Toni Morrison was one of, if not the, first writers who’s art, personality and legacy loomed large in my life. She had a distinct writing voice and a unique style. Equally laudable was her bold stance on race and racism that she incorporated in her prose, and often discussed during lectures and when interviewed. Growing up, she, along with, Maya Angelou, were the most prominent black female writers of the time, with my mother referencing them and my teachers including their books in our curriculum. I don’t know that can be said of most schools of the time because Morrison was not included in the official cannon of English letters. One of the benefits of living in Detroit, a predominantly black city, and going to a predominantly black high school, was getting some (not much, but some) exposure to writers of color.
Fast forward to just shy of a new century, and I remember being one of the first of my family and friends to anxiously see the screen adaptation of her renowned book, “Beloved.” Although it was clearly a tough literary venture to navigate and translate, a caution she presented to Oprah Winfrey when signing over the rights, and the results were a bit wanting, I still appreciated the specialness of the endeavor. It was a strong, successful and lone black female producer putting the iconic work of a legendary black writer on the big screen. Whether or not it was a completely successful cinematic venture or not, was secondary to the effort and what it represented. Just a few years later while living in New York, I attended what I think may have been my first book event. It was at the 92nd Street Y and featured Toni Morrison discussing her career and latest book. I was thrilled to witness the interview, showcasing her brilliance and legacy, while her message inspired any and all to tap into their inner creative selves. That, coupled with her affable and endearing, yet formidable presence and the unexpected honor to meet her at the end of long signing line, made for a night to remember.
Now older and in a career in which I am gratefully surrounded by authors, publishers and readers, I am afforded the luxury and honor to promote diverse books from emerging and established voices. Although the landscape is still mostly white and often male, it is also wonderfully more inclusive than times past. As such, I continue to recognize the impact of Ms. Morrison. The depth of her literary prowess is immeasurable, and the need for her moral barometer is undeniable. It is because of her we now have access to writers such as Roxane Gay, Tayari Jones, Yaa Gyasi, Zenzi Clemmons, Jesmyn Ward, Ta Nehisi Coates, and Zadie Smith, just to name a few. In other words, the reader, if they choose to, can now inhabit a world that is richer, more layered and refreshingly diverse.
In 2015, Roxane Gay interviewed Ms. Morrison for an airline magazine. She ended the interview as she does all her interviews, asking, “What do you like best about your writing?” To which Ms. Morrison, without hesitation, answered that she appreciated being able to “say more and write less, and give the reader more space.”
Toni Morrison, REST IN PARADISE.