Toni Morrison Was the Greatest American Writer

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I am reminded, five hours now after first learning of Toni Morrison’s death, of my favorite passage on my favorite song from my second favorite album of 1998.

Not strong (Only aggressive), not free (We only licensed)
Not compassionate, only polite (Now who the nicest?)
Not good but well behaved, (chasing after death so we can
Call ourselves brave?)
Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice

It’s been 21 years since I first heard the chorus from Black Star’s “Thieves In The Night.” Twenty since I first considered making that entire passage my first tattoo. (I reconsidered.) And 19 since I read The Bluest Eye and first realized that the concept and construction of that chorus, that song, and that album were snatched directly from her text. After this epiphany, I began recognizing more remnants of her in other songs on other albums—microbursts of precision, lucidity, and heft I’d wrongly attributed to those other artists. It became almost a game. I’d listen to a Black Thought verse or an Erykah Badu interlude and I’d wait for her to appear. And when she did—and she always would—I’d be satisfied with myself for catching it, but too embarrassed that I’d taken so long to see it to revel in that satisfaction.

To “discover” Toni Morrison’s work is to discover oxygen. And it ain’t that you couldn’t breathe before you found her. It’s that you’ve been breathing but just didn’t know what it was exactly that let your lungs work. And then, once that discovery marinates, you begin to see what she gave us and what we borrowed and leased and lifted from her. She gave us, with megaphones and dog whistles, her command of both the language we just speak and the language we just see. She showed us where the lowest frequencies lay—where they tracked, how they were constructed, where they led—and she allowed us to allow her to ferry us through them. She built worlds with semicolons and italics the way birds build fortresses with sticks. And there’s no American creating and consuming art today—no writer, no editor, no actor, no director, no choreographer, no curator, no rapper, no poet, no dancer, no blogger, no sculptor, no painter, no seamstress, no songwriter—who isn’t propped on her shoulders. Katniss Everdeen doesn’t exist the same way if Pecola Breedlove doesn’t first.

But mostly Toni Morrison belonged to black people. And she belonged to us because she loved us and saw us. And because she loved us and saw us, she told the truth. About America. About Americans. About love and about sex and about God and about fear and about our bodies and all the things that can happen to them. About who we really is and how that exists in concert with who we tell ourselves we want to be. About the metastasizing sickness of white supremacy and how it collapses time and begrimes the air we breathe.

That last truth is what’s sticking with me today, perhaps because when I learned of her death this morning, I’d just dropped my three-year-old daughter off at a preschool that sits less than a mile away from The Tree of Life—the synagogue where a white supremacist killed 11 Jewish worshippers last October. The Pittsburgh-area media conversation then mirrored the national conversation today, as America recovers from a weekend where two separate white men in two separate states murdered two separate groups of people. The prevailing sentiment then—that this “isn’t the Pittsburgh we know”—carries through today, as signs incorporating the logo of the Pittsburgh Steelers with the Star of David and the phrase Pittsburgh Is Stronger Than Hate can be found in front yards, on walls of diners, and on bumper stickers. I think I saw one this afternoon.

What Toni Morrison did, and what she directs us to continue to do, is articulate the truth of America’s amniotic fluid. What we’re really swimming in. What we’re really swallowing. What we’re really choking on. And when that sting is burning your eyes, who has any space left for a lie?

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