“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture, 1993
Last night a titan in the truest sense, a goddess of the written and practiced word, left this realm for the next — wherever that is. Today as I grieved and read outpourings of the same, I considered them. Really considered them. As I scrolled by the pithy quotes and excerpts about freeing ourselves, eschewing the white gaze and refusing to explain, centering and reveling in blackness, challenging white supremacy, using power and access to uplift others, loving and pushing yourself, etc. I mourned a bit more. More deeply, in a way.
Don’t post it unless you gon’ do it.
I mourned because honestly, there are too many people who cower, too many who pander and perform, too many who live utterly inauthentically and chase other people’s dreams for the words to really have had the stated impact. Not hardly. Oprah once said that Toni Morrison, as a writer, “is our conscience.” What is a conscience unfollowed? Why regurgitate the truth-telling without practicing the truths?
I think more than anything I fell in love with Toni Morrison (and like her, Maya and Alice and Zora…) at a very early age because they were well-known Black women who wrote the values I was raised with and lived the lives I was taught to live. As a little girl, that was fantastic to me. They were my mom, and my Gramma and my aunts and family friends, reflected back to me in books other people were reading. I really saw myself as a possibility in the world. I saw my childhood home in Ruby, where my dark skin and coal-black eyes were cherished and praised until the colorism outside my world passed completely unobserved. I watched Hagar descend into madness and heard my Granny’s warnings to sidestep the Milkmen, leaving them to their journeys lest I end up a sacrifice. This was kitchen table talk awarded Nobel Prizes. Afterschool specials that made far more sense than the ones on television.
I think I can honestly say there is no other person outside my immediate family whose mind and words have shaped the fabric of who I am more than Toni Morrison’s. I don’t know that I would exist as the person I am right now without knowing her work and seeing the people in my world, their lessons, their words, reflected back to me so elegantly and eloquently. Every novel distantly familiar, like a memory or dream long forgotten and vaguely remembered. Every interview a backbone-stiffening, revelatory less in creed than in craft and complex beauty. She was a conscience — a voice to which I clung because it blended so perfectly with the ones I’d always known. Every voice I could no longer hear. Aunt Tutu was there. Aunt Jean was there. Ms. Phillips. Ms. Dixon. Ms. Fields.
We’ve been given the words. Been given the words. But they must be lived as much as they are quoted. Adopted as much as they are admired. Internalized as much as they are signaled externally or else they are so deeply in vain. And that, truly, is the greatest insult one can serve a life so wholly dedicated to work. A work so wholly dedicated to liberation and making whole.