What Toni Morrison Meant To Black Women Writers, In Their Own Words
The world lost a powerful literary voice earlier this month, when Nobel laureate Toni Morrison passed away at the age of 88. In honor of her memory, Bustle reached out to learn what Toni Morrison meant to Black women writers, including Elizabeth Acevedo, N.K. Jemisin, and others, in their own words.
Toni Morrison, who worked as an editor at Random House before becoming an author, published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, and followed it up with 10 more adult novels, several works of nonfiction, and assorted works of prose. Morrison also published five children's books with her son, Slade Morrison, who died in 2010.
Toni Morrison's contributions to American letters did not go unnoticed in her lifetime. Her third novel, Song of Solomon, won the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award, and her fifth novel, Beloved, took home the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Morrison received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. She most recently received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Award for lifetime achievement in May 2019.
Here is Toni Morrison's impact on women writers, in their own words.
N.K. Jemisin, author of 'How Long 'Til Black Future Month?'
"She gave her best to the world, in spite of the world, and left us all richer; for her this is a homegoing. I learned so much from her. I haven't read all her works — still need to get around to Beloved — but in a time when I wanted to be a writer and kept being told 'black women don't,' there she was doing it. She even gave me ideas for how to wear my hair on TV."
N.K. Jemisin's How Long 'Til Black Future Month? is available now.
Elizabeth Acevedo, author of 'The Poet X'
"Listening to Toni Morrison speak has always blown me away. I watched her documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I am a few weeks ago and it felt so special. To her being celebrated while she was still alive, to be alive while she was doing so much in regards to American letters: both the ones she wrote, and the many authors she ushered to the frontlines as an editor.
"She was so many things. Yes, a brilliant, brilliant writer, but so witty with her turn of phrases, purposeful in her speech, methodical in her gestures, thoughtful in her answers, and a seer, I believe. A curandera. She’s left us so much. And given her affinity for ghosts, I’m not sure she’s left us at all."
Tomi Adeyemi, author of 'Children of Blood and Bone'
"To me, Toni Morrison was the icon who carried our torch. She wrote our truths with elegance and grace at a time when the world still didn't want to acknowledge black beauty and power. I will be eternally grateful for all she did, all she empowered, and all the walls she broke down so other black writers could follow in her footsteps."
Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone is available now.
Rena Barron, author of 'Kingdom of Souls'
"Toni Morrison was a guiding light and moral compass for generations. She touched our hearts, made us cry, and challenged us to face our deepest fears. She taught us to be vulnerable, to be honest, and to speak our truths. She will be missed; she will be celebrated. Her legacy will be a balm for generations to come."
Rena Barron's Kingdom of Souls is out on Sep. 3, and is available for pre-order.
Yvonne Battle-Felton, author of 'Remembered'
"I never had the pleasure of personally meeting Toni Morrison but I feel like I’ve known her my entire life. I was around 18 and feeling, quite dramatically, lost and left behind when I was introduced to her writing. I couldn’t imagine then how I had lived for so long without it. When I needed it, Toni Morrison’s writing introduced me to the idea of loving complex characters. Through rich language, vivid descriptions, and lyrical dialogue, her writing has shown me how to love a person and a character even while recognizing their flaws. The characters, settings, plots, and stories, the very worlds Toni Morrison created, fostered levels of compassion that I needed to develop in order to move forward in my own life. Through her writing I could experience consequence and choice, love and sorrow, hope and horror. I could see how life and circumstances created characters as richly as characters create stories. Decades ago, I found something I didn’t know I needed within the pages of Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby, and Beloved. I found comfort and understanding, belonging and hope. I turn to these stories again in times of conflict, chaos, or care and I find, each and every time, something more that I need, some little gift, an act of kindness that makes me smile, think, imagine, feel, create, cry, and hope.
"Once I had the opportunity to hear Toni Morrison speak in person. She was at the Hay Festival here in the UK and though we were both so very far from home, her voice, her stories, her stature made me feel like home had come to the UK. Through her novels, essays, talks, and interviews, she created spaces where black characters lived, loved, and laughed while going about the real business of existing in worlds that often seemed designed to erase them. Toni Morrison is truly a legend. She will forever inspire me on and off the page."
Yvonne Battle-Felton's Remembered is available now.
Trisha R. Thomas, author of 'Nappily Married'
The Bluest Eye introduced me to your profound voice in my first year of college. I tore through the pages, ever flowing with words feeding my soul with courage. I came away with strength I didn’t know I had. You gave me permission to feel some kind of way about the world around me. The one I’d been politely brought into to accept and stay silent so not to disturb the delicate balance of never being caught angry. Don’t speak up or you will embarrass yourself, seemed to the mantra of the life in the day of a young black woman. Instead, I wrote out loud. I wrote to scream, shout, and be heard one page at a time. I learned how to say what needed to be said in between the lines. Your grace and ability to speak softly with truth inspired and lifted me and will continue to do so for generations of women. I will keep you in my heart and mind always.
Trisha R. Thomas"
Trisha R. Thomas' Nappily Married is out on Nov. 12, and is available for pre-order.
Reniqua Allen, author of 'It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America'
"By the time you read the first three lines of any work of Toni Morrison’s, you understand her mastery of words and the transformative power they have. Most likely you are overwhelmed, captivated, shook, in awe or simply moved by the beauty and truth that they so often reveal. For me that moment came with Tar Baby in college as I read the words, “All narrative begins for me as listening.” As a writer, those words hung true, like so many others and I tried to extrapolate that wisdom as I went through her powerful cannon, with every word I read. Listening. Reading. Learning. Listening. However, today as a black woman writer, it’s not just Ms. Morrison’s skill as a wordsmith that I carry the most with me, but rather the mark she made as a black woman in a world constantly against people that look like her. Her ability to stand tall proudly, to speak the truth so plainly and eloquently, without fear meant volumes. Her desire to speak to black women, write for us, edit our works and let our stories be told in a world that didn’t (doesn’t) want to hear them, told me she was much a writer as a listener. To me, Toni Morrison listened to the stories of black women — of my ancestors, moms, friends, and sisters, and carried them, analyzed them, and let the world in on our narrative, our stories, our humanity that had been so often beaten down. She was everything to me — writer, storyteller, giant, but most importantly to be she was black womanhood, personified. She was love and pain wrapped into one and I saw it in her eyes every time she spoke and every time I read her words. I didn’t know her personally, but I felt like Ms. Morrison knew me. Understood me. And most of all, I felt like she listened to me. She heard us. I simply adore her and everything that she has done. Not only do I wish I could be even a quarter of the writer that she was, but I wish that I could be half the woman that she was, standing tall, bravely, unapologetically, listening and telling the story of our lives."
Reniqua Allen's It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America is available now.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of 'The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers'
"My one personal encounter with Toni Morrison involved no words, but it did involve a baby.
In the mid-1980s a friend asked me to join her on an audition for Dreaming Emmett, the play Morrison wrote about Emmett Till. My friend had an infant son, Jordan, and needed me to hold him while she auditioned. We arrived at the studio, and there was Toni Morrison herself. I hadn’t realized she’d be there, and in her presence, I was unable to speak, as if she would somehow look at me and just know how hungrily I’d devoured her first four novels. (I literally read Tar Baby in one sitting inside Spelman College’s library). My friend handed me the baby and slipped into the audition room; watching his mom leave, little Jordan immediately began to cry and in all my twentysomething inexperience, I panicked. I kept saying, 'Shhh, Shhhh,' and started pacing, trying to console him, but to no avail. Ms. Morrison stepped up to me, and without a word she held out her arms. I handed her the baby. Jordan looked up into her eyes and stopped crying. As she gently rocked him and hummed low, he cooed. He seemed transfixed by her face, couldn’t look away.
That is the feeling I had when I first read Sula.
For years, I had taped to my wall at home and at work, and inside my journal the author’s description of Sula: 'In a way, her strangeness, her naiveté, her craving for the other half of her equation was the consequence of an idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.'
That passage gave me courage as I fumbled through my early attempts at a writing life. But more so it helped me, as did the novel itself, understand my brilliant, beloved big sister who died too young. Morrison gave me a way to process my grief, and to understand the yes, danger of a black woman forced away from her own rich interior life.
Many years after my encounter with Ms. Morrison and little Jordan, I became a mother myself. I was still trying to write, and uncertain how to do that and tend to the overwhelming demands of motherhood. Again, Ms. Morrison’s wise words found me. She’d once told an interviewer that she didn’t close her door to her young boys when she was writing, because they didn’t need a writer, they needed a mother. Oh, how that helped me stay sane during the-up-at-night, baby-crying phase, when my work lay idle. But as my children got older, I clung to another piece of Morrison advice: 'Women owe themselves their whole selves, as much as they owe their children their best selves.'
Later still, I again drew from her insight when she asserted, 'Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure… they are safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.' This time she’d given me words to describe my own mother’s at-home and also out-in-the-world life — and the freedom to avoid trying to defend my mom’s choices to others.
Perhaps that’s the singular way in which we measure an author’s greatness, by how each of us can recall the writer’s words that changed us, that gifted us just what we needed at the moment we needed it, often without our knowing that we needed it.
For black women, it was this: Mother Morrison gave us permission to be.
We put our pain and confusion and fear in her strong arms, and she rocked us, wrapping us in language that saw us and assured us we were loved; and when she handed our lives back to us, we were no longer fidgety and restless and unsure. We were different after that, calmer, more content.
But alert in a new way."
Bridgett M. Davis' The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers is available today.
Imani Perry, author of 'Breathe: A Letter to My Sons'
"Toni Morrison: Midwestern, Catholic, and very Black in the American sense, was stunning of form. And a master of form. When asked, 'what writer do you emulate?' I think all of us think or say her, or if we don't it is because reasoned humility catches our tongues. Striking in the audacity of diversion, writing the worlds of the roads splintered, tattered histories, taken and untaken, memories like cane break, backs scarred and bent, but holding up, held up, by women pastors who ordained themselves. She could write a book like a tree. She told on the women and the men, and the child witnesses too: standing inside and outside, yearning in every direction, the everydayness of God, the infinite wisdom in the every day. She told our stories as they were and as they shall be. A world without end. Amen."
Imani Perry's Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is out on Sep. 17, and is available for pre-order.
Kalisha Buckhanon, author of 'Speaking of Summer'
"She raised me, joined so many. She changed the atmosphere of my planet, like Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Aretha and Billie Holiday. She was a rare transcendent soul in human form without bodily limitations, to get next to me and under my skin, to show me what to do and who to be. She was in a category of grandmother, aunt, preacher woman, deaconess, Big Mama on the block, best friend's mom, teacher, old friend of the family. She marched out of our small town Midwest forgotten places and figured out how to say all we could never say beyond closed doors, intimate whispers and knowing looks. With all those people — their pictures, symbols, and gifts — I totemed her in every space I have ever lived and worked. Her novels hid in plain sight in most of the rooms, her eyes peered from books folded mid-sentence on tables, her portrait centered her interviews I framed, her face became tacked up on cards my friends sent... All at the ready for my every mood and inspiration and starry night and darkest hour. She is called home to write out the sky and speak in thunder now. She rests in our everlasting gratitude, always."
Kalisha Buckhanon's Speaking of Summer is available now.
Renée Watson, author of 'Some Places More Than Others'
"I did not know Toni Morrison, but I knew Toni Morrison. She did not know me, but she knew me. There is such an intimate relationship between storyteller and reader — a soft whisper between the pages: I see you, I know. Always, I felt validated in Toni Morrison’s work. Her unapologetic confidence, her grace, her truth-telling all became a roadmap for me. She gave me permission to write the stories I want to see in the world. Her work taught me that writing for Black girls and women is a high calling. I will forever read her work like scripture, going back to it time and time again, to find courage, to find healing, to find my way."
Renee Watson's Some Places More Than Others is out on Sep. 3, and is available for pre-order.
Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Belles series
"The concept of influence is too small to encapsulate the profound affect Toni Morrison had on me and a generation of black writers. Just like the words thank you are inadequate in truly expressing gratitude for all that she’s done. Neither of those things can hold the universe, and that’s what she gave me, gave us. There would be no words from me; not a novel, not a short story, not an essay without the words she shared with the world. When I read Beloved for the first time, it upset me so deeply and haunted me for months. It took me years of re-reading to unearth why — she was waking me up and disturbing my storytelling marrow, which requires the mingle of awe and discomfort. Her work presents the quilt of black Americanness with worthy and unbreakable threads, welcoming a generation of black writers into the warmth, whispering in their ears that they come from a mighty cloth and never need to distill it for anyone. She taught us to open our eyes, to hold our blocks, and to lift our heads up for our ancestors are here with us always. Thank you for telling the truth. Rest easy, grand lady as we sit in circles of sorrow because there will be no more stories from you. I’ll see you at the crossroads, ready for the next tale."
Dhonielle Clayton's second installment in The Belles series, The Everlasting Rose, is available now.
Anissa Gray, author of 'The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls'
"For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. But that desire became unrelenting drive after I read my first book by Toni Morrison. As a black girl growing up in a white, working-class neighborhood, I had very little exposure to black writers and black history in school. But I did have the good fortune to discover a copy of The Bluest Eye in the local library. This unexpected find would prove revelatory. Here was a black woman writing about black lives in a way that I’d never seen before. Here were those lives—complex and epic—rendered in rich, lyrical language. I would go on to read and love so much of Toni Morrison’s work, from fiction to essays, but her first novel, The Bluest Eye—with its honesty and beauty and tragedy—showed me all that was possible. It was my gateway to the genius of Toni Morrison and an inspiration."
Anissa Gray's The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is available now.
Patrice Caldwell, editor of 'A Phoenix First Must Burn'
"There's a line in my introduction for A Phoenix First Must Burn about how Black women are phoenixes, that we are given lemons and make lemonade. No one embodied that more than Toni Morrison. Her story is incredibly inspiring. As so many have said in the days since her passing, imagine The Bluest Eye — a remarkable — being your debut. Imagine winning The Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to name only a few of the accolades she received in her life. There’s that often quoted phrase from her about writing the book you want to read and that, to a young me, was everything. To have a Black woman saying such things being so unapologetically Black in terms of herself and who she was writing about. She inspired me to move from being a dreamer to a writer, to actually put my words on paper and believe that they could become stories sitting on shelves. Beloved gave me the language with which to start unpacking so much intergenerational trauma to begin having conversations with my family about pains passed down and committing to passing down hope and love instead. Morrison’s spirit has energized me when I have felt like giving up on my own writing on my career on my life more times than once. She told me that I am my best thing and when I saw those words, I believed it. Forever grateful doesn’t even begin to explain the debt I feel I owe her, the dreams she inspired me go after, and the gifts she gave me. Her spirit will always live on."
Patrice Caldwell's anthology A Phoenix First Must Burn is out on March 10, 2010 and is available for pre-order.