When you Google “Great American Writers,” the first six names that return from the search engine are white men. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck and Melville, to be exact. It isn’t until you get to the seventh name that you see a Black writer or a woman, one who many would say is the best writer of our times.
Toni Morrison is arguably the greatest writer to ever put a pen to a sheet of paper, and it will be on us to ensure her legacy places her in the first set of names when we talk about American literature—better yet, the greatest writer we have ever known.
For many of us, learning Toni Morrison was a choice. Growing up, I had no choice but to know who Shakespeare, Chaucer and Ralph Ellison were. They were required readings for me as a kid, as they have been for hundreds of years for students. I don’t know many people who weren’t required to read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or The Great Gatsby or The Glass Menagerie. And when it came to Black books as required reading, when we did get them it was The Three Negro Classics or The Autobiography of Malcolm X—classics in their own right, but not what Toni was providing us.
For many of us, there were no worlds wrapped in Blackness. There were no characters we could relate to or that challenged us to think deeper about who we were. There was no place for us imagine our Blackness absent the white gaze.
So when Toni said, “If there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” she wasn’t just speaking to us. She was telling us a story of the work she did on herself that allowed her to pour into us, with the expectation that we would take her words and use them as the catalyst to write the story. Then use those words to take action to ensure others read and write like she did.
The world of writing has always been a white male-dominated space. The history of America, and the world, has always been a white male-dominated space. Toni flipped that narrative on its head when she entered rooms and decided that her story—our story—was what needed to be centered. There was no desire for her to appease whiteness because it couldn’t compare to her lived experience and that of her ancestors.
Although some had the privilege to be taught Toni in their classrooms, the majority of the Black community never learned of her work through traditional schooling.
During the 1970s Toni’s work in The Bluest Eye was banned in two states for being too “sexually explicit.” Some also banned her book Songs of Solomon in 1977.
What puts Toni in a league of her own isn’t simply just her writing. The orator she was is still enough to consume your entire existence.
There isn’t a time where I’ve ever watched a video of Toni and not been captivated by words—spoken decades ago and still ever relevant today.
In one of the most recent videos shared since her death, she states, “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And white people have very, very serious problem.”
Toni’s challenge to white folks was that it wasn’t on her people to clean up their atrocities, nor was it on her to need to center them in her work. It was just as important, if not more, for her to tell the Black American experience through the lens of a Black woman.
She prided herself on the fact that just as white writers got to focus on their whiteness, she got to focus on our Blackness. And that the questioning of her centering her people was inherently racist, and that wasn’t her problem to fix.
Toni’s impact on literature was a pushback against the centering of whiteness in America. Her characters and stories were Black and centered the Black experience, which in turn is an American experience unlike any other race in this country.
The Black American experience in Toni’s writing is just as important as Huck Finn or Romeo and Juliet, and it will be on us to ensure that her work is required for us all, even if that means teaching it in our homes.
She is the greatest American writer because her work centers an America that many could never understand. An America from the side of the oppressed that finds a way to be the center of the story in a country where the Black body has never been the center of anything more than its value to a white man.
Toni taught us that we are more than enough and deserving of being the center of our Black narrative with no obligation to anyone but our own community.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
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