Toni Morrison was unparalleled. She will always be so. A novelist, essayist, woman and sage, she was a genius of uncommon grace. This is not hyperbolic. It is, simply, fact.
I was on a flight from Paris to New York when a friend messaged me about Morrison’s passing and I was stunned, saddened and overwhelmed with gratitude for the blessings of her work. I knew she was in her 80s, but I hoped she might be the first immortal among us.
Nonetheless, it was heartening to see the immediate and effusive outpouring of respect, admiration and affection for her work and her unimpeachable legacy. It was also a relief to know she was one of the greats lucky enough to be appreciated while she lived.
For the past couple of months, I have been slowly reading her collected essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard. I want to savour her work — her prescient and clear-eyed distillations of power, how it is wielded, and who must bend or be broken in the face of it.
Many of the pieces were written well before the Trump era, but perfectly capture the current moment: the rise of fascism as “marketing for power” and the truth that the “danger of losing our humanity must be met with more humanity.”
When I read each of Morrison’s novels for the first time, I saw far more than a reflection of what it means to live in a black woman’ body. I saw majesty and infinite possibility.
As I’ve been reading The Source of Self-Regard, I have also been looking for the right, so very elusive, words to respond to President Trump’s embrace of white nationalism; the government’s unacceptable family separation programme and internment camps; the politicians doing nothing but thinking and praying in the face of gun violence; women’s ever-precarious access to reproductive rights and bodily autonomy; and everything else that is so overwhelming and terrible in this country.
For the most vulnerable among us, there is a great deal at stake, and silence in the face of all this injustice is not acceptable.
Then I read Toni Morrison and think, “Until I can write like that, I should say nothing.”
In 2015, I interviewed Morrison for an airline magazine, of all things. She was kind, gracious, charming, witty. It was easy to be awestruck. But throughout our conversation, I felt that I was speaking not to a deity, but rather to a woman of uncanny genius, absolutely mortal and as such, so very impressive. What I remember most from our conversation was how important her ambition still was to her, how, in her words, “I don’t think I could do without it.”
I end nearly every interview with the question, “What do you like most about your writing?”
Writers often equivocate and dance around the question, afraid to admit they think well of themselves and their work. With Morrison, there was no hesitation or equivocation. She said she appreciated her ability to “say more and write less,” and her “desire to give the reader space.”
From that moment, I became more comfortable with my own ambition. I aspired to say more and write less. Sometimes I have failed in this endeavour, sometimes I have succeeded.
Everything I am and ever will be as a black woman who writes begins with the work of Toni Morrison. My words have been shaped by all of her work, but especially The Bluest Eye, The Song of Solomon, Sula and most especially, Beloved. Pecola Breedlove. Macon Dead III. Sula Peace. Sethe. Indelible characters and indelible stories.
When I read each of Morrison’s novels for the first time, I saw far more than a reflection of what it means to live in a black woman’ body. I saw majesty and infinite possibility. I saw a writer wielding her craft masterfully, being bold and audacious, avoiding the facile choices despite the risks in doing so. In a conversation with Hilton Als for a The New Yorker profile, Morrison said: “I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
Morrison taught me and an entire generation of black writers to recognise that we are rich places to write from. She showed us that we must matter first to ourselves if we hope to matter to anyone else. She demonstrated that there is no shame in writing that is both work and a necessary political act.
She taught me that you can write about black girls and black women, unapologetically, and say necessary, meaningful things about our lives in a world that often tells us that our lives do not matter. She consistently centred blackness in her narratives, but not an idealised version of blackness.
Instead, she wrote, for black people in the truest ways she could. She was us and wrote us nuanced, complicated, authentic and honest representations of our culture, our lives, our triumphs, our sufferings, our failures. She demonstrated the importance of raising our voices and challenging power structures that harm vulnerable peoples.
Her brilliant books, stories, essays and speeches are certainly a significant part of her legacy. The many accolades she accumulated will always be a part of her story.
But, perhaps, her greatest legacy will be the direct lineage between her and so many black writers who are following in her footsteps as they create their own legacies. She broadened the scope of what I thought was possible for myself as a writer and a woman. I can never repay that gift.
When someone with as much staggering talent as Toni Morrison dies, it is easy to want to deify them, to remember them as supernatural. It is particularly easy to do that with Morrison because her writing is so powerful. She wrote impeccable sentences. She imparted wisdom in ways that seemed effortless. She commanded attention and demanded respect. She told incredible, passionate, resonant stories. Her immense legacy will be discussed in perpetuity and her body of work will stand the test of time.
But to attribute her brilliance to some higher power would be a disservice to the very real life she lived, how hard she worked and how often she had to break through glass ceilings so that others could follow.
I often think about how Morrison wrote her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in stolen moments, while working full-time as an editor and raising her two sons as a single mother. It is this kind of truth that reminds us that she actively put in the work of being a writer, even in circumstances that would have stifled lesser people.
There is a picture of Toni Morrison from the 1970s, her Afro crowning her face, and she wears a silky camisole dress. She is dancing, her face bright and beaming, arms akimbo. She looks joyful, beautifully human. The best way we can honour Toni Morrison’s legacy is to remember her as the astonishing and brilliant and very human woman she was. It is her humanity that made her so extraordinary.
Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of Hunger and a contributing opinion writer