Toni Morrison’s talk at Free Library triggers reflections on favorite works

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The first time I met Toni Morrison was in an American literature class in college. It was an encounter I would never forget. It was startling, gripping, tragic and fantastic all at once. She had me at, “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” the opening sentence from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved.”
Line after line she kept pulling me in. I knew then that Morrison and I would have a long, complicated relationship. We would spend many days together talking, questioning and wrestling with ideas that were bolder than any I had ever grappled with. The most poignant being the traumas of American slavery.
Fortunately, the fierce honesty and truth layered in the pages of Morrison’s books did not deter me, but drew me deeper into the dark and thorny vortex of the black American experience, the experience of my ancestors — my experience.
She and I would meet in “The Bluest Eye” on stormy summer nights, in “Jazz” snuggled under the blankets and in “Sula” on springtime afternoons by back porch with each encounter unveiling something new, interesting, disturbing and beautiful about black womanhood, manhood, community, history and trauma.
But our most recent encounter, one that transcended the pages of her novels, would grant me the privilege of uniting with Morrison in the same space at the Free Library of Philadelphia during a lecture April 29.
As I sat in the audience I listened intently to the rhythm of her voice. It was steady, slow with a deliberate rumble that seemed to swirl around each word that trickled from her lips. This was a voice that bore the weight of having experienced many things in 84 years — divorce, single-parenting, tragedy, Noble and Pulitzer prizes — and trailed of stories of childhood, cultural eccentricities, peculiarities and transgressions that have found homes in her eleven novels, including her latest work “God Bless the Child.”

Book cover of "God Help the Child" by Toni Morrison. Courtesy photo.

Book cover of “God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison.
Courtesy photo.

Seated in a wheelchair on the stage of the auditorium, Morrison, who was dressed in black from head to toe, except for a string of pearls around her neck and her signature silver dreadlocks, talked about her newest cast of scared souls in the novel.
This gripping new story, which was released April 21 by the Knof Doubleday Publishing Group, is a provocative tale about how childhood wounds shape the adult one becomes through Bride, a dark-skinned black woman, whose success as a cosmetics executive, is blemished by a childhood that was deprived of love from her mother Sweetness, a light-skinned black woman.
Sweetness opens the novel by describing Bride as, “so black she scared her,” thus setting the tone of a mother-daughter relationship rot by colorism and empty of affection.
Morrison shared of an experience she had as a child, where her skin color was looked at disapprovingly by her great grandmother when she came for a visit.
“She came into to our house and said to me and my sister, ‘those girls have been tampered with,’” she recalled. “She was really blue-black and in her mind, we were impure. We had been ‘tampered with.’ You can imagine how much weight that had for me in my book ‘Paradise’…
“But that said something about my own curiosity about the place of color.”
In “The Bluest Eye,” reader’s find 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who is unhappy with her skin and believes blue eyes, will make her beautiful.
“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty,” Morrison wrote. “A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.”
In “God Bless the Child,” Bride’s blackness becomes her source of strength and power. She adorns herself with a bright, white wardrobe to offset her blue-black skin, Morrison said.
“She takes her blackness very seriously and wins,” she said. “This child is beautiful; she knows it, she flaunts it. People see her and gasp, because she really is beautiful, but at the same time she’s black.”
But it wasn’t the conflicts of colorism that Morrison addressed that resonated as much as the idea of moving beyond the scares that have left imprints on our lives.
This is what she was driving Bride, as well as Bride’s lover Booker, toward in the novel, she said.
“What Booker remembers in traumatic, accurate reliable and the same with Bride – she remembers how she wanted her mother to slap her so she could touch her at some point,” Morrison said. “But they carried that accurate memory, which is a burden. The whole point is it determines everything in their lives and they never become three dimensional people until a long sequence of taking care of someone else.
“Forget you, and your little problems and your little regrets. I have a lot of them. You really have to move beyond that to be a complete or nearly complete, intelligent and generous human being.”
Morrison shows us through Bride, and many of her other characters, that to heal from hurts we have to find a way to leave the pain behind. I think that’s why Morrison and I have conversed for so long, because somehow, through the various degrees of trials and tribulations in her works, she shows me that it is possible to free myself from the past and then reclaim it.

Listen to a podcast of Morrison’s presentation HERE

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