An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women Over Sixty
by Sue Leonard
A friend of mine died in August. Her name was Toni Morrison. She was smart, she was funny, she was wise, and she always had a lot to say. For instance:
“[Racism] is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
“Word-work is sublime… Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”
Toni Morrison did not have time for foolishness.
She once said, “I feel totally curious and in control. And almost … magnificent, when I write.” Magnificent she was. Nikki Giovanni claimed that Toni Morrison is Shakespeare; Cornel West said, she “shattered black invisibility.”
When she won the Nobel prize, my late husband, John Leonard, wrote:
“Out of the gospel of the Middle Passage, the blues of slavery, the jazz of big-city ghetto nights, mother-wit and children’s riddle, she had made radiant world literature.”
Then: ”Leading this procession, descending the marble stairs on the arm of the King of Sweden, was our Nobelette. And there’s never been such majesty.”
Toni was powerful; she had flair; forever beautiful, with her crown of silver locks, her gaze was steady and her grin wicked.
She loved beautiful, frivolous, and expensive shoes.
Let me digress:
John’s mother, Ruth, gave birth to John on February 25, 1939. She was nineteen and all alone – both her husband and her mother were also in the hospital. When she awoke, she saw that her mother-in-law, with whom she was not close, had placed a black vase with a bunch of daffodils beside her bed. When John and I married, Ruth sent me that vase and asked me to remember his birthday with daffodils. Of course I did.
As John was the first critic to take Toni seriously, she often asked him to introduce her at readings and speeches. He was fond of saying that the only time he ever got a standing ovation was when he said, “I give you Toni Morrison” and everybody stood up.
John died on November 5, 2008, a couple of weeks before he was meant to introduce her, once again, on the occasion of a new book. Toni called and asked me to introduce her in his place. Her schedulers nixed the plan, claiming it was not fair to put me in that position so soon after losing my husband. They got someone far more important to do the job.
This summer I vacationed in Wales with my family. On the boardwalk of a small town, my daughter was given a lovely pin with the official flower of Wales – a daffodil. She kept it to give to me. Later that day, as we rested before dinner, Jen came into my room with sad news: My step-daughter Amy just texted that Toni Morrison had died. We talked, we hugged and she gave me the pin. John was there with me in my sadness.
Our family and I mourn John with daffodils. I will mourn my friend Toni by reading her books again, in order. She may have left us, but she did not leave us alone.
Let’s keep reading, together.
Sue Leonard, Editor
For 45 years, Sue Leonard taught every variety of history except American mostly at independent high schools for girls — with a brief stint in a poverty program school for pregnant teens in Bedford Stuyvesant. In the mid-nineties she and her late husband John Leonard were co-editors of the Books and Arts section of the Nation Magazine. Since retiring, Sue has filled up her days with reading, needlework, family, friends and long walks.