Arriving Before the Light

Notes and reflections on the life and legacy of Toni Morrison

by Gabriella Etoniru

Illustration by Alana Baer

published September 13, 2019

I walk to work that morning. It’s a Tuesday. Something mellow is playing in my headphones, and my phone vibrates, and Toni Morrison is dead. I think I am shocked, and I think I am overwhelmed, and I think I am simply sad, but I am still walking to work, and the world is barely awake. And part of me feels as though I don’t have a right to these feelings. The truth is prior to her death, I had never read a Toni Morrison book in full. I’ve read significant portions of Beloved and Sula, tracing the journeys of Baby Suggs and Nel and The Deweys. I’ve absorbed the pains of those Black and burdened and beautiful that grace Morrison’s written pages, but I have never left a story complete.

Toni Morrison, to me, had been an idea before she was a writer and before she was a person.  She was an admirable Black woman and, by extension, a perfect role model. And, of course, it is significant that Morrison is Black and female and a writer. Her identity does not make her talent any more surprising. Too often, admiration for someone’s success is misguided shock at their talent because of their identity. The words Black and female and writer were not supposed to follow each other in a sentence. Yet here Morrison was stringing together sentences that had previously been impossible. In Beloved, she titles characters as forms of endearment and remembrance. There is a moment in the novel where “Beloved dropped the folds of her skirt. It spread around her.” I love this moment not only for its simple elegance, but for the way it closes an extended description of scenery. While the line is situated so comfortably within the work, if you allow the quote to stand alone, anyone is allowed to be beloved, allowed to be my beloved. The sentence may not be the best or most powerful of the novel, but it is a testament to Morrison’s ability to construct every sentence deliberately.  Morrison could say, Black women are beautiful and I have a story worthy of being told. Even the most simple of phrases were enough to catch eyes.

When Toni Morrison passed, she, like many celebrities, received post-mortem accolades. Her name seemed to grace every headline and dripped from tongues like the sweetest honey. Excerpts from her most popular books circulated the internet. Interviews did too, including a video of Morrison with a white woman, where the woman asks Morrison when she plans to write about white people. Morrison decidedly responds, “You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you? You could never ask a white author, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’” Of course, Morrison is correct, and I am not surprised this video has circulated so widely. It seems most sensible to highlight her Blackness and her womanhood for the sake of themselves, to talk about her championship for marginalized identities, particularly in a country where acknowledging the existence of Black women is protest in itself. But when I think of Toni Morrison, I don’t think of this famed interview. I think of one she did with Time in 2008 when she’s asked the question we think is all too commonly asked of writers and therefore never asked at all, “How did you discover your passion for writing?” to which Morrison replies, “I thought my deepest passion was reading, and then I realized there was a book I very much wanted to read that really hadn’t been written.”

And here is where I find the most solidarity and solace with Morrison. She read with the same fervor with which she wrote. More than anything, she wanted the story in whatever form it was available. I discovered reading somewhere between the ages of bedtime stories and flashlights under the covers. I opened any book in the house I could reach with my minimal stature, and I fell in love on every tattered, aging, brown page. Eventually, when I was tall enough, The Bluest Eye was within reach. The story of Pecola Breedlove rested on a forgotten shoe rack that held miscellaneous regalia (read: clutter) instead of shoes. My fat fingers were able to grasp that book for a day before my mother noticed what I was holding and took the book away, claiming I was too young to read such a story. And I thought how strange it was that a story, about me, or at least one I felt could be about me, was prohibited from me.  Morrison says about her first work that “nobody had taken a little Black girl seriously in literature before.” But I think she could have ended the sentence after seriously, and the sentiment would have been just as true. What drew me to Morrison and Breedlove long before I knew who either was must have been the scent of camaraderie, the shared sadness, and a desire to be beautiful. My mother’s claim that I was too young to read my own story on the page felt bewildering. And I realize now that my mother did not think I was merely too young, but that the truth was too brutal and too relatable because if nothing else Toni Morrison was always honest. Morrison’s work was always able to poignantly acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy that seems to accompany the need to protect progeny from harm—real or not. Her short story “Sweetness” displays such behavior explicitly. “I wasn’t a bad mother,” the narrator begins. “You have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her. Had to. All because of skin privileges. At first I couldn’t see past all that black to know who she was and just plain love her. But I do.”    

Of the outspoken character Pilate, in Song of Solomon, she says “Sometimes a writer imagines characters who threaten, who are able to take the book over. To prevent that, the writer has to exercise some kind of control. Pilate in Song of Solomon was that kind of character. So I wouldn't let her say too much. [She is still very large.] That's because she is like something we wish existed. She represents some hope in all of us.”  I wonder if there is more connection between Pilate and Morrison than simply a pen and paper and imagination. I think of the ways Morrison threatened and continues to threaten the whiteness of the literary canon, the dominance of white narrative, and the way she was seemingly and wonderfully unable to be controlled. I think about the way Morrison said so much, and could have said even more, but didn’t need to.

And then I think about her representing hope. Sometimes I think talking about passed and past writers and hope is too didactic, too on the nose, and far too overdone. I think this act is especially true when talking about Black people and more so Black women because there is a certain expectation that Black women are meant to be beacons of hope while rarely being allowed to carry it within themselves. But I will talk about hope in relation to Morrison because I cannot understand how else my young self, who did not know of her existence and much less of her name, could have been drawn to her so quickly. I will talk about hope with Morrison because I am unsure of what else to do, because if I cannot draw hope after her death, then I am afraid of what else I will draw. What I seek, I suppose, is the ability to continue to treat Morrison’s work as a living being, even though Morrison is not. I want to memorialize her as a writer, not as her writing. I need to draw hope from her work because I need its promised longevity, to stay relevant in contemporary discourse and recourse as the themes in her writing remain prevalent.

I know I am not alone in this position. Although something deep inside me says Morrison was not afraid of dying and was not concerned with being a beacon of hope even though she was acutely aware of her own positionality, I feel as though for her, death was written into her story much in the same way she wrote trials and tribulations, joys and overjoys into her characters’ lives. I am trying to find a way to pay memoriam to Toni Morrison without turning her into an idea.  I am trying to find a way not to tokenize her or turn her into mere iconography, though she is, simply, an icon.

I like to think that if I asked Morrison the vague, catch-all question of tell me about yourself, she’d say to read her writing, not because she wrote herself into stories, but because her stories contained what was important to her.  There is another Toni Morrison interview I enjoy, conducted by Nellie McKay, in which our beloved author shares, “I am giving myself permission to write books that do not depend on anyone's liking them, because what I want to do is write better.” And I wonder if this is what made me love Toni Morrison so much more, the unabashed ability to be herself, and write for herself. For her, writing was not only an art form, but a continued practice and a means for self-improvement. Her success was a byproduct of this exercise, and for once other Black women and men and children and queer people could see themselves on the page, unfettered and unfiltered. For white people Morrison was almost their permission to purvey the Black world, a gateway for their voyeuristic fantasy. She never wrote for the white audience, but she knew the white gaze was always upon her. I think there was an air of fascination at a Black woman who was successful without acquiescing to the white ego or gaze that entranced so many. Surely then, her writing was worth reading. If her writing was not, well, she was not writing to impress anyone anyway. She was practicing, and in doing so she captivated everyone.

On forming habit, Morrison notes that “writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.” In these words, Morrison seems to consider her own success just as much a product of practice as one of mysticism and chance. Morrison’s routine in and of itself was a means of preparation, years and years of watching and waiting for the right moment, a glimmer of light. I am thinking of the way, too, Morrison arrived before the light, but did not depart once it came. She stayed in it, writing away, basking in its rays, absorbing and reflecting the sun’s radiance. The light was meant to linger on her.

The Bluest Eye was no accident in timing. She was far too practiced and intentional. She waited for the right light, six years after the climax of the Civil Rights movement. People were more ready and willing to listen to nonwhite people speak and write. Audiences were finally ready to take the story of a little Black girl seriously. Toni Morrison was there, just before the light rose over the United States, over readers white, Black and Brown. She rested there in the glory she had so diligently waited for. The exact point of contact Morrison seems to have made with each and every one of her readers is slightly unique—from the little Black girl who dreams of being white, but really just wants to be seen as beautiful, to the old mother who loved her child as much as she hated her child and ended up pushing her away. She relates to her readers without trying to forcefully grab us. And at these points of contact, she allows us to sit in the light with her, if even for just a moment.


GABRIELLA ETONIRU B’20 is caught somewhere between wanting to do everything and wanting to do nothing, so she'll see what happens.