It took me until now to be able to speak about the passing of Toni Morrison. Not because I didn’t have anything to say. But instead because sometimes it takes that long to put into perspective just what a legend means to you. Every book she authored over her 40 plus year writing career, every interview she gave over that same time, every class she taught, every appearance she made, every accolade she received… all of it, together and separate, made her an icon.
She was a Nobel Prize winner for Literature. A Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction. Hers was a brilliant mind that wrote what she knew. And although her writing was relatable to so many people’s experience, the author of the classic novels The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, Love, Beloved, and A Mercy, in her own words, wrote for Black people. Her words were inspiring. Life changing. They were for us. And we were better for it.
In a piece written for The Root, editor and writer Maiysha Kai put it succinctly when she wrote:
“Morrison was a beacon; especially for black female writers like myself who desperately needed to not only see ourselves within sweeping narratives but to know that the narratives we have to offer are valid ones.”
Mario King, in a piece written in tribute to the late author, called Morrison a mother of literature, because “she was able to raise, nurture and cultivate the next wave of literary offspring through word —leading them down a path of finding their own comfort and identity under the literary sun.
“Morrison’s prose,” he asserts, “is magnificently radiant, fierce and extreme in its way—pushing the boundaries of one’s imagination.”
She was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Honor, given to her in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama. Upon learning of her passing, he referred to the Lorain, Ohio native as a “national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination.”
Indeed, Toni Morrison was so many things to so many people. Even to me, a kid from Queens who always took words literally, reading her words felt like home. Felt like familiar. What always struck me was the way she described what was going on, often using food as an identifier. Using it to authenticate what was happening. Using it as a symbol.
In her novels, fruit pies and other sweet foods have a special significance. In an essay written by Emma Parker for Contemporary Literature in 1998, the significance of apple pie is explained as a “particularly potent symbol for Black women because of its association with stereotypes of femininity—“What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice”—and the history of slavery, with those being the two main products of slave plantations, sugar acts as a signifier of race and gender power structures in her texts.”
In her novel Beloved, Morrison uses biscuits as a story telling device in the first chapter, using the comfort food to place readers in a certain time, making the talk of slavery a bit more… palatable.
Of course her use of food was of note to me, since cuisine has been a focus of mine for years. However, it was also a Morrison quote that nudged me into creating the platform Dawson Eats America. I’d complained for years about Black chefs and their stories not getting their just due. Her words made me act. She said emphatically: “If there’s a book that you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” Currently I’m working on a book that hopefully will have an impact, but I’m also using this podcast space as a platform to elevate those voices that might not otherwise have a say. I’m listening to Mother Toni. Accepting her beautiful, meaningful challenge.
Chloe Anthony “Toni” Morrison, born on February 18, 1931, left this earth on August 5th, exactly two weeks ago. Her literary shadow will long serve as shade and comfort to everyone who has read her work. Who got to meet her. Speak with her. Listen to her. Learn from her. She has been called the greatest American writer. A national treasure. A beacon. The mother of literature. She was all of those things, and for all of that we are grateful. We all feel like President Obama, who put it the best when he ended his remarks about Ms. Morrison by stating: What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.
Rest in peace, Mother Morrison. You did well.