Back in February, I was inspired to write a letter to Toni Morrison. It was near her birthday and I had been reading The Source of Self-Regard. She never saw this letter, but in honor of her life, I am compelled to put it out there in the world.
Feb. 18, 2019
Dear Ms. Morrison,
I remember the summer I met you. I was 16 years old, laying on a beach towel, my pale young skin soaking up UV rays and Florida’s scorching heat. Beloved, as a physical item, seemed innocuous. The lightweight paperback fit easily enough in my beach bag, while the blue and pink colors on the cover did not threaten danger as clearly as the red and orange flags flapping above my head, warning of rip tides.
And so, with the resolve and naivete of a high school junior with a summer reading assignment to complete, I waded into your fiction with that infamous opening line: “124 was spiteful.” In that moment, the waves became the pages I turned — odd and even, ebb and flow. Words crashed. The seagulls were silenced as the voices of Sethe and Denver and Paul D arose from between the grains of sand.
Had I known it back then, I would have used the word “woke” to describe my experience reading your words for the first time, but, as it was 1996 and I was just a teen, I described your book as “awesome” to my friends and family. Now, I reflect upon the aptness of that response if only I had meant it in the Biblical sense, as in, “I am full of awe at this novel.” Such is the wisdom that comes with age.
The story of Sethe created structures of understanding in my emerging mental landscape. I imagine us as construction workers: you, pouring words into a bucket, and me, adding gray matter to form the cement; you, unspooling sentences from a measuring tape, and me, marking off the ends of chapters. The two of us installing bay windows to let in limitless light.
At the end of that year, after having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye, I proudly told my teacher, “I love Toni Morrison.” I intended to convey my admiration of your writing, but in the corner of that comment was literal truth.
In college, I enrolled in an entire course dedicated to your writing. We read Jazz, Sula, Tar Baby, and Song of Solomon and two thick spiral notebooks stuffed with literary criticism essays featuring words like “biographical myth” and “feminist archetypal theory.” I wrote an A+ paper entitled “The Great Mother Within Eva,” but it was our class discussions that led me to an even deeper appreciation of the layers of your genius.
It was in this period of life that I decided to become a high school English teacher. Though I made no conscious connection between your writings and my resolve to teach literature to young people, every discussion of your writing was a paver on the professional path that called to me. As I have learned, and as you already know, literary love spreads from teachers to students. It’s like microscopic pollen carried through the classroom air that, if given time and space, will bud and flower into a new reader.
In 2003, I graduated from college and moved hundreds of miles north to teach at a small, rural school outside of Manassas, Virginia. That was also the year I saw you in person. You had just published Love and were promoting the book at readings all over the country, including one in D.C.
The night of the reading was chilly, I remember that. I remember emerging from the Metro station, hands in pockets, walking quickly down the poorly-lit street toward the large, stone church at which the reading was to be held. I slid into a row near the front and sat on the hard, polished wooden pew. Warm conversation flowed around me while soft light glowed on Mary’s marbled arms and her son’s upturned face.
Surely, someone introduced you, but I can’t recall those words or how the event officially began. Rather, the first image seared into my memory is of your back as you ascended to the pulpit. Straight, confident, and precise was your walk. Your hair was styled in the most beautiful salt and pepper ropes that fell about your shoulders and swayed with your gait. They looked like coiled wisdom, like if a person could hold one to her ear, she would hear ancient voices reciting stories, plays, and poetry. When you turned to the audience, aloft, you did so with measured patience, placing your hands on the pulpit with care, as though allowing each movement of your body its due respect.
I sat there and held my breath. When you spoke — oh, how can I describe it? Your voice was deep, aged, and resonated from the high ceilings of that holy space. It lifted the inked words off the page and penned them in airy golden letters so they threaded the audience and drew us together in a net of language that no one wanted to escape. I formed a prayer of gratitude that night, for you, for your words, for the winding road that had led me to that moment.
And that was the last time I saw you, until two months ago. Sixteen years have gone by. I married that boyfriend and we now have two kids. We had spent a day of our winter break in D.C. and our last stop was the National Portrait Gallery to see the portraits of President Obama and Mrs. Obama. The painting of the former first lady is stunning, so I hope you’ll understand why it wasn’t until five minutes after entering the room that I noticed your portrait just a few feet away. I gasped and brought my hands together. “Oh!” I exclaimed, while my seven year old daughter looked at me, confused and trying to figure out who I must have recognized. In just three strides, I stood in your presence once again. Once again, I was struck with awe.
You stand in the middle of the frame, confident and poised. You are wearing a dark gray sweater over a black shirt, stark against the white-ish background. Your left eyebrow is arched and your mouth is set to render your verdict on America’s soul, or perhaps American souls. Your eyes bore into the observer with directness and power as if to say, “Let us see each other clearly, and to hell with these layers of oil.” I marveled at the artist’s talent to capture your essence, those same qualities that I’d observed in the church so many years ago.
This weekend I began reading your latest collection, The Source of Self-Regard. In fact, I was only two essays into the book when I felt compelled to write you this letter. I had finished “Racism and Fascism,” which is perhaps even more relevant now than it was 24 years ago, and as I sat there, in that booth at Panera, I was once again awestruck at your wisdom. I love Toni Morrison, I thought. I should tell her.
So, Ms. Morrison, I love you. Over the course of 22 years your words have awakened me, moved me, and made me a better person.
Thank you for everything.