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Tuesday, August 6, 2019

RIP Toni Morrison

Like many of you, I am saddened to hear of the passing of the great Toni Morrison. There are many remembrances and profiles being posted. Here is a link to one of my favorite recent profiles of her [2015] from the New York Times Magazine by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.

Obviously, you are all going to put up displays in your libraries of her books to honor her and you really don't need my help to do that. So today, I am just going to post about what Ms. Morrison meant to me, personally.

I am not exaggerating, but I can trace back my career as someone who is paid to write about books to her book The Bluest Eye. I talked about this in greater detail on Episode 13 of the Ladies of the Fright podcast. The discussion of this begins at the 26 minute mark.

In 10th grade American Lit we were assigned this title and had to write an essay. This book affected me deeply. Not only did it give me a window into another world, but it touched me at my core. I can't remember exact details, but I wrote an essay about how the main character would never be okay if she could not learn to love herself. This book was the first time I truly understood how everyone in the world was struggling with something inside of themselves that they all had to work through. It gave 15 year old me the empathy I needed in order to grown into an adult.

But most importantly, I can still, to this day, remember the satisfaction I got from writing this essay, from breaking down the language, metaphors, and characters, from analyzing the technical expertise of Morrison. Looking back, that essay meant a whole lot more than I could have imagined. It was the first time I realized that writing about books was not only something I was good at, but it was also something I also enjoyed doing.

I also did all of this just a handful of miles up Route 206 from where Ms Morrison worked [Princeton University]. That proximity in geography but distance in perspective did not escape me at the time.

And here I am almost 30 years later, still doing the same thing, and asking myself if I would be here without her. I can never know, but I am so grateful to her for all that I am now.

A year later, I read Beloved, which is often cited as one of the best horror novels of the 20th Century. Back then I didn't know horror would also become part of my professional life. It is a story that stays with me to this day; in fact, a few weeks ago I turned in a list with readalikes for my October Library Journal column and Beloved was one of the readalikes I listed [for what you will have to wait and see].

I have paid my respects to Ms Morrison and what she has meant to me and so many others, especially African Americans, by visiting her "Bench on the Side of the Road" at Sullivan's Island in South Carolina. You can read more about this amazing memorial to all of those who gave their life to slavery in this NYT article from when the bench was unveiled in 2008, with Ms Morrison in attendance.

Click here for the original Tweet
These are my personal stories about how Ms. Morrison influenced my life and left her mark. I am not alone, however. She was our greatest living American author. She also unapologetically wrote for an African American audience. She was glad others read her novels and connected with them, but she wrote her book for other black folks first and foremost. She never tried to appeal to white people; she was authentic and true to herself....always. While she also had immense talent as a writer, I would argue that her unwillingness to cater to "the mainstream" is what made her one of the best ever.

If there was only one argument for the power of reading "own voices" books, it is Morrison. [Of course there are thousands.] Many of us talk about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion and how we all need to read books by all types of people. And unfortunately there are those who make excuses as to why they default to books by white people. But Ms Morrison proves EDI values matter.

She was America's voice, our literary giant. She influenced writers of all races, sexes, and nationalities here and around the globe. She may be gone but her words will continue to live on an inspire. And we are all better humans for having read those words. RIP.

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