Toni saw me. Toni read me. Toni pierced me.
Toni’s singular grasp of the depth of love, her love for herself, black women and black people as a whole, did not arise from a vacuum. The love that permeated Toni’s life and work was not some abstract philosophical reality; it found its inception in the one who is love: God.
At age 12, Toni, known then as Chloe Wofford, converted to Catholicism and selected Anthony as her baptismal name. In her documentary, released this year, “The Pieces I Am,” Toni mentions that people perpetually mispronounced her first name, Chloe, so she went with Toni after her patron saint, Saint Anthony. Naturally, her work often featured a strong undercurrent of the natural world and the spiritual world.
As a young girl, I picked up my mother’s copy of “The Bluest Eye” and read it. Correction: It read me. Toni loved me in this way: She waged war with the internalized white supremacy that ravaged my soul. Every time I picked up “The Bluest Eye,” Toni went to battle with the “wall of whiteness,” said Laura Pritchard, a black Christian woman who has fought racism in churches. A wall that encaged me as a young, dark-skinned black girl. You see, I was Pecola, the main character. Despising the image reflected back to me in the mirror. Loathing my nappy hair. Hating my dark skin by reaching for bleaching cream — morning and night, which was my sacrifice to the altar of whiteness. I was Pecola. Pecola was me.
Toni knew that for a black girl to love herself was no trifling matter. I had to be set free from the clutches of white supremacy to love myself. For freedom lies on the other side of truth, and it is from that side that Toni wrote and spoke to me — to us — black people. She centered blackness: our history, culture, lifestyles, while eschewing the white gaze.
Morrison had an unflinching commitment to truth-telling, in her books and her interviews. That commitment resulted in “The Bluest Eye” being banned and her insistence upon writing about black people in the face of “powerfully racist” questions from interviewers and critics implying that she ought to center white people. Her devotion to truth was undergirded by love, and it dripped from the pages of her books.
She beckoned us, wooed us, exhorted us to love ourselves fiercely by uprooting the foul seeds of inferiority implanted within our souls before we could utter our names. She called us by our name, Beloved, instructing us:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face 'cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Toni had an uncanny spiritual vision, to see both, the spirit world while maintaining a firm understanding of the material world and the complicated nature of human beings.
As Toni herself put it in her book “Beloved,” “she is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”
How does one find the words to reflect on Toni Morrison, the chief wordsmith and literary architect? I weep now, as I wept while watching “The Pieces I Am” when the poet Sonia Sanchez said with tears in her eyes, “Toni is a blessed one.” I, and many other black women, join our tears with Sonia’s, and we too declare that “Toni is a blessed one.”
It is rare for a black woman to receive her roses — accolades, honor, respect — while she is alive, but Toni received hers. We are the roses. America holds a long history of black women like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and many other black women who never received their roses while they were alive. Toni did; that’s significant. She was loved. She is loved.
Well done, Mother Toni. Well done.