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First Person

Toni Morrison taught me many things, but one lesson utterly changed my life

I came to understand the power of her understated, slow-burning anger.

(Original Caption) 12/23/85-Albany, New York: Novelist Toni Morrison discusses her venture into playwriting in Albany. Morrison has earned a reputation as one of America's best fiction writers with her four novels.
(Original Caption) 12/23/85-Albany, New York: Novelist Toni Morrison discusses her venture into playwriting in Albany. Morrison has earned a reputation as one of America's best fiction writers with her four novels.

I’ve always known what I would say about Toni Morrison after she died. It’s the same thing I’d have liked to have said — to have thanked her for— in person. 

Since her death last week, tributes have poured in for Morrison, America’s foremost black woman writer, who transformed the world with her words.

She was a literary matriarch for black people, and introduced many white people to what it means to black in America — its beauty and its pain, its history and its rich heritage. All of it was lovingly documented in her books.

And unbeknownst to her, Toni Morrison also helped a young black woman let go of her anger.

Her words worked this magic on me as a college student several years ago on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The setting was a class that would cover every book in Morrison’s extensive catalogue. I was the only African American in an undergraduate classroom filled with white women. 

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Before taking the course, I had tried before, in fits and starts, to read Beloved. Now I would have the chance to fully explore this seminal work and all the other writings by this living legend. But I was seeking something else as well, a kind of validation for pain I had been storing away. 

The class started with Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, a sober reflection on the pain black women and girls sometimes endure. I identified immediately with her heroine, a black girl angered about her disadvantages in life, desperate in her search for self-worth. 

I also felt a kinship with Violet, the lead character in Jazz, whose angst and anger felt like my own. Who, after all, hasn’t been so enraged over a heartbreaking betrayal that they would stab the corpse at the funeral? And of course, there was Nel in Sula, unable to contend with her deep-seated resentments. 

And then there was me. I was not a character created by Morrison, but I sometimes felt as if I could have been, increasingly frustrated with my life, seething in what I thought was a universal sisterhood of black victimhood. 

It was Morrison who taught me what to do with that rage, with her eloquent explorations of the anger that being a black woman can elicit. Some of her most insightful remarks on the topic were voiced not in her writings, but in an interview from decades ago.

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Surprisingly, far from embracing the anger exhibited by some of her most poignant characters, Morrison said she had no use for it, calling it “a paralyzing emotion.”

“People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control,” she told CBS radio host Don Swaim in the 1987 interview.

“I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever.”

At the time I was taking this class, waking up each day at dawn, I was approaching graduation in the spring. I was contemplating my own trajectory as an aspiring writer, as a student journalist, and as a woman. The eruption of Black Lives Matter as a potent force on the political stage was mere months away, and social justice warriors of color were picking up steam online. I was anxious, angry, and growing more radical.

Early in her life, Morrison endured growing up black in Ohio in the 1930s and ’40s, and also literary critics hell-bent on misunderstanding her. She had faced down divorce and the death of a son.

In class, we played back the interview and I lingered over the part when she was asked when she would write about white characters. We watched the video, holding our collective breath, as Morrison took a sip of water, then responded with the poise of a well-rested prima ballerina on opening night.

“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is can you?” Morrison says calmly.

“Because you can never ask a white author,  ‘when are you going to write about black people’… even the inquiry comes from a place of being in the centre,” Morrison continues.

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It’s clear Morrison made her case because the interviewer, Australian journalist Jana Wendt, apologetically adds, “And being used to being in the center.”

Understanding washed over me after reading those words. All of Morrison’s characters were depicted in completely different colors. I realized that I had found this world where being a black woman came without restrictions. Through Morrison, I saw what to do with anger. Listen to it, but interrogate it. Do not make it welcome for long, and eventually set yourself free.

Morrison talked a lot about freedom and how once you get a taste it’s your responsibility to free someone else. She created characters who spoke my language. They sounded like my mom and her sisters. Some of her male characters reminded me of my older brother and his goon squad of friends. But most importantly, her women were black, messy, emotional, heartbroken, angry, and always found a way to be their own heroes. 

By the end of the class it became clear to me that Morrison was using these characters not to indulge her anger, pain, and heartbreak about this world, but to release it. She was regaining her emotional agency and thus able to be creative, and legendary. 

We make something out of our pain, we do not let it fester, because we have no use for it, whatsoever.