As much as Ohioans like me and others want to claim Morrison, her words belong to the world.
By Yanick Rice Lamb
Toni Morrison’s way with words lifted the voices and lives of everyday people, including fellow Ohioans in and around her hometown of Lorain.
“In my work, no matter where it’s set … the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie,” the author said in a quote below her childhood photo outside the Toni Morrison Reading Room at the main branch of the Lorain Public Library.
Many shades of Ohio colored her work, from the Underground Railroad activity extending across the lake into Canada to not-so-free life near the Ohio River flowing along the Mason-Dixon line. Two of her novels were set in these areas: Beloved in slave-era Cincinnati and The Bluest Eye with its remix of Lorain’s sights and sounds downtown on Broadway and in her multi-ethnic neighborhoods.
As a native of Akron, I have always been drawn to Morrison’s words and loved that we both hailed from Northeast Ohio. Her migration stories, especially those sprinkled with local references, resonate and remind me of my own family’s journey from Alabama and Georgia — the same states as Morrison’s kinfolk. We both have the Willis surname on our family trees, and our Willises migrated North to Akron where her grandmother had relatives. Her people moved on to Lorain with its plentiful steel jobs, and mine stayed in the Rubber City to build tires. (I’m still trying to figure out if we’re distant relatives. Imagine that!)
Learning that one of her most overwhelming experiences was being in the presence of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother warmly recalls the four-generation moment when my mother met my grandson, who was born on her 80th birthday.
I was near speechless when I finally met Morrison during a staff luncheon at Essence magazine when I was an editor-at-large and later at a book signing. Although I had to share her with others, she seemed genuinely pleased that we were home girls.
As much as Ohioans like me and others want to claim Morrison, her words belong to the world. She has infused her “village literature” with a universality that touches people of all backgrounds. We see our aunts and uncles and neighbors in prose so lyrical and deep that some of it must be read multiple times for full comprehension.
“She eschews the notion that it’s reasonable to think of non-white peoples as other, and that’s a function of her growing up around all types of ethnic peoples,” said Dana Williams, dean of the Graduate School and former chair of the Department of English at Howard University, where Chloe Wofford became Toni Morrison. “Ohio fueled her imagination and gave her a sense of home and place. That shows up in her fiction.”
“Paradise is a remarkable book in every way,” Williams said of her favorite Morrison novel. “It’s the most artistic in terms of its craft, in my view. But I love teaching Song of Solomon. Beloved is sheer genius.”
Darlene Taylor, the inaugural Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Writer-in-Residence at the Columbus Museum of Art, who also teaches English at Howard, discussed ingredients of storytelling by writers like Morrison as she stood outside her childhood home.
“We can see that place and race mattered to her … the economy of their individual households, the economy of the community, the movings back and forth, folks sitting on the porch, folks passing by waving or not waving, the hellos, the goodbyes.”
Johnny Coleman, professor of studio art and Africana studies at nearby Oberlin College, praised Morrison’s ability “to imagine the interior lives of her ancestors.” He had the opportunity to spend time with Morrison when she commissioned artwork for her New York home. Beloved inspired the commission as well as his “Landscape” series at the Akron Art Museum.
“Along with Ms. Morrison’s brilliance, her warmth and generosity made a huge impact upon me,” he said. “She put on paper some of the most poetic and powerful images that I’ve encountered anywhere.”
Six months after her death on Aug. 5, 2019, Coleman organized “In Celebration of Toni Morrison: A Gesture of Love and Reflection” for what would have been her 89th birthday on Feb. 18. The celebration was held at Oberlin, home of the Toni Morrison Society and a place that the author cherished.
“We are fortunate to have Toni Morrison as one of the finest writers and thinkers this country has ever produced,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom she praised as a modern-day James Baldwin, wrote in the forward to her book The Origin of Others.
Morrison’s brilliance clearly moves her peer in poetry, Sonia Sanchez. “There are some people who are really the blessed ones,” Sanchez explains in the PBS American Masters documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. “They are put here to make us really review ourselves so that we can walk upright finally as human beings.”
Along those lines, another writer recently said that “Toni Morrison was a gift from God.”
Yet Morrison, winner of Nobel and Pulitzer awards among others, saw herself in a more modest light. “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity,” she said in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations.
It is indeed a necessity to illustrate how the “residue” of slavery continues to affect lives, to celebrate our humanity and to reinforce, as Morrison has pointed out, that we’re all in this together.
“How one comes to terms with one’s own life under the given situation is what is fascinating to me,” Morrison explained in a 1977 interview included in Toni Morrison: Conversations, an anthology by Carolyn C. Denard. “How under the most inconceivable abuse, there is this grace, there is this power and there is this tenacity.”
However, these attributes are lost on those who have fought to ban some of her books — even though actions that are deemed objectionable, such as references to sexuality or sexual abuse in The Bluest Eye, happen IRL, in real life, going viral on social media and in news reports where they’re more accessible to the masses.
Morrison pointed out that The Bluest Eye is really about “inner pain,” a residue from slavery that is just as detrimental as lynching and other forms of racism. The book was inspired by a childhood debate over the existence of God. As her evidence that God didn’t exist, a little girl in Lorain told Morrison that she had been praying for blue eyes for two years to no avail. This memory of her friend’s self-hatred mired in Eurocentric standards of beauty never left Morrison and spilled onto the yellow pages of legal pads where she wrote her first and, to many, most impactful novel.
Nevertheless, The Bluest Eye remains a perennial on the American Library Association’s annual listing of the “Top 10 Most Challenged Books.” It was No. 8 on the 2021 list, according to the State of America’s Libraries Report by the ALA, which reported a record number of book challenges since it started the list 20 years ago. Morrison believed parents had a right to monitor their children’s reading habits, but she had a problem with them imposing their beliefs on others.
Another target is Beloved, even though it’s based on true, though reimagined, events and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. More than 100 prominent authors, critics and editors cited Beloved as the best work of American fiction in the previous 25 years, according to a 2006 poll by the New York Times Book Review.
Beloved was inspired by a newspaper clipping that Morrison read about the 1856 case of Margaret Garner, who fled across the Ohio River with her husband and children to escape slavery in Kentucky. After being discovered, she attempted to kill her children with a butcher knife, rather than have them return to the ravages of slavery. After one child died, abolitionists wanted Garner to be tried for murder to prove a point, while enslavers viewed her actions as property damage.
“The novel admits that it cannot negotiate the morality of that act, that there’s no one qualified who can, except the dead child. That is why her presence, or the belief in her presence, is so important,” Morrison explained of the “fleshed ghost” in a 1988 interview in Denard’s anthology.
In response to critics who wanted her to write happy stories, Morrison countered: “It’s humiliating to be asked to write propaganda. That’s not literature.”
Morrison unapologetically described her work as an “intimate and direct account to the people in the book and to Black people.” She wrote 11 novels during her 88 years. She first shared what would become The Bluest Eye at a writer’s group while teaching at Howard. She had been an English and Classics major there, but also enjoyed theatre and traveling with the Howard Players before graduating in 1953.
The university recently established an endowed chair in her name, and the international Toni Morrison Society set up “Bench by the Road” memorials in her honor at Howard and Oberlin. Morrison also worked at Random House and taught at Princeton University, which will showcase her papers next spring in an exhibit called “Sites of Memory: The Archival World of Toni Morrison.”
“Toni Morrison is the single most important American writer to have lived and published in the last 100 years,” Williams said.
“Her work goes beyond the novels, as important as they are,” she explained. “Her essays are as thoughtful, reflective, and critical as any ever written. In her, we had a mind that was remarkable and creative. Her teaching was generous, as were her other artistic productions: the art exhibitions, the curated atelier, the plays and stories, the lyrics. She was one of our best minds.”
Yanick Rice Lamb, a staff writer at Belt Magazine, is a professor at Howard University and co-founder of FierceforBlackWomen.com.