James Baldwin once said that the poet is produced by the people because the people need him. This is also true of the novelist, which is why I believe Toni Morrison was produced by the people because the people needed her. America needed her. I needed her.
I encountered the novels written by Morrison, who passed away Monday at 88, during one of the loneliest times of my life. It was also, paradoxically, a joyous time. Transitions are often complicated like that. It was the fall of 2013. I had just moved with my husband and youngest son to live on the campus of an elite New England boarding school. I had never visited New Hampshire until I moved there — the shock was immediate.
I was a stranger in a village, the only one of my kind. Morrison’s books became my shelter; she was my teacher, a friend in my head who kept me company as I navigated this strange new landscape. As I witnessed white supremacy slowly being stoked by sinister politicians who sought to distract us, to divide us from each other and from the work we are tasked to do — she reminded me, in every book, that we are here to love one another, more thickly. And that we must look at the terror of history in order to be released from it.
I began to read Morrison’s fictional works in chronological order, from “The Bluest Eye,” which came out in 1970, to “God Help the Child,” published in 2015. When I finished, I delved into her nonfiction, “The Black Book” and“Playing in the Dark: On Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” among a dozen others. For well-read Black girls like me, the adventure was exhilarating.
Reading her transformed me from the inside out and today I divide my life — before and after Toni. I was so moved by her works that when I completed the reading, I wanted to see a film about the exquisite artist who captured my imagination over two years. When I realized that there was no film to watch, I helped make one.
When I first met her in person for the making of the film, I told her how much I loved her. And she responded, “But do you love my work?” Morrison was always focusing on the work. And there is so much work to love.
I was able to sit with her books and understand American history through the lives of Black women, who are always at the center of her great literature. In Morrison’s unique music and blues, I also heard my song. To see people like me and my family in great literature was transcendent.
Her novels created a way back home for me — to look back at my own history and understand the story of my ancestors — Black and indigenous people of Puerto Rico. Morrison gave me a new language to understand American history, which is Puerto Rican history, which is my history. I understood more intimately how the invisible hand of history shapes lives, attempts to destroy humans — and, really, the planet — and how this story can be hacked so that instead, you are free and empowered. I was no longer trapped in the master narrative.
Morrison was a freedom fighter who slayed with words. In the tradition of Baldwin, Harriet Tubman and Nelson Mandela, she helped free us. She wrote about Black lives and exalted our stories and placed us in epic, Biblical tales. She wrote about Black men, women and children, putting a mirror to our loveliness and also our tragedies. And she wrote in a language that was our own.
As I quickly learned when I encountered her books, you don’t read Morrison for fun; you read the Nobel laureate for liberation. In her works, I experienced resilience and grandeur. In her books, I felt transcendence by seeing what horrid things happened and what we’ve been through — but more, how we survived. I got to see what bravery looks like.
When the director of the film I helped produce said the word “rolling,” I remember looking up and seeing Morrison looking back at me, ready and open. I could ask her anything. Before me was one of the most brilliant intellects in the world, one of the freest and most unapologetically Black women on the planet ready for her close-up. The author, whose books gave me oxygen and who had been a friend in my head, was in the flesh.
I was fully aware that she had a very low tolerance for lazy journalists or stupid questions. My first thought when I looked into her beautiful face was — I better not mess this up with a foolish question. I still wonder if Morrison took pity in the momentary terror she must have seen on my face.
Meeting Morrison in her 80s was divine — she was ready to share her story. I was free to ask her anything. She was generous and open, and so witty. When I touched issues that she was not ready to answer — which were none of my business, such as her divorce from the father of her two sons — she would say, “stop recording.” But then, she proceeded to share her story in private, outside of the cameras. Her personal drama was no one’s business, and I really appreciated that in a world where reality shows are a dime a dozen, this was a woman who kept the focus on the work.
Very early on in the filming, she made it clear that she was born Chloe Wofford and Chloe does not do documentaries; Toni Morrison does. She protected her privacy. But there is one anecdote that I believe she would be OK with me sharing.
When we wrapped the film, she pointed to what I thought was a sculpture and asked me to get it for her. Holding the piece, iron, hard, cold and heavy, she explained it was an anklet that Black women house slaves were forced to wear. She handed it to me, letting me hold it, and said, “It’s light enough that you can do housework, but heavy enough that you can’t run away. I have two, one in the living room and one next to me on my night table.”
Morrison asked us to never forget them, the millions of Black women around the world who were enslaved. That it was our duty to honor them, to remember them and, in my case, to write and make films about them.
I am convinced that Toni Morrison wrote so that Black and Brown girls like me could fly. But as much as I want to think she wrote for me, Morrison wrote for all of us. She forces America to examine our internal conflicts and become comfortable with our complexity so that we can face the world head on. And also be released from its grip.
Today, when our timelines are weaponized with 140 word counts, when we witness the grotesque nature in which we are all being othered, where Black and Brown bodies are being slaughtered by police, where Brown and Black children seeking refuge from violence and poverty are separated from their families and then left to die, what America could use more of is Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison is the closest thing America has to a national writer; she is America’s conscience. She was produced by the people because the people needed her. And today, America needs her more than ever.
Sandra Guzmán is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, documentarian and author of "The New Latina’s Bible." She is a producer and lead interviewer for the film, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am.”
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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