Toni Morrison’s Legacy: Be Fearless, Be You, Be Black

I always thought Toni Morrison had the most fabulous swag. The phrase unbothered could have been invented for her, it fit so well. She was always serene. The tiny smile that frequently decorated her lips suggested that she knew what you were going to ask her before you did, and that your question would likely be silly and lacking, but she’d give you a go anyway.

She was regal. Yet, she never appeared condescending in the interview clips I saw of her. She just didn’t take crap. She called reporters out on their incessant need to know, when was she going to write about white people? Her answer was invariably, no time soon, if ever. She maintained throughout multiple iterations of this same racist query that her work would not be filtered through the white gaze. She was not taking plot requests or character suggestions.

She was writing for people like her, people who did not need to be faked or patronized and people who had very high criteria. She was completely unapologetic about that fact, and her attitude oozed power. She was like a wordsmith superhero, one who could cast a spell over you with her words. Yet any bumps or bruises that you might sustain during the occasional struggle to absorb her beautifully written fiction you wore with pride. Once those images soaked in, once the feelings she’d bled through the page were up and moving around in your head, emoting and making you think as you clung to the book with reference, making it to the end of the tale felt like an achievement. Like you’d won something meaningful.

Morrison was proud without being a braggart, in that, her recitations of black people’s talents and attractions seemed quite matter of fact. That seemed as far as she’d go to explain why her work centered on the black experience: There was so much material to choose from after all, and writing for this audience required no explanation. She seemed to hold special disdain for explanations, and who can blame her?

Her white and male peers weren’t asked to explain their work in the same way that she often was. Is it bad that I always got a kick out of her very quiet, polite refusal to answer or engage those kinds of questions? Her eyes would crinkle a bit, and that little smile would flirt with her full lips before she very gently and graciously checked the interviewer for the audacity and presumption of holding such a double standard close and then having the utter nerve to ask her about it like it wasn’t his or her problem, not hers.

She was open about her right to create exactly the kinds of stories that she wanted to read. And while she didn’t whole scale denounce the possibility of creating white characters, she made no attempt to placate those who wanted – however rudely – to be included. Her sense of self, her presence was so strong, so sure, I couldn’t imagine her worrying what the public would think of her work, which was probably why it was so wonderful.

She was fearless before her muse. The story trumped everything, all else was merely food. She just wrote from her heart and left her work before the public to do with it what they would.

Toni Morrison was brilliant. She will be greatly missed. Thank God that we have her work.

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