I closed my mouth, swallowed hard and tried again. Mute. Struck speechless, for the first and only time in my life. I stood staring at her, so regal and kind, already hating myself for this silence. She leaned over the table. She wouldn’t be rushed by the waiting crowd. She held on to my hand with both of hers. I remember her warmth, which reminded me of my mother’s warmth, and thought how they both resisted the cold of destruction through all the hells they’d had to live through. I remember Morrison’s slight nod before she squeezed tightly and let go. I remember knowing what the nod meant between us, and walking away, dazed, because I would carry it in my body the rest of my life. My friend pulled on my arm. I saw it, she said.
Years later, I saw Morrison in the courtyard of a church in New York City. It was a few months after 9/11, and the usual people — a fandom made up of students of all ages, and adults of all races, all genders — spiraled around her. In the crowding, I felt what I wanted from her, what we all want from the most gifted among us: to help us understand, to help soothe the hurt with what only they can see. We feel that same, devastating want now, at the news of her passing. That time I held back, wondering foolishly if she might remember me from London, too scared to get close enough to find out.
I was 15 years old the first time I read “The Bluest Eye,” and I didn’t quite have a grasp of the English language. I lived in New York’s Harlem, which was going through a transformation of sorts back in the early 1990s, with thousands of Dominicans spilling down from Washington Heights through Morningside Heights, about to burst it. Though I’d been going to public schools for three years, I was still in bilingual education classes; English didn’t stick. Home was dysfunctional, with a stepfather that openly abused my mother, and a legion of adults — neighbors, family members — who were hellbent on acting like short-term amnesiacs around Mami’s bruises and humiliations.
I’d fallen into a reading habit out of revenge — my blinding hatred for a Spanish-language teacher who hated me just as much, who wished I’d fail her class. Reading those Spanish books, largely in defiance of someone who wanted to make me feel worthless, stupid, I had a deafening realization: Stories quieted the world around me, sniffed out the stench of the loneliness clinging to my life. I walked into my local public library down on 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue one cold afternoon. Like many kids who walked in there on any given day, I was trying to escape home, find a quiet place where adults would leave me the hell alone.
There, I found an odd couple who did the exact opposite. They were two librarians: a black man, taller than any person I’d seen in real life, and a short, plump white woman, who carried with her the pungent scent of tea tree oil. On that first day, they walked me around the wide floor, showing me different sections I should get to eventually, amassing in their arms an enormous stack of books I should take home, while they debated back and forth which would be the best for me to start on. It was their lightness with each other I found endearing, a scene I’d seen play out between long-married couples on sitcoms, as I tried to learn English through the TV. Finally, they decided and handed me a slim book: “The Bluest Eye.”
I clung to that book, captivated by its cover, which featured a young girl who shared my skin tone. I didn’t go to sleep all night, annoying my younger sister by keeping the lights on. At the end, there I was, not sure I knew exactly all that had happened in that story but shocked that the feelings in the book mirrored feelings I’d known my entire life. Just like Pecola, I’d often been ridiculed and picked on for being the darkest child. Just like in the world of these characters, the idolization of whiteness surrounded and isolated me. Who was this woman, this writer?
The next day, I went back, and spoke to my new friends. I asked about her in my broken English, and they told me her real name — Chloe Ardelia Wofford — the first part sounding pretty close to mine, and somehow I became immediately convinced this woman had something to do with me. I asked them to give me all her books. Some I started and finished; some I abandoned because they were too hard, knowing I needed more skill to take the plunge.
In college, I became an English major largely because of my love of books, which was also my love of Morrison. In that academic environment, I revisited all of her works, and had to relearn to read her the way I learned to make love as a late bloomer — not knowing exactly what I was doing, and embarrassed that I would fake it, rush it, only to be slowed by a skilled, patient hand. Her work resisted being rushed, and in it, even the parts that chilled me lit up something fierce.
Morrison’s body of work, within a world literary canon that remains as white and male as it has ever been, underscores what we know but somehow still refuse to embrace: Genius isn’t categorically more present in one gender than in another, in one race more than another. Regardless how lonely she remains in gender, in race, in that canon today, her legacy teaches us that.
Toni Morrison is and will remain an artist ahead of her time, beyond time itself. We often hear the worth of an artist measured in the impact she can make. Does she create something new with language, with a voice unlike any other? Is she singularly reflective of the cumulative history that brought us to the moment in which she created her art?
Yes, she did all of that. And what of the ephemeral other thing? The way she helped this black Dominican girl understand her life and her pain, and see the beauty of asserting her worth — through the force of Morrison’s own talent, her mind, which created an echo in mine?
That force lives in legions of us who aren’t amnesiacs, who understand the horrors around us, ahead of us, who will not play dumb or blind, who refuse to be silenced even if our names remain unknown or difficult to pronounce. All of us carry her, will carry her forward, today and always. In resistance, we carry her on.