"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.