When I began teaching English, I was already a great fan of Toni Morrison. I photocopied her entire first novel, The Bluest Eye, to use for one class and later was able to order classroom sets. A student came up to me after class and asked where he could find her poems. She doesn’t write poetry, I said. I mean that poem you read in class. He was talking about this:
Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door friend who lives above her father’s cafe, sits in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter. She rolls down the window to tell my sister Frieda and me that we can’t come in. We stare at her, wanting her bread, but more than that wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes and smash the pride of ownership that curls her chewing mouth.
The story is of Pecola Breedlove who will be raped by her father and utterly ruined. This is no spoiler. Morrison tells readers this on the very first page. Her concern is not what happens but how. She writes that why is difficult, but this is a novel about love and it is the how of love that she reveals in The Bluest Eye. Pecola’s brutal father destroys her. The narrator Claudia’s loving father protects her. Parents all seem harsh: “Adults do not talk to us—they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them.”
The scene begins in iambic pentameter and ends a couple of pages later—
But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base—everywhere in that house. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes. It coated my chest, along with the salve, and when the flannel came undone in my sleep, the clear, sharp curves of air outlined its presence on my throat. And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.
There is enormous wisdom in these pages. It is not the most popular Morrison novel but one of the shortest. It shows up in standardized test questions and college courses. Many students have written essays about the novel in order to get into college. More have emailed me from college to thank me for introducing them to her work.
I taught Toni Morrison’s first novel for most of twenty-five years and assigned that opening passage every year I taught. It was one of the few disappointments of my MFA program that not a single person recommended her novels or referenced her work in a craft talk. Seriously. Not one.
Perhaps it was judged too high for graduate students to aspire to? In my own teaching, I always aimed above what my students thought they could do. Morrison always aimed high. The only path to excellence is to aim higher than our reach, to point the way to better than what we think we are capable of. Sometimes we surprise ourselves. I think many of my students were astonished at their own accomplishments. I hope they were.
Underestimating our capacity as a nation is equally problematic. When we assume that the United States deserves no better than a bully for a president, when we assume that it is too soon for a black or gay or woman president, we doom ourselves. We deserve better. It is the ideal upon which our country was founded. We deserve to strive and push beyond our comfortable complaisance into greatness. Isn’t greatness what the Founders had in mind?
Those eighteenth century wealthy white men aimed for a nation where people are judged by the content of their character rather than by their birth. Wasn’t that an amazing goal for such entitled folk who had all been raised to accept the divine right of kings? Of course they would not be comfortable in our society today, where a man dismissed as “white trash” can become president. Their ideals far outstripped their capacity for justice.
Our ideals should always frighten us a little. I did my best as a teacher to break down complex tasks into clear and manageable steps. We must continue doing that as a nation. As Toni Morrison did in her novels: push the envelope, they say. Step out into our own idealistic world.
“Toni Morrison, 88, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 1988 Pulitzer for fiction, died on Monday night at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, said in statement, ‘She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more.’ Sonny Mehta, chairman of Knopf, said: ‘Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.’ ”
“One of her most provocative public commentaries came during what she saw as the persecution of President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In a polarizing New Yorker magazine essay, she observed that Clinton, his ‘white skin notwithstanding,’ was ‘our first black President.’
” ‘Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,’ Ms. Morrison wrote in that article, published in 1998, a decade before Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, occupied the White House. ‘After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.’ ”
She thought we would not be ready for an actual black president in her lifetime. Thank goodness she was wrong about that.
And I was wrong about Toni Morrison writing poetry. Here are five.
“In short, this is a full novel — rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness — not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat’s cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students of all ages.”—from Reynolds Price’s review of Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977)