“It was poisonous, unnatural to let the dead go with a mere whimpering, a slight murmur, a rose bouquet of good taste … the throat should release all the yearning, despair and outrage that accompany the stupidity of loss.” ― Toni Morrison, "Sula."
I was at work when I learned that Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature, had died. In an office full of coworkers, I could only gasp. It wasn’t until later, alone on my lunch break, that I let the full force of shock and sadness escape me. I cried until my throat felt sore and my chest heaved, then I crossed myself in her honor (Morrison was Catholic) and prepared to return to work.
How can I explain what Morrison meant to me, another writer trying to find the words to describe the intersection of blackness and womanhood? She never shied away from being just that — a black woman, writing for black women.
I didn’t just recognize myself in her characters; they also taught me about myself, expanding the way I thought about my place in this country. The “Beloved” trilogy represents just what Morrison said it was meant to represent: “the search for the beloved — the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.”
I never met her, of course, but Morrison didn’t feel like a stranger to me. In “Sula,” she felt like an old friend with whom I’d experienced just as many good times as bad. In “Tar Baby,” she felt like a mother, a gentle guiding hand. In “Home,” she felt like a place I could rest and be safe. If I had met her, I imagine the only words I would’ve been able to mutter would’ve been “thank you.”
Perhaps my favorite thing about Morrison was the way she stood up in her greatness. She wasn’t one for compromise. I obsess over clips in which she reminds interviewers that her experiences as a black woman are just as valid as white writers.
She was able to put people in their place with just a smirk and a few perfectly placed words. In these interviews is where I realized not only was Morrison a brilliant intellectual, she was also hilarious and strong-willed.
The day Morrison died, a friend shared with me a quote I’d never heard. When asked about receiving the Nobel Prize, Morrison said, “I knew right away, as soon as the phone call came in, how I would respond. I knew this was not the time to be humble. This was the time to have an enormous party, and to celebrate with everyone I loved … at someone else’s expense.” I’m not sure who foots the bill in the afterlife, but I hope Morrison can see that down here, we are all shouting in celebration of her.
Ariel Felton writes a monthly book review column, “Well, Lit,” for Do Savannah. She received her B.F.A. in English from Valdosta State University and her M.F.A. in writing from SCAD. Her writing has been published in The Progressive, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag, Under the Gum Tree, Savannah Magazine and more.