“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
I’m intimidated— and yet simultaneously ignited — by that plea, that demand from the incomparable Toni Morrison. As I sit down to write a tribute to the Nobel Prize laureate, née Chloe Wofford, I am at a loss for words. No sentence I construct can ever be as beautiful, as profound, as impactful as any of her prose. And yet, my ability to deem my work publishable, and for others to agree, is a direct reflection of her legacy.
On Tuesday, the news of Morrison’s death shook so many of us to the core, leaving a wildly unfillable void. I scrolled through Twitter and Instagram as many attempted to honor her brilliance the only way they knew how: with Morrison’s very own words. Her words — whether from The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, or Beloved, whether from an interview or a speech — her accomplishments, and her refusal to be anything but a Black woman who placed Black people at the center of her work made it possible for Black women like me to tell stories that weren’t being told.
Even before her death, Morrison was hailed as an indelible force, the greatest novelist of the 20th century. That title is quite a statement in a country that so often violates those who share both her gender and her skin color. In a world where white writers ignored Black subjects, and Black male writers framed Black stories for white audiences, Morrison wrote Black stories for Black readers. While Ralph Ellison declared the Black man was invisible, Morrison asked “Invisible to whom?”
In doing so, she gave a generation of Black creatives the courage to reimagine storytelling and reshape the narrative. She gave us permission to examine how deeply embedded white nationalism is in this country’s DNA and explore what she called “the tenacity of racism.” She put Black girls like Pecola Breedlove and Black women like Margaret Garner at the center of her universe — therefore placing them at the center of ours. She created space for Black girls like me to write the stories I wanted to read. Moreover, she scoffed at the implication that she must somehow be required to place white people anywhere but on the periphery of her narratives. And she embraced her identity and celebrated the fact that it made her a better storyteller.
“Being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination,” she told The New Yorker during an interview in 2003. “It expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
Morrison’s legacy doesn’t only live on through her words. It lives on through the Black women she inspired to tell stories. Women like Shonda Rhimes and Oprah Winfrey; Black women whose names we have yet to even learn simply because they have yet to pick up one of Morrison’s many masterpieces. Her legacy lives on through the license she gave Black women to tell our stories, not for others but for ourselves.
And while I fear I have no words to do justice to the invaluable gift of her life, I realize that simply putting pen to paper is an act of tribute to her.
“If you are free, you need to free somebody else.”
Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for setting me free.