OPINION: Toni Morrison inspired a generation of writers and dreamers

Morrison, 88, died Monday


Angela Radulescu - CC BY-SA 2.0

Toni Morrison speaks in honor of Nigerian poet and novelist Chinua Achebe at the Town Hall performance space in New York City on Feb. 26, 2008. Morrison died Monday, August 5 at the age of 88.

Shiavon Chatman, Opinion editor

My journalism professor at American River College used to call Toni Morrison the “Shakespeare of the United States.” She said Morrison created a new language, one through which she told the stories of everyday, marginalized people. 

Works by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Shakespeare are among the commonly required reading materials for American K-12 students. These authors tell stories of love, fantasy and tragedy. 

But these plots are often outdated and dull, and only contribute to our population growing disinterest in reading.

Novelist, professor, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom under Barack Obama and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison changed that narrative for me. Morrison, the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, died Monday at the age of 88.

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As an aspiring writer, Morrison first grabbed my attention at the age of 15, when I heard her say, “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I wasn’t interested in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” The only women in their stories that looked like me were slaves, maids, or criminals.

So, like Morrison said, I had to create my own.

Morrison inspired a generation of writers and dreamers with her captivating and honest storytelling.

My love for reading was established by the likes of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston but thanks to Morrison, it was reborn. She was fresh and memorable. What she left behind is a legacy of grit, tenacity, and determination.

Morrison focused on the most underrepresented and overlooked of her community, the Black woman.

“I’m writing for Black people, in the same way that Tolstoy is not writing for me,” Morrison said.

Morrison published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” when she was 39 years old. The novel tackled colorism, child molestation, and racism through the eyes of a 14-year-old dark-skinned girl, Pecola.

These themes were present in much of Morrison’s literature, and caused her works to be banned from some libraries and schools.

In a moving 1987 speech, Morrison eulogized beloved author and activist James Baldwin who had just died.

“The season was always Christmas with you there,” Morrison wrote. “You exposed the secrets of the American English and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, and humane.”

Baldwin was a treasure within the Black community. He revolutionized American liberalism by challenging the politics and morals of white conservatives and liberals.

Morrison was the perfect person to recapitulate Baldwin’s life because she used both joy and pain to fuel her writing. 

“I can accept the labels because being a Black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from,” said Morrison. 

Morrison expressed that what you didn’t write is just as important as what you did write.

“So it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power,” Morrison said.

My therapist uses Morrison quotes to translate serenity into my soul. “If you want to fly, you need to give up on the shit that weighs you down,” Morrison said.

On days I’m specifically dedicated to working on my mental health, reading pieces by Morrison like “Song of Solomon,” make me feel at peace. Her teachings made me realize at a very young age that my anxiety is but a small, but insignificant part of me.

“If you surrender to the air, you can ride it,” Morrison wrote in “Song of Solomon.”

Morrison’s teachings and stories will live on for a lifetime because they are timeless.  As the greatest fiction writer of the last half-century, she lives on through her stories and the importance of producing art not yet created.