For Toni Morrison, Storytelling Was The Measure Of Life

Aramide Tinubu
Toni Morrison
Photo: Shutterstock.

Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison has passed away. She was 88. Though Morrison is no longer with us, her story and all that she accomplished in her profound life will live on forever. Toni Morrison’s documentary, legacy and quotes present a woman determined to tell her own story. Though many of us were first introduced to the Ohio native in the classroom– Morrison’s story began long before her birth in 1931. She was born into a family who valued literacy above all else.

In the recent film, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am--we learn about a woman who loved literature, language, and Black people so much that she wanted to share it with the world. However, Morrison’s entry into the world of publishing was not a straight path. She did not pen her first novel, The Bluest Eye, until she was nearly 40 years old.

In The Pieces I Am, we learn about the Nobel Prize winner’s background. Though she was born into an impoverished family–her people were proud and brilliant. Morrison learned to read at age three. Because of the tight-leash that her parents had on her, and her desire to explore–she knew that to spread her wings, she needed to leave Ohio behind.

Morrison’s journey to find herself would lead her to Washington, D.C.’s Howard University. As Morrison said in 1987’s Beloved, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” Though she was always an avid reader–Morrison was increasingly aware that Black female voices were virtually non-existent in the literature space.

toni morrison For Toni Morrison, Storytelling Was The Measure Of Life

Image: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

However, instead of putting pen to paper, she began seeking out voices–those like activist Angela Davis and writer, Toni Cade Bambara as an editor at Random House in New York City. Though her work was fulfilling as an editor and as a lecturer at Princeton University– she recognized that she also had a voice that needed to be shared with the world. “Being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more,” she said in a 2003 profile for The New Yorker.

After The Bluest Eye–Morrison would go on to write ten more novels including Song of Solomon, Jazz, and Love. She wrote unapologetically for herself, and her people–often in ebonics. This was something she was criticized for throughout the trajectory of her career. The Pieces I Am examines her personal reflections on her life’s work and the inspiration behind her storytelling.

Her novels were inspired by her family, the death of her father, Black women and her ancestors–among others. The backlash against Morrison’s writings came from those who did not understand the intricacies of Black life. It also came from Black men who were offended by some of Morrison’s depictions of them. And yet, the National Book Award winner never allowed that to deter her. She understood that truth–no matter how you express it, cannot be buried. In her 2004 Wellesley College Commencement address, Morrison said, “Your life is already artful—waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.”

Stuffed to the brim with archival material including her trip to Stockholm in 1993 as the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize–The Pieces I Am examines Morrison’s words and the perseverance and tenacity of Black women in general. As she said in 1977’s Song of Solomon, “If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

She was a storyteller until the very end. Morrison’s last novel- God Help the Child, was published in 2015, but her words will live on through time and space. In her 1993 Nobel Lecture, she said, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”