Sula sashayed the way I did when I pretended to be grown, but Nel had a way of staring quietly back at me in the mirror. Toni did that.
When she told me “It was in that summer, the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys, that they became skittish, frightened and bold–all at the same time,” I remembered my walks to the candy store, where the last thing on my mind was buying Chick-o-Sticks and Now and Laters, where returning with that candy, though, was only so my mama and my friends’ mamas wouldn’t call us “fast” and question why we kept leaving the block. But now, looking back, I think they knew all along. Toni did that.
It was Toni’s words that comforted me on the front porch when I was forced to “go outside and play,” and it was her book hiding an amused smile when Alvin asked, “Whatchu reading, Girl?” Glancing up, seeing that dark chocolate boy of sixteen with muscles too big to belong to him, I saw a younger version of Ajax, and I wanted him to want to know what I was reading for real so that he would sit close to me. He did. Toni did that, too.
Sitting on the quad with the boy I knew I’d marry, I’d read aloud snatches from her prose, hellbent on making him love what I loved. “Did you see what she did right there?” I’d ask, poised to explain the symbolism or foreshadowing or just plain old good writing his ears were just blessed to hear. He’d smile at me with that 60-watt grin that had nothing on how adoringly his eyes saw me, and I’d melt wanting little more than to see him look at me like that forever. Then back to Toni I’d retreat (because I’d known Jude), not daring to let him know how much I loved him.
Toni made me confident and treasure being a black girl. She validated who I was, what I saw, and how I felt. The complexity, rawness, and humor in her writing appealed to me from such a young age because she said the stuff that my heart didn’t know how to articulate. Her narration was simultaneously compassionate and critical. I learned balance and perspective from her. And I revered her so much because she gave me some of my life-long friends. I’ve visited them often throughout the years, and each time, knowing what they’d say and how they’d react, I’d cringe and swoon and giggle anew.
Ironically, just this morning, in reading the part from Think and Grow Rich where Napoleon Hill talks about his imagined Cabinet of Invisible Counselors, I said to myself, “Toni Morrison will be a member of mine.” I visualized myself asking her to give me insights on staying the course when nothing in the world looks like what is in my heart of hearts. I wondered what lessons on perseverance, independence, and self-acceptance she would share with me. Then this afternoon I read about her dying. News of her death was buried far too far beneath the cacophony of racist sentiment, blame casting, violence, and shameful behaviors that have plagued our society of late. And I wished there was some way I could tell her how much I loved meeting her through her characters. How I’ve grown up with them and still learn from them. How I can’t stand them and love them all at the same time.
I’m so glad she was here to grace us with her pen. I’m so glad she kicked down walls to give a truly sophisticated, authentically and uniquely black, and unapologetically female voice to a canon that never really wanted to accept people like her. I’m glad she found her way to the introverted, self-conscious, and nervous little girl who first fell in love with her when she didn’t even know that black women wrote books, approving of her from afar as she scrawled little narratives in the notebooks and diaries in the upstairs bedroom of her youth.