Tribute: The Gift of Toni Morrison

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

By Novuyo Tshuma


Halala Ndlovukazi! Halala Regent!

Your words are a Mountain,

They move but they shall not be moved,

Shii!

She who blows magic over the land,

She who huffs and whole worlds scatter,

Shii!

Like a bull She prances in the light,

She stomps and the ground shivers,

Shii!

She stomps and the ground shivers!

Shii! Shii!


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Those of us who grew up on the fringes of the American Empire, destined from birth to peer in from the outside, yearning for things we didn’t understand but that captured us nevertheless, entranced by the might and the devastation of America, are grateful for the gift of Toni Morrison.


It is important to understand the impact of America on the rest of the world, how it is in every middle to upper class household in every corner of the globe; we grew up with it, I grew up with it, on TV and on the radio and in the magazines and in the stores and in our governments and in our economies and in our food and in our fizzy drinks getting fizzier by the year and in our thoughts and in our dreams and in our nightmares.


This was an America that filled the consciousness, an unreal, enchanting Wonderland, without physicality, without shape, only the limitless expanse of the mind in which to play and morph and tantalize and colonize.


Thus, I am grateful for the gift of Toni Morrison and her humanizing powers, her ability to render unreal things real in all their precision and mystery and glory and mundanity and beauty and ugliness and joy and devastation. I read Morrison before I could understand her, through a weathered copy of Song of Solomon I found among the boxes and boxes of books that came with my father’s things after he died. I was eleven. I did not understand Morrison, or any of the other books that came with my father’s things, but I understood the power of words and what they had meant to my father. He had got us into the habit of letter writing ever since I could read and write. That was the way he communicated, and I believed that in some way, by going through his library, by imbibing the words that he, too, had imbibed, I could somehow be closer to him. I like to think my father had this particular book, Song of Solomon, because he was searching for something of himself in Milkman, one of the few Morrison novels in which a male character takes the lead, written in tribute to her own father. That one powerful dedication, “Daddy,” eulogized at the beginning of the novel, always undid me.


Such is the unanticipated splendor of Toni Morrison.


Her humanizing powers, through her works and her words and her worlds, remind us of just what it took, what it has taken, what it continues to take to build the elusive dream that is America, this America that exceeds physical boundaries and becomes a vast, complex conjuring that lives in hearts and minds the world over. In Morrison’s words, we reckon not only with the hurt and pain of the bodies that were prime currency for the American Dream and that continue to pay for it, we also come into a profound knowledge of the love, and joy, and yearning, and pleasures of such bodies—an invitation to luxuriate in our humanity, beholden both to the face enraptured in resplendent daylight and the shadow blotted by the hues of evenfall.


With ruthless tenderness, Morrison’s powers hew the black body, conjuring it as though anew, and in this image I see a generous extension to those bodies that deem themselves white as well—I am thinking, here, of the novel Beloved and Morrison’s wall-eyed rendering of the composite relations between Sethe, Paul D and the slave owner Mr Garner, juxtaposed with the complex cruelty of that other enslaver, Schoolteacher. Here, we glimpse just how the gory fantasies of slavery have warped not just the black body, but the white body as well, and this, more than anything, is what, it seems to me, makes her writing so often unbearable to the Myth of Whiteness.


“Literature has features that make it possible to experience the public without coercion and without submission,” she writes in her essay The Foreigner’s Home. “Literature allows of us—no, demands of us—the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons.” Hers is a literature that, through its visceral, intelligent gaze, strips those who deem themselves superhuman of their inhuman powers and elevates those who have been rendered subhuman to the status of human, a form of awakening that perhaps angers those who are not yet ready or willing to be awakened, who wish to continue residing in the Dream, no matter the cost.


I have felt, when reading her words, a challenge leveled at all of us to not only enjoy but also account, in the ways that each of us from our own little perches can, for the responsibilities that come with being human.


These are the gifts of her courage.


Like a tireless force that seeks to reconfigure not just our respective worlds, but our collective cosmos, Morrison was not only a writer of supreme powers but arguably the greatest champion of black literature and black writers, including African writers like Achebe and Soyinka whose works she helped bring to global attention through anthologies such as Contemporary African Literature, which was one of the first books she edited as the first black female senior editor at Random House. Furthermore, she helped advance the careers of many students and writers, including Angela Davis, Gayl Jones and Toni Bambara, among others. In this way, Toni Morrison, born Chloe Adelina Wofford, was an institution, her oeuvre the finest achievement of black writing in the 20th century.


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Halala Ndlovukazi! Halala Regent!

Your words are a Mountain,

They move but they shall not be moved,

Shii!

She who blows magic over the land,

She who huffs and whole worlds scatter,

Shii!

Like a bull She prances in the light,

She stomps and the ground shivers,

Shii!

She stomps and the ground shivers!

Shii! Shii!

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