Toni Morrison: Goodbye to a Mentor

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Five years ago I was telling my mother that she should read more of the Greek myths and she told me she didn’t like reading in verse. Fair enough. I promised to find her a novelization of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter but then couldn’t! I was gob smacked that this book didn’t exist. Then a quote from the legendary Toni Morrison came to me, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I wrote the book. 

As a writer, finding an author like Toni Morrison is like finding a mentor. Reading her inspires me and humbles me. I want my characters to make my readers cry like hers did for me. I want my scenes to burn images in my reader’s minds. Sethe’s home in Beloved, arguably her best work and my favorite, is vivid in my mind twenty-five years after Morrison first described it to me. I study her prose looking for the magic that she called on to bewitch me. I re-read Beloved this summer, making note of the arc of the plot and the ratio of dialog to description. Sometimes after reading it I would throw down my pen in disgust with my cheap imitation of her literary genius. Then, like the patient teacher she has been to me her words whisper in my mind, “you must write it” and I pick up my pen again, striving for the beauty she created for us.

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These lessons on the written word came later, or maybe slowly along the way. The first lessons Morrison taught me were about humanity. The lives of people I could not relate to in experiences, time, or place she helped me relate to in spirit. She painted the universality of emotions in such a way that even a twelve-year-old white girl in Cleveland in the late 20th century could connect with a mother protecting her children from a return to the horrors of slavery. When Sethe in Beloved killed her daughter, “She had to be safe and I put her where she would be,” I nodded my head and thought, yes, that is a sacrifice a mother would make to spare her child from a fate worse than death. How many authors could elicit a reaction like that from a child? 

In my young mind, and I probably read them too young for the content, reading Morrison shaped the way I thought about Black Americans. The realness of the characters, even when framed in magical realness, brought me into settings and lives that were so unlike my own privileged white, middle class, suburban life. Even with the differences, I connected to these characters, exhilarated by the new and comforted by the familiar. This exposure probably protected me from adopting the prejudices to which I would later be exposed. Assertions that Blacks were inherently less than whites sounded ridiculous to me with the words of Morrison in my mind. The feelings and actions of her characters were often relatable, despite the dramatically different experiences to mine, and this assured me that racial inequality was a myth. Her works also protected me from having an exclusively white, often male, literary experience. The assignments in school—William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, JD Salinger—threatened to narrow my understanding to the perspective of white men.     

While Morrison is regularly praised as painting the Black American experience, for me she was painting the American Woman’s experience and of course she was painting both. The strengths and flaws of her characters taught me that I could be strong and flawed. Her women were independent and leaders but also vulnerable and in search of love, in all its forms. They were authentic and complex, assuring me that it was okay that I was complex and full of contradictions. 

“He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion-‘
‘I don’t, ‘She said. ‘I have my own.”

The impression of that line—I have my own—on my young mind is hard to describe. I loved the cheekiness of it but also the truth. Reading Sethe give credit to her own opinions taught me to value my own in a way society seldom encourages girls to do.

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Authors like Morrison shaped who I now am in these and countless other ways. They are the reason I read and the reason I write. They raised me through their depictions of life as bigger than mine but also like mine. They showed me a broader world than I could ever have seen with my own eyes. As a student of history I know the facts of horrors like the holocaust and slavery but it was books like Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and Toni Morrison’s Beloved that burned the lessons in my heart. While the world is dimmer without Morrison in it, as long as I can pick up a copy of Beloved or Song of Solomon she is still here and guiding me.

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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