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Morrison gave me, others the gift of connection

 

August 8, 2019 | View PDF



When I heard the news, I was drawn to the bookshelf in the basement.

There it sat, in pristine condition. My autographed copy of “Beloved.”

The book was a gift years ago from a friend who managed to get me autographed copies of two of my three favorite novels (Graham Swift inscribed a copy of “Waterland” and Virginia Woolf, of course, is not available to sign autographs).

Knowing Toni Morrison had died Monday made me want to hold the book in my hands and leaf through its pages.

As I pulled it down, I noticed the other Morrison novels it shares space with on the shelf.

Among the four are “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye.” The books are filled with underlined passages and notations cover the top corners of many pages, which are so yellowed they appear almost orange in color. (I have a similar copy of “Beloved,” with a broken spine and pages marred by comments, that I have loaned to a friend.)

I enjoyed studying both of those books in college, but it was reading “Beloved” in grad school that made me a true Morrison fan.

The novel is not for everyone. I suggested it to my book club a few years back, and it earned mixed reviews.

Reading the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who slit her own infant daughter’s throat to save her from slavery, is difficult.

When that baby returns as an apparition named Beloved, well, it’s hard to know just what to make of it.

Fortunately for Morrison, the novel achieved critical acclaim. It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1988 and received high praise from noted authors like Margaret Atwood.

“Indeed, Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds,” Atwood wrote. “If there were any doubts about her stature as a preeminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ‘Beloved’ will put them to rest.”

For former high school teacher Anna Clark, “The Bluest Eye” was the most moving of Morrison’s books.

She wrote an article in The Daily Beast about the impact the book had on her and her decision, as the only black AP English teacher in her district, to teach the novel to her classes. She was surprised at the response — especially from students who were not African-American.

One student in particular, whom “everyone else had perceived as an upper-middle-class white boy, confided to me that she experienced herself as a girl,” Clark wrote.

“ ‘The Bluest Eye,’ with its focus on the impact of invisibility and need for acceptance, had been meaningful to her on levels I had not understood and Morrison could not have anticipated,” Clark explained.

I can’t identify with Sethe’s experiences as a slave — experiences so horrific that I would choose to take my own daughter’s life to spare her a similar fate.

I can’t identify with the circumstances of many of her characters. But what Morrison is so gifted at is connecting me to the people who populate her novels by allowing me to feel their pain.

Morrison’s stories are about the black experience, to be sure. But they are about so much more.

“In the particular story of Pecola Breedlove, a story written for black people to shine a light on our need to see and love ourselves in a society that does not recognize our humanity, is a story about our universal humanity, our human desire and right to be seen and loved for who we are,” Clark wrote.

By enabling us to feel others’ pain and longing in our own hearts, Morrison has helped us recognize our universal humanity. What a legacy to leave the world.

 
 

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