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A Love Supreme: My Life Experiencing Toni Morrison

Posted about 1 month ago by Rhonda B. Sewell

I was 4 years old when Toni Morrison first published The Bluest Eye. It was the Lorain, Ohio author’s very first novel.

This new work, alongside countless other fiction and non-fiction books by African-American authors, filled the bookshelves of my home.

This then-new book, which I loaned in recent years to a young neighbor nearly 50 years after its publication, made its way on my family’s bookshelves near the tattered book jackets and dog-eared pages of numerous stories chronicling Black voices and experiences.

These narratives and tales, most often examining and exploring the dawning of Black self-actualization, sat in perfect harmony alongside works that would later impact the world, and shape the girl I was becoming, such as Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

The year was 1970. America was still reeling from struggle for social justice for Blacks, women, Chicanos and so many other marginalized groups to gain equal rights under the law. Fast forward to today, and the nation is tragically grappling with similar attempts.

Popular culture during this dawning year of the 1970s was more preoccupied with The Beatles disbanding and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. That is, until the audacity of Toni Morrison releasing an unapologetic novel of immeasurable significance, giving voice to a young black girl named Pecola struggling so much with her beauty, dark skin and the ‘ugliness’ around her that it stirred her desire for blue eyes.

This was a period in my life where bedtime stories and conversations at home were often a delightful case study and intersection between Dr. Seuss and Nikki Giovanni’s poem My House, along with Fun with Dick and Jane and Mari Evan’s poem I Am a Black Woman. The literary treasures of my girlhood were what I know now, as a Mother of young adult twin African-American daughters, to be a preparatory course of what life was then and now for a Black girl – a dance of duality between coping and armor, and strength and beauty.

Little did I then know how profoundly impactful this first Morrison book would be to who I was and how the world viewed me, until later, during my high school years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was now the 1980s, where Morrison, no longer a debut novelist, would resurface as required reading in an English course. Although already familiar with her works due to the vast home library of my childhood, I praise my high school for ignoring the challenging calls to ban The Bluest Eye from schools and libraries for its subject matters of racism, incest, molestation and other lurching realities. The book remains on the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books.

By my undergraduate years at Michigan State University, I was well versed on what I knew then to be one of the most deeply moving writers I had ever experienced. Morrison was clear and unwavering about the unfiltered exposure for her readers of the Black woman’s voice, which had largely been silent and unrecognized in literature. Beloved, which garnered her a 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, rocked me to my core during my junior year in 1987, the book’s debut. Beloved, based on an actual 1850s newspaper article, was set in post-Civil War Ohio. It was about a slave mother named Sethe who attempts to kill her three children to avoid their capture and her return to slavery. She is successful with killing only one child, her older daughter, by slitting the child’s throat with a handsaw.

The literary treasures of my girlhood were what I know now, as a Mother of young adult twin African-American daughters, to be a preparatory course of what life was then and now for a Black girl – a dance of duality between coping and armor, and strength and beauty.

My Father and I read Beloved at the same time, and we often left each other voicemails with brief comments like, “Chapter 16,” and then hang up the phone. We found the subject matter so emotionally unsettling, leaving us and many readers to ask themselves, was the protagonist’s murderous act of one child, and attempted murder of two others, one of freedom or madness? I have chills just thinking about the author’s striking force of the hand.

The book’s epigraph: Romans 9:25, a Biblical scripture referencing the work’s title and Sethe’s murdered daughter: “…I will call them my people, which are not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” (King James version).

As a working adult by the late 1980s, I would have the opportunity to include Toni Morrison in several articles for The Blade newspaper, where I worked as a professional journalist. I recall one of my articles being about Ohio Black Women Writers (Toni Morrison hailing from Lorain; Giovanni from Cleveland; Mari Evans from Toledo; and Rita Dove hailing from Akron. Dove won a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for a collection of poems set in Akron about her maternal grandparents’ lives, titled Thomas and Beulah). While researching for this same article, I learned Ms. Morrison was the first cousin of Toledo former court magistrate Joyce Woods. Their mothers were sisters.

I would also sit in a University of Michigan lecture hall in 1988, just one month after beginning my tenure at the newspaper, struggling to document in my reporter’s notebook Morrison’s esoteric speech, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” A first live encounter with this literary giant, I politely listened to Toni Morrison hover far over the audience’s heads during her talk – espousing words of pure genius that felt like wind brushing on my face. I fell hard. Soon I was re-reading works by her that I previously read in school and consuming everything I had yet to read. Morrison, along with Dove, Giovanni, Sanchez, Walker, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou all became my protective muse and steadfast confirmation that my story would always matter.

It was not until 2009 before I saw Morrison again in person, this time a more up-close encounter, as she keynoted the University of Toledo’s Edward Shapiro Distinguished Lecture Series. Three years into a new job as the Library’s Media Relations Coordinator, I helped to organize a Friends of the Library donation of 40 Morrison books for young girls attending Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls and the now-defunct Polly Fox Academy.

A select group of young students would get to meet Morrison, who was in a wheelchair. As my fellow Soror of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., America’s first Black collegiate sorority founded in 1908, Morrison graciously posed for a photograph with me and other Sorors – an unforgettable and cherished moment. A few years later, I beamed with pride as President Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Morrison in 2012, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Like the shock I felt five years ago when Dr. Maya Angelou would be called home, it was with defiant disbelief that I reacted to a co-worker’s email sharing the heartbreaking news that Morrison had transitioned at age 88, due to a battle with pneumonia.

In response, some of the greatest female voices in history, poets Giovanni and Sanchez, and activist Angela Davis, to our nation’s leaders like President Obama and more, have all given voice to our collective loss and mourning, with comforting statements that Morrison and her work will always be with us.

One of the greatest literary voices in history, and the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, I am honored to bear witness to a lifetime of her writings, along with several interactions in person. My admiration for Morrison was truly what jazz saxophonist John Coltrane embodied in his defining album, A Love Supreme.

Morrison’s bold commitment to tell the stories of the Black experience, especially those of the often-forgotten Black woman’s triumphs and pains, resonates deep within me. In her own words, “I’m writing for Black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me.”

Rest now good and faithful servant.

Cover of The Bluest Eye

View The Bluest Eyein Catalog

By Toni Morrison

Pecola Breedlove, a young 11-year-old black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dreams grow more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity - Publisher.

Cover of Beloved

View Belovedin Catalog

By Toni Morrison

Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe's new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.