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Toni Morrison Proved There’s No Time Limit for Success

Reminder: Toni Morrison took time to become Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Photo: Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty Images

This is what we know: More than once, Toni Morrison was a woman picking her way through a reinvention of her life.

She’d been Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, the daughter of a mother who loved books and a ship-welder father who taught her the pride of a craft well done. She’d been Toni Wofford, a drama-loving English major and homecoming queen at Howard University, and then she was Toni Morrison after getting married, adopting her husband’s surname and becoming a mother.

Then she became the Toni Morrison when, as a Howard University professor, she started penning short stories in an intensive faculty writing group. She was pregnant with her second son when her marriage dissolved in 1964 and she moved to New York City to start her new life with her boys and her next career as a book editor at Random House. Again and again, she fire-baptized new versions of herself with change.

I hope the story of how Toni Morrison became Toni Morrison will remind us of the flexibility of time and the mercy of reinvention.

This is what we can imagine: Morrison huddled over her longhand in the still of the predawn mornings. Maybe she wore a satin scarf over her robust tower of Afro. Maybe she sat cross-legged, real sophisticated and dignified-like, until creativity jolted her forward and thrust the words down her arm and onto her notepad so fast she could barely keep up with them. She told an interviewer that once, as she was working, her toddler threw up on the page and instead of interrupting the flow of an inspired sentence, she just kept on writing right around it.

That’s how The Bluest Eye was birthed, scrawled in daily 4 a.m. writing sessions by a single mother with two children and an intense day job, undeterred by limitations of time, experience, and baby vomit to publish her first novel. It was 1970. Morrison was almost 40 years old.

Years later, an article in The Guardian covering the release of her subsequent Homeone of 11 novels the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner wrote in her alchemy of language — mentioned that she “got started late” in her career. “Late” implies she was delayed in her arrival to her moment. “Late,” for many Black women of a certain age just trying to get where we’re going, suggests we should have already been there. “Late” is a bad word. It’s crazy-making. It’s anxiety-inducing. It’s a hallucination of time.

The timeline of achievement that’s supposed to guide our growth and development starts as soon as we’re born and follows us into school. We’re constantly being weighed, measured, tested, charted, analyzed, observed, and standardized. How do we compare to a subsection of our classmates? Where do we fall on the rubric of normalcy? It’s a 12-year indoctrination in self-comparison and when we’re ejected into the adult world, it metamorphosizes in the form of peer reviews, job evaluations, and skills assessments.

Morrison taught us not to be afraid of our age or diminish the adventures available to us just because they didn’t manifest by the turn of a new year.

So sometimes, we can start to feel like an all-around failure for not yet buying the house or getting the promotion or having the baby or starting the business or finding the spouse or finishing the degree or losing the weight by a certain age or predetermined point in our lives when so many other people seem to be making quantifiable progress in those areas and sharing the joy of doing so across social media.

We tether ourselves to goal dates we set (or other folks set for us) and we double down on a timely performance of those benchmarks and milestone achievements, especially in our twenties, thirties, and forties. When they don’t happen for years off schedule, we start worrying we’re too late to have them and too often subject ourselves to an audit of the regrettable choices that could have maybe possibly contributed to our delay. It’s hard to be a dreamer in arrested development, waiting for the fruition of things long worked, desired, and hoped for by some magic age.

This year, as fans and enthusiasts celebrate The Bluest Eye’s 50th anniversary and the inaugural classic in her catalog of extraordinary works, I hope the story of how Toni Morrison became Toni Morrison will remind us about the flexibility of time and the mercy of reinvention. We don’t talk enough about the fear, shame, and disappointment of dreams deferred, but even this year, between the pandemic and the rapid-fire assaults on Black life, we can still be comforted that there is time to become who we’re trying to become, even as we’re bombarded by evidence to the contrary. Now more than ever, each lived-out day is a reaffirmation of our individual necessity and purpose.

By example, Morrison taught us not to be afraid of our age or diminish the adventures ahead of us just because they didn’t manifest by the turn of a new year. Sometimes we have to come to peace with letting go of what we thought life would look like in order to wholly live it as it actually is.

Morrison published two more classic novels in her forties — Sula in 1973 and Song of Solomon in 1977 — and last year, when she went home to rest in glory at the age of 88, she’d operated in her writing gift for nearly 50 years. Even though she changed directions several times. Even though she was other things before the thing she became famous for. Even though she started at 40. That, sweet sisters, is not late. That is providence. And it should encourage you to never stop moving toward your destiny. A victory won in the long game is still a victory won.

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