The Practice of Creativity

Remembering Toni Morrison: A Roundup & My Memory

Posted on: August 12, 2019

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

View Full Profile →

Follow me on Twitter

Follow Us

Follow Us

Follow Us

Follow The Practice of Creativity on WordPress.com
Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: