In Memoriam: What Toni Morrison Taught Me

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

When I woke up this morning and scrolled through the morning headlines, the words “Nobel Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison has died at 88” punched me in the stomach. I sat on my bed for a moment and reread the headline and eventually opened the article. Nothing felt real.

I was first introduced to Toni Morrison in my sophomore year of high school. Song of Solomon is still the single most influential novel in my life. That novel helped form my worldview as a thinker, writer, and person. That novel changed my entire perspective on what stories I could write as a Black person. At its heart, Song of Solomon is a history. It’s a history of Black family dynamics, a history of post-war and post-slavery African-American diasporas within the United States, and a history of the power of Black music. In that history there are moments of magical realism, fables, and that blurred line between history and memory. Song of Solomon moved me so much, that I chose to write about the novel for my Junior Thesis the next year. In that thesis, I wrote about the healing properties of Black music in Song of Solomon. In Song of Solomon, the sounds of jazz music and gospel music are intertwined with African-American oral history and Black American Christianity. Ms. Morrison knew that music healed souls. Ms. Morrison knew that the right song and the right sound could make a person fly above the noise of family and racial trauma, just ask Milkman.

Growing up in the church, I always knew about the intrinsic connection between Black people and their music. Ms. Morrison’s Song of Solomon was the first novel to articulate how that deep connection bridges generations of Black people across the world. This is why I’m struggling to find the right words as I write this, Toni Morrison had all the words. Her words were always carefully selected; she never gave too much information, but always gave just enough. Toni Morrison forced me to be comfortable with existing within the unknown and unexplained. She also taught me that it was acceptable, preferred even, to have Black characters speak and interact like Black people.

Toni Morrison was a musician as much as she was a writer. Her words lifted off the page and created magical melodies that were intended to teach something. Toni Morrison taught me to be fearless in my writing. She taught me to write and live and breathe the stories that I wanted to see. Ms. Morrison was a fighter, a healer, a warrior, and a spiritual advisor through her work. Very few novelists have moved me as much as she has, and it will take a while to truly process that she’s gone. Losing Ms. Morrison is like losing an aunt or a grandmother. She felt like family; every interview and every novel showed how much she loved us and how much she wanted to fight for and with us. This will make some people shift in their seats, but we have to acknowledge that today we lost the greatest American novelist to ever live. She completely obliterated what used to be a “great American novel,” and remade it in the likeness of her story and her people. Her tenacity and talent will continue to inspire young writers around the world for centuries to come. Rest in power, Ms. Morrison.

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