It was when I read the announcement of the death of Toni Morrison that I was reminded of the depth of attachment that we can develop to the writers that inspire us. It is not an exaggeration to say that Toni Morrison has guided much of my adult life. The fact I was born in the year that she published her first novel The Bluest Eye (1970) is a neat coincidence given how her work has inspired me. Yet, her significant influence on me began the day I read Sula for my undergraduate studies with Dr Allan Lloyd Smith at UEA. The reason I had chosen literary studies as the academic path became clear as I was reading that novel. Toni Morrison’s unique, powerfully poetic writing identifies and articulates the pain, injustice and cruelty that we humans create in our world and the drive and emotional strength we garner to stand our ground against it. The direct and urgent relevance of her stories to contemporary life made clear to me what literature could and should be.
Given the influence her ideas had on my studies, the choice I made to include her fiction in my doctoral work was unsurprising. When examining Morrison’s development of a transcultural African American aesthetic that combines African and African American instances of the magical and folkloric while bearing witness to the grim reality of historic injustices, her work spoke to me of the power of shared imagination. Through her writing we are invited to ‘stand in the footprints’ (Beloved) that are left after trauma has abated but where memory still contains the pain. Her novels create a history of African America, each story set in a significant era of African American culture. Yet, the depth of humanity in her work makes these stories accessible and relevant to all lives. Barak Obama observed on her death that she provided ‘a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy’ (BBC News, 6.8.2019).
Her novels are fixed deep in my memory and influence me beyond my work—the importance of developing, nurturing and valuing community is made clear in her writing and is a thought that I carry with me always. The beauty and enigma of her phrases drift frequently through my mind—the openings of her novels are unforgettable; ‘Quiet as it’s kept’ (The Bluest Eye) is the first line of her first novel; a perfect opening to any tale, and to her literary oeuvre. Her legacy, beyond the guidance she gave to numerous writers in her work as an editor at Random House or as a Professor at Princeton University, is that she took on the impossible and triumphed. She wrote stories that are too painful and truths that are too hard to bear yet did so with a voice so beautiful that it can’t be forgotten once it has been heard. ‘If you surrender to the air, you can ride it’ (Song of Solomon); Toni Morrison, Rest in Power.