And I am all the things I have ever loved: scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in silent water, dream books and number playing. – Toni Morrison
I was the only (dumb) white guy in the class. Maye the only wannabe writer, too. 1999. African American Literature at Elon College. I thought I was cool being the minority. We had to read Jazz by Toni Morrison. From the very first line…Sth, I know that woman…I was transported, and changed. It was, and still is, to this day, unlike any other novel I have ever experienced. It was wholly unique, a novel written like music…a looping chorus of tortured souls, a deepdown, spooky jazz song about people and places I had never thought about before…voices I had never heard and feelings I would never forget.
It was also composed in a way that broke every rule of writing. Jazz is the reason all of my novels have roving, shifting, intertwined POV’s.
Morrison shunned the idea of writing something universal…but in her specificity and focus on the African-American reality, she tapped into the timelessness of the human experience. The human frailty and strength she evoked is universal.
Margalit Fox of The New York Time’s wrote: “Ms. Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”
As I grew older, and I sampled more and more of Morrison’s playlist, I grew to love her even more. I was in awe of her ability to plumb the depths of place and time channeling the hopes and fears of all of the marginalized. Her A Mercy haunted me like the transcribed dream of every sad soul dragged kicking and screaming to the New World.
I loved to hear her talk, her voice like a cool babbling brook gossiping about the world it snaked through, and read her thoughts on the craft. I basked in her wisdom.
If you don’t see the book you want to read out there, go write it. Damn it.
I loved her thoughts on freedom.
Once you’re free, you gotta free somebody else…otherwise what’s the point?
Her thoughts on leadership were no different…set the bar high, and when you get some real power, use it to empower others.
I was lucky enough to see her speak and meet her in person at the Free Library of Philadelphia with my wife in 2015. She was everything I knew she always was.
Toni Morrison is, and always will be, all the things I have ever loved.
She is the Greatest American Novelist, and she has left behind a legacy of words and wisdom we are hardly worthy of. She is the best of us. She is all of us.
I’d like to imagine that a thousand years from now when all musical recordings are lost, the internet is unplugged, and the only clouds are those in the sky…someone might wonder, what was jazz?
The only answer will be her book, whose opening paragraph was sung like this…
Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”
Written by D. H. Schleicher, inspired by the life of Toni Morrison