The Ugly Truth | Daily News

The Ugly Truth

How Toni Morrison Made Us See Black Women

With the passing of Toni Morrison on August 6 at the age of 88, the culture at large lost one of its titans. In celebration of the author’s legacy, we look back to a touching tribute to Morrison on her birthday in 2018, a piece that still captures her eternal brilliance.

A blank stare. That’s what my high school English teacher gave me after I told him I wanted to write about the representations of black women in Toni Morrison’s books for my senior thesis. It was 1990 and Morrison had, by then, published five acclaimed novels. All five — “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula,” “Tar Baby,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Beloved” — were on my mother’s bookshelves. I’d read them all. But I was the only black student in a white man’s class in Northern Indiana, and he had a What in The Great Gatsby are you talking about? look on his face.

With February 18 being Morrison’s birthday — and a lovingly worn copy of “The Bluest Eye” permanently on my bedside table that encounter with my teacher has been on my mind. There is (and has been for decades) so much to celebrate about Toni Morrison and what she contributed to the culture. She’d won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “Beloved” in 1988, two years before my teacher’s comments. What he did not know — and, from his behavior, probably didn’t care to know — is that Morrison is the high priestess of putting down on the page what it’s like to be a black girl forced to conform and keep secrets. The hot, popping grease of getting your kinks pressed straight and being made to feel — as Pecola Breedlove in “The Bluest Eye” does — like you’re nothing because your skin isn’t lily-white, your hair doesn’t flow down to your hips, and your eyes aren’t blue.

I read that book and, for the first time in my life, felt heard and seen in literature. The language, the emotion, the racial and gender constructs simmering underneath it all — the ugliness of truth. That is what Morrison brings. And the writing advice she gave others always rang true in her own work: “People say to write about what you know,” she told students at Oberlin College in 2011. “I’m here to tell you, no one wants to read that, ‘cause you don’t know anything. So write about something you don’t know. And don’t be scared, ever.” When I began that high school paper I didn’t know the details of Morrison’s life. For instance, she was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, a racially mixed shipping and steel mill town on the shores of Lake Erie, about 30 miles west of Cleveland. In that same talk at Oberlin, Morrison told students she’d canceled plans to write a memoir. “My publisher asked me to do it, but there’s a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me. I’d rather write fiction,” she said. But much of Morrison’s work is steeped in her childhood and adolescence in Lorain — indeed, “The Bluest Eye” is set there.

I also didn’t know that Toni Morrison is, more or less, a pen name. Morrison’s books were actually nurtured in the heart of a woman named, at birth, Chloe Anthony Wofford. “People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best,” she told New York Magazine in 2012. “Chloe writes the books.” Toni was merely a nickname picked up during her years studying at Howard University, where she was an English major observing the class and colorism dynamics at the historically black school. And Morrison? That was the last name of her eventual ex-husband, who she bravely divorced while pregnant with their second son.

Morrison never publicly discussed the reasons for the split, but it always struck me that divorcing in 1974 while pregnant is some “I deserve better and my children deserve better” badassery. And in a society that often conflates youth with creativity, Morrison didn’t publish her first novel until she was 39. She wrote in the early hours before dawn, did the single mom morning hustle with her sons, and then headed to her day job as a book editor.

As a 17-year-old senior, to me, Toni Morrison was also the only author I’d read up until then who took the horrors of slavery beyond the physical and into the realm of the psychological damage black folks — black women specifically — endured. I wondered, for the first time, how far would I have gone to keep my own children from being enslaved? Would I have murdered my own toddler like Sethe, the main character of “Beloved?” Morrison mirrored me back to myself, but she also made me see the black women in my family. What had my mother and her sisters, my grandmother, and my other female relatives gone through because of racism that I could not understand? I began to wondered whether they, like Sethe, were haunted by the past. When my grandmother called me “white sugar” and called my cousin “brown sugar” and said, in front of my cousin, that “white sugar always tastes sweeter,” what was really going on?

The spectral realities of colorism took center stage in “God Help the Child,” Morrison’s 2015 novel in which a blue-black baby girl is born to light-skinned parents. Some reviewers thought the book was too close to the subject matter of “The Bluest Eye.” Yet sometimes when I hashtag “Black is Beautiful” across social media, I recall how Morrison said in 2004 that she wrote “The Bluest Eye” partly as a reaction to the phrase. She told an interviewer how, in the 1960s, books by black male authors “had positive, racially uplifting rhetoric with them...and I thought they would skip over something and thought no one would remember that it wasn’t always beautiful.” She didn’t want folks to forget how black girls and women are made to feel. With “God Help the Child,” perhaps Morrison wanted to remind us that the issue of colorism is still alive and well. Doubt her? Go on ahead and check your social feeds for the #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin hashtags. I’ll wait.

When Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, I wondered if my English teacher recalled referring to her as “this Morrison person.” When Oprah turned “Beloved” into a movie, did he watch it? And when President Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, did that teacher decide to pick up one of her novels? At the end of my senior year, he told me he’d only given me an “A” on the paper because he felt sorry for me and didn’t want to mess up my GPA. “You’re the worst writer I’ve ever had,” he told me. But by then, I wasn’t writing for him, just as Toni Morrison was likely never writing for him either.

“All of my life is doing something for somebody else,” Morrison told New York Magazine. “Whether I’m being a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife, a good lover, a good teacher — and that’s all that. The only thing I do for me is writing. That’s really the real free place where I don’t have to answer.”

-shondaland


Visit Kapruka.com Sri Lanka's Largest online shop. Over 125,000 unique categories such as Fresh Flowers, Cakes, Food, Jewllery, Childrens Toys and other Sri Lankan e-commerce categories. Low delivery cost to most cities here and free delivery in Colombo.

 

Add new comment