The Legend That Is Toni Morrison

What her life story reveals about her genius

Photo: David Levenson/Getty

TThroughout four decades, Toni Morrison has been a griot who bears the weight of multiple black universes in her writing. Her work has exposed the narrow bindings of the literary canon and burst through its seams with her inimitable prose.

In comparison to my peers, I came to Toni Morrison rather late in life — at 22 years old. I had grown up in a household where the main source of literature was the Bible. Maybe a Terry McMillan novel here or there. Or an Omar Tyree novel that I snuck and read while getting my hair braided. But it wasn’t until I matriculated in an MFA program in Vermont that one of my advisors emphatically told me that I needed to read Toni Morrison. My artistic horizons haven’t been the same since I delved into The Bluest Eye. I, as a black woman, felt exposed and acknowledged without any fear that the ugliness and triumph of African-American experiences would be distorted. On the contrary, I felt relief. This is a sentiment that is shared by millions of other readers.

Morrison’s belief in the limitlessness of black life is why she is our greatest living American author. This is no debate. No one else has been able to capture the American experience and pull a whole group of individuals, whose labor was crucial to this country, into the public consciousness with both talent and grit. Greatness cannot only be measured by the presence of a gift but also by how one strives to nurture and maintain said gift despite the odds.

It’s no surprise then, that in one of the earliest scenes of the new documentary film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez makes her feelings plain: “In order to survive, you should re-read Toni every 10 years because every 10 or 15 we have to reimagine ourselves on this American landscape. You won’t survive if you don’t do that.” This reimagining, Sanchez argues, requires self-interrogation and a hyper-subjectivity that not only centers black people, but also those who surround us, and those who came before us.

Morrison’s belief in the limitlessness of black life is why she is our greatest living American author.

The documentary begins before Morrison’s conception, with a grandfather who boasted that he had read the Bible from cover to cover five times — quite a feat, for it was illegal at the time for black people to know how to read. This pride in literacy followed her family from the railroads of Greenville, Alabama, to the modest homes of Lorain, Ohio, where Toni was born. Toni’s sister taught her how to read at age three. In one telling anecdote, their mother becomes enraged when the two girls unwittingly attempt to spell the word “fuck” with chalk on the sidewalk. It was in that moment that Toni knew how powerful words are.

But she didn’t yet live in a world where she had many literary characters from which to draw inspiration. Most black female characters were cartoonish and one-dimensional. This void motivated her to fill in the gaps with the stories she wished to read like The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved. In early reviews, Morrison was admonished by white critics to expand her scope of work beyond black, provincial life in order to garner an audience that would match her prodigious talent. But here is where we see Morrison’s true literary contributions come to life. The author has steadfastly avoided the white gaze in order to demonstrate how much meaning black life has when our lives and bodies aren’t conscripted to white oppression and its narrative. Morrison’s books reflect black Americans who are living, breathing, and surviving at all times. Within her books, readers can understand the psychological turmoil in Beloved, the rebellion in Sula, and the waywardness in Song of Solomon. She uses images and descriptions as tools to show us the universal connectivity between our thoughts and experiences as black people.

Throughout the documentary, we see many recognizable public figures and scholars who participate in this ode to Morrison, such as Oprah Winfrey, Walter Mosley, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Hilton Als, and Angela Davis. What’s most profound about their individual takes on Morrison’s oeuvre? They do not rattle off her accomplishments, but rather speak of how her words impacted their lives personally, the work habits she employed to write her most celebrated works, and the integrity she sustains within her often simultaneous roles as editor, writer, and teacher.

As the film continues, we see creative choices that amplify just how far-reaching Morrison’s influence is. We see Kara Walker’s art, maps showing the routes of the Great Migration, advertisements for white dolls, and clips of old interviews and newspaper articles. All of these mediums converge to prove just how thoroughly embedded Morrison has been in the cultural zeitgeist. At one point, Morrison makes it clear that Toni Morrison does interviews though Chloe Wofford, her government name, does not. However, Chloe does slip out from time to time, like when we learn about how she was, what she says with a cackle, “loose” at Howard and how if it were not for the support of her family, she could not juggle writing and mothering.

Four of her biggest novels, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, and Song of Solomon take center stage while others, such as Jazz, Tar Baby, Home, and God Help The Child do not. That might seem to be a glaring oversight, knowing the discipline behind the behemoth that is her body of work. However, I believe the aim of the documentary was not to provide a cumulative summary of Morrison’s work but to celebrate all that she has done as a literary titan and an astute observer of black people and the landscape which they inhabit.

The two-hour documentary serves to show the stakes in which Toni Morrison had to live, endeavor, create, and nurture art both in personal and professional environments. It shows the resistance she had to overcome to breaking new ground, the new worlds she exposed to non-black people, and the secret worlds she captured. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is a beautifully constructed documentary. Its composite parts combine to reveal the wholeness and fullness of who she is as an artist, and who we are — her muses.

Morgan Jerkins is the Senior Editor at ZORA and a New York Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, “Caul Baby,” will be published by Harper in April 2021.

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