From Detroit to Damascus, tributes have been pouring in for the literary giant born Chloe Ardelia Wofford (and known as Toni Morrison) who died last week, at age 88.
Here’s an homage from Toronto writer Dionne Brand about the first and only Black woman to claim the Nobel Prize in Literature. Published in the Globe and Mail, it reads, in part: “Ms. Morrison refused the demands of Euro American narrative to bring black people into the world as adjacent to whiteness. She made us central to our lives and to life itself.”
And here’s Morrison’s now widely circulated response to a once prominent white American television figure (since turfed) when he asked her how she dealt with racism.
“Let me tell you, that’s the wrong question,” she cooly replied. “Don’t you understand, that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche.”
She continued: ”… I always knew that I had the moral high ground. … My feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”
A lifelong admirer and admittedly challenged reader of Morrison’s exquisite work (every novel since Tar Baby demanded from me multiple readings), I met the esteemed Nobel Laureate once. The encounter happened in San Francisco where I’d been invited to introduce another writer who, afterward, would introduce Morrison to a jam-packed audience.
I arrived backstage where Morrison and the acclaimed British author had just returned from what I gathered had been a lavish meal. Clearly close friends, the women were in a jovial mood. Transfixed, I listened as Morrison began chatting about the precision with which she’d crafted a passage in a recent book. As the writer told it, she’d toiled mightily to capture, for the reader, the exact make and colour (green) of a car she’d imagined for the scene.
Finally satisfied, Morrison said she dispatched the text to her editor who, indeed, praised the beauty of her prose. But there was a problem, she confided to her friend. “He told me that cars had not yet been invented at the time in which I’d set the passage.”
And with that, the Nobel Laureate, thoroughly enchanted with herself, let loose with a burst of laughter that filled the room.
I tried to remember Morrison’s high spirits when I later found myself in need of her help. The backstory: A 1970s era New York Times book critic, offering faint praise for one of Morrison’s early novels, had allowed that the author had talent but chided her for wasting it (emphasis mine) on “the black side of provincial American life.” Instead, the reviewer (white and female) suggested that Morrison focus on the wider (read: Caucasian) world.
The review brought a firestorm of complaints to the newspaper, including a letter from a then emerging writer named Alice Walker. “It is precisely because Ms. Morrison writes so movingly about the inner lives of young black women … in a setting which [the critic] calls ‘provincial’ that she has such an impact on everyone who reads her,” noted the future author of The Color Purple. “She invariably tells us things we did not know or recognize before. … The people of the mainstream just haven’t realized it yet. But then, they are often so late.”
Walker mailed a copy of the letter to Morrison who, in turn, sent her a thank you note; a missive that I was eager, by the late 1990s, to reprint in my book, Alice Walker: A Life.
But there was a problem. While Walker maintained material possession of the note, copyright law dictated that I secure Morrison’s written permission to use its contents. Call me petrified.
After several weeks of agonizing, I summoned the courage to contact the first and (still) only Black woman Nobel Laureate in Literature. By way of an assistant, she asked for a copy of the section (about two pages) in which my rendering of the New York Times review controversy would appear. I jumped to it.
I soon received a short letter in which Morrison granted my request to reprint her note. Although within her right to do so, she didn’t charge me a fee. Today, I hold fast to her graciousness, generosity, and wisdom: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else,” she once said. “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
It’s a principle I practice to the best of my ability. I also revel in my memory of Toni Morrison’s delicious laughter.
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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