Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

“My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.

You are always too young to read Morrison. I was eleven. A teacher had grown concerned. From what I can recall of the report, my eyes glazed over in class and I was sinking into my desk, falling inexplicably ill. “Maybe this will make you feel better?” my mother asked. The copy of “The Bluest Eye” that she gave me was distended, graffitied with epiphanies. It had been assigned to her in an E.S.L. class at Kingsborough Community College, burdening her for all time with a misleading impression of the potential of English. Out of a “discredited vocabulary,” as Morrison once termed it, the author coaxed out a superior written tongue—one that, I more than suspect, each black woman writer who has come after her mimics, to varying degrees. My own mimicry was, at first, automatic. That summer, I stayed indoors, truly possessed. I transcribed the whole of “The Bluest Eye,” in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, at least a dozen times. I memorized whole chapters. My finger pads melted. I ingrained the beat of the novel into the movement of my right wrist.

For years, it went on like this: I would become withdrawn, and my mother would hand me “Sula,” then “Jazz,” then “Beloved.” My early readings of the novels were hungry misuses. Her novels were the boundary between herself and her readers, an instrument of intellectual self-protection, but we violated the boundary, almost deliriously. By the time I was reading Morrison, the novel had allegedly lost its status as an influential factor in the making of society. We didn’t know that. Morrison was our celebrity; it was only right that she appear on “Oprah.” We were poor in imagination, trained to think of our histories as sociological math. Morrison invalidated the lie, which taints black minds especially, that our people are either one way or the other. To her, we were naturally literary and epic. I got inebriated on the image of Pecola Breedlove, who “was a long time with the milk,” soused by a community’s predilection for a certain kind of beauty. The ghost in “Beloved,” swelling as she threatened to overcome the spiteful home at 124 Bluestone Road, made us think gothically. I wanted to build a retreat in the woods, like Denver. I thought that I was destined, one day, to become a Sula Peace, leaving home, and returning under the shelter of a great hat, carting havoc just under my breast.

In a foreword to “Sula,” Morrison wrote, “Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men.” It is too seldom acknowledged that the greatest novelist this country has ever produced was a single black mother. She had two sons, one who passed before she did, and how many daughters? We know that it is problematic, or maybe just self-indulgent, to claim her as mother. And yet, if the business of mothering is to broker the link between two generations, then what else can she be? During her childhood conversion to Catholicism, she chose the confirmation name that eventually led to “Toni”: Saint Anthony, the patron of the lost. An old-fashioned loss lives between my mother and me, and we tend to it. Ghosts have visited her, and human dramas have haunted her, and erotic moments have freed her, and for reasons both altruistic and proud she will not express these stories to me. I have my own things she will not know. We are secretive. We talk to each other through intermediaries, and their names are Baby Suggs, Guitar, and Milkman. We talk to each other through Morrison.

  • Doreen St. Félix is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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Source: Toni Morrison and What Our Mothers Couldn’t Say | The New Yorker

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