty. Laughter, as a tool to drown out the act, and reclaim the self. Otherwise, one might have to live with the weight of every honest cruelty. That they could escape a lynching, and walk into a fire.
Toni Morrison was an Ohioan — something I like to jokingly, repeatedly remind my friends of. I come from the state where Toni Morrison also came from, and I would be lying on the dead if I now claimed that there were any aesthetic intersections in our work. But I wanted nothing beyond knowing and understanding that Toni Morrison was from where I was from and wrote about black people with the vastness we deserve, even in all of our complications and even with all of the bridges we try and sometimes fail to build toward each other. I think of this often, but especially when black people in the Midwest are flattened by those who don’t live in these places, or have never been. People who don’t understand that there are several Midwests. In the work and life of Toni Morrison, freedom was expanding the imagination of the self, until the self was too large and layered to be monolithic.
To not stray too far from the idea of generosity, I am also thankful for how Toni Morrison rejected the idea of genius. How she, perhaps, understood that to embrace genius — particularly while black — is to embrace the concepts of scarcity, pushed into the mainstream (in part) by the limits of the white imagination. How scarcity is the truest enemy of accountability, for how can my people sharpen each other’s work and hold each other to that sharpening if we are molded by the fear of scarcity? When Morrison talked about rejecting the white gaze, I believe she meant all of it, including the ideas pushed upon black writers that made them hoard their resources and their supposed genius. My hope is that Morrison’s work as an editor at Random House in the ’70s is not glossed over in these remembrances of her work and life. She earned a way up the ladder and, upon her arrival, tossed several ladders back to the eager, talented, and waiting choir of black writers. This, I think, is what molded me more than any of her work on the page. Her commitment to holding the door open as wide as she could, for as long as she could.
I heard the news of Toni Morrison’s passing inside of Alain Locke Hall at Howard University. Toni Morrison left Lorain to come here in 1949. There is a bench on campus dedicated to Toni Morrison, but I haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t seen it yet because I’ve been mostly inside, teaching a weeklong poetry workshop to a group of black writers during the Hurston/Wright Writers Week. I was a student here in 2015, when I had no books and a handful of poems that would eventually become my first poetry manuscript. I had never been to a workshop before. I didn’t study writing in college, and I never got an MFA. And even though I had long been immersed in a world of black writers well before 2015, I had never placed my work next to theirs and asked for feedback.
My first book was shaped in this building four summers ago, and so I am back, hoping to offer some useful guidance for writers who are better and more inventive than I was then, than I am now. We heard the news, and sat our poems aside. We cried together, and people told stories of how they first read Toni Morrison. They spoke the names of their best kin, or their most beloved teachers. Whoever first passed them a book with Toni Morrison’s name on it. If there is some serendipity in this ocean of grief, let it be that I got to mourn among black writers who knew this particular ocean as well as I did. That I didn’t yet have to go back into the world and wonder why everyone else wasn’t gasping while staring at their phones or collapsed under the weight of their sadness. A blessing, to have a heart swelling with the same kind of pain as someone you can talk to, or touch, or throw back your head and laugh with. I was there, thinking about how I held two of Toni Morrison’s many worlds: a child of Ohio, in the halls of Howard University. Linking my memories with the memories of other black writers. Not widening the canon, but making the canon even more of a myth.
In the one theater showing the Toni Morrison documentary in town tonight, all of the tickets are sold out. They are sold out tomorrow too. And I understand. I had hoped, perhaps, to be among some masses also eager to see her living self one last time. To press our ears to the immovable wall of grief and hear her voice echoing back. Some things just aren’t the same done alone. This one is too massive to demand anything but an entire chorus of the grieving. Elegies collapsing atop one another until a monument emerges. How impossibly lucky, to get to tell stories of Toni Morrison’s living. To have gotten to live among her underneath the same skies, to feel rage at the same country, consumed by its own tapestry of violence. I am at such a loss for language to describe the weight of this sadness. The weight of knowing that Toni Morrison would know exactly how to articulate this unique and seemingly unbearable sorrow. She did it for us, generously, too many times to count. She would know how to make these newly barren walls beautiful once again. My people, it is up to us now. ●