The shock and awe of Morrison

  • Harlem renaissance: the marquee of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York honours Toni Morrison (Photograph by Mark Lennihan/AP)
  • Cleyvis Natera
  • Toni Morrison as she holds an orchid at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York (File photograph by Kathy Willens/AP)
  • Author Toni Morrison poses with a copy of her book, Beloved, in New York. Morrison, a pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in Beloved, Song of Solomon and other works transformed American letters by dramatising the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race, has died at age 88 (File photograph by David Bookstaver/AP)

I have seen Toni Morrison a handful of times in my life. The most notable was the first time, when I went to hear her read from Paradise while studying abroad in London. It was 1998.

I replayed the speech Iíd been practising as we waited in line. All about how I loved her, and what her books meant to me, and how I hoped one day to be a writer, just like her. A friend and I finally made it to the front of the line, and I opened my mouth with all of my 20-year-oldís confidence. You know what happened next? Of course, you do. Nothing came out.

I closed my mouth, swallowed hard and tried again. Mute. Struck speechless, for the first and only time in my life. I stood staring at her, so regal and kind, already hating myself for this silence. She leant over the table. She wouldnít be rushed by the waiting crowd.

She held on to my hand with both of hers. I remember her warmth, which reminded me of my motherís warmth, and thought how they both resisted the cold of destruction through all the hells they had to live through. I remember Morrisonís slight nod before she squeezed tightly and let go. I remember knowing what the nod meant between us, and walking away, dazed, because I would carry it in my body the rest of my life. My friend pulled on my arm. I saw it, she said.

Years later, I saw Morrison in the courtyard of a church in New York City. It was a few months after 9/11, and the usual people, a fandom made up of students of all ages, and adults of all races, all genders, spiralled around her.

In the crowding, I felt what I wanted from her, what we all want from the most gifted among us: to help us understand, to help soothe the hurt with what only they can see. We feel that same, devastating want now, at the news of her passing. That time I held back, wondering foolishly if she might remember me from London, too scared to get close enough to find out.

I was 15 years old the first time I read The Bluest Eye, and I didnít quite have a grasp of the English language. I lived in Harlem, which was going through a transformation of sorts back in the early 1990s, with thousands of Dominicans spilling down from Washington Heights through Morningside Heights, about to burst it.

Although I had been going to public schools for three years, I was still in bilingual education classes; English didnít stick. Home was dysfunctional, with a stepfather who openly abused my mother, and a legion of adults, neighbours, family members, who were hellbent on acting like short-term amnesiacs around Mamiís bruises and humiliations.

I had fallen into a reading habit out of revenge, my blinding hatred for a Spanish-language teacher who hated me just as much, who wished I would fail her class.

Reading those Spanish books, largely in defiance of someone who wanted to make me feel worthless, stupid, I had a deafening realisation: stories quietened the world around me, sniffed out the stench of the loneliness clinging to my life.

I walked into my local public library down on 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue one cold afternoon. Like many children who walked in there on any given day, I was trying to escape home, find a quiet place where adults would leave me the hell alone.

There, I found an odd couple who did the exact opposite. They were two librarians: a black man, taller than any person I had seen in real life, and a short, plump white woman, who carried with her the pungent scent of tea tree oil.

On that first day, they walked me around the wide floor, showing me different sections I should get to eventually, amassing in their arms an enormous stack of books I should take home, while they debated back and forth which would be the best for me to start on.

It was their lightness with each other I found endearing, a scene I had seen play out between long-married couples on sitcoms, as I tried to learn English through the TV. Finally, they decided and handed me a slim book: The Bluest Eye.

I clung to that book, captivated by its cover, which featured a girl who shared my skin tone. I didnít go to sleep all night, annoying my younger sister by keeping the lights on. At the end, there I was, not sure I knew exactly all that had happened in that story but shocked that the feelings in the book mirrored feelings I had known my entire life.

Just like Pecola, I had often been ridiculed and picked on for being the darkest child. Just like in the world of these characters, the idolisation of whiteness surrounded and isolated me. Who was this woman, this writer?

The next day, I went back and spoke to my new friends. I asked about her in my broken English, and they told me her real name, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, the first part sounding pretty close to mine, and somehow I became immediately convinced this woman had something to do with me.

I asked them to give me all her books. Some I started and finished; some I abandoned because they were too hard, knowing I needed more skill to take the plunge. In college, I became an English major largely because of my love of books, which was also my love of Morrison.

In that academic environment, I revisited all of her works, and had to relearn to read her the way I learnt to make love as a late bloomer, not knowing exactly what I was doing, and embarrassed that I would fake it, rush it, only to be slowed by a skilled, patient hand.

Her work resisted being rushed, and in it, even the parts that chilled me lit up something fierce.

Morrisonís body of work, within a world literary canon that remains as white and male as it has ever been, underscores what we know, but somehow, still refuse to embrace: genius isnít categorically more present in one gender than in another, in one race more than another.

Regardless how lonely she remains in gender, in race, in that canon today, her legacy teaches us that.

Toni Morrison is and will remain an artist ahead of her time, beyond time itself. We often hear the worth of an artist measured in the impact she can make.

Does she create something new with language, with a voice unlike any other? Is she singularly reflective of the cumulative history that brought us to the moment in which she created her art? Yes, she did all of that. And what of the ephemeral other thing? The way she helped this black Dominican girl understand her life and her pain, and see the beauty of asserting her worth, through the force of Morrisonís own talent, her mind, which created an echo in mine?

That force lives in legions of us who arenít amnesiacs, who understand the horrors around us, ahead of us, who will not play dumb or blind, who refuse to be silenced even if our names remain unknown or difficult to pronounce. All of us carry her, will carry her forward, today and always. In resistance, we carry her on.

ē Cleyvis Natera holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction degree from New York University and is working on her first novel, Neruda in the Park