As a writer when I feel the pull of creativity it is as seductive as the lure of a would-be lover, arms outstretched with whispers in my ear as sweet as honey mixed with molasses. It is enough to keep you up all night and daydreaming throughout the day imagining the next thing to say that will capture the feeling, moment and emotion simplistically. It’s beautiful. Soul-stirring. Inspirational. Like sex that is so good it makes you wanna cook good eggs or make good coffee. But then there are the times, most times, when the words don’t come and their absence lingers like the smell of a former lover, arms long gone, and words long silent. Emptiness where hope was.
Sometimes the words are there but I don’t feel like sitting with them or jotting them down or typing them on a keyboard so I distract myself with mindless television, meticulous housecleaning, or unnecessary errands. Sometimes I read.
Lazy days and late nights in June, hard earned from busy days and long nights for several months straight, led me to a renewed love affair with Toni Morrison. I first read Toni Morrison as a pre-teen. A friend of my mother’s loaned me The Bluest Eye and Beloved and I marveled at the fancy script on the covers but was soon disinterested because I didn’t understand what I was reading. I was too little, at the time, to make sense of the grown up tensions of incest and infanticide.
It took me years to pick The Bluest Eye back up, as much for the image of the blackgirl on the front as anything else. And when I got past the first difficult pages (difficult, I believe, for any teenager to fully comprehend) I read words that made me make sense. The Bluest Eye didn’t cure my depression but it made me feel less strange for my own misguided misperceptions of why I was so unhappy, as if light skin, long hair, and blue eyes would be the end-all-to-be-all of my problems. The book pushed me to see my black as beautiful, to see all black as beautiful.
When I read Sula I was nearly grown and appreciated Sula’s fearlessness, even though I didn’t understand her grown-woman choices. It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I could understand her better, though never fully, and appreciate her, even admire her. When she declares her independence to her grandmother, rejecting traditional expectations of women to marry and make babies, saying “I don’t want to make somebody else, I want to make myself,” everything in me leaped. Those words were powerful.
Jazz is a good read, but it is complicated and jagged, melodic but intentionally scattered like the music, which kept me from getting all the way through it the first or second time. Third time’s a charm and I read through it in one night. Identifying with Dorcas, a motherless daughter seduced by a grown married man or seducing a grown married man (depending on perspective), got caught up trying to feel wanted and important. Her memory haunted his wife’s house like a ghost because the wife could not be young and beautiful again.
My re-acquaintance with these stories and others (Love is on my nightstand) reminded me of how and why Morrison’s brilliant prose has always served as a writing siren and a blackgirl call for me. The characters are black and female, bossy and complicated and real. They laugh, they cry, they lose their minds and put them back together, they fall in love, they resist love, they want to be seen, heard, loved, made love to. They are mothers, other-mothers, wannabe mothers, bad mothers, good mothers, best friends, sister-friends, girl children, married, single, left alone, wanting to be left alone, young, old, promiscuous, chaste, saintly, judgmental, loud, quiet, masculine, feminine, sad, abused, raped, murdered, resurrected, talked about, beautiful and ugly. They love each other fiercely and men conditionally. They dance, philosophize, and complain. They are real—everything at once and nothing in particular. They put me in the mind of so many women I have known and loved and myself.
These characters are enough in their own right… fighting against films that often depict blackness and femaleness as one-dimensional or broken, and spoken out loud words that sometimes forget that there are wonderful stories written down. When black women write blackgirl stories… they are filled with all of the possibilities and dreams and hopes in the world. They also tell the truth and give us a place to see what we look like on paper.
Looking back at the books and their lessons I have compiled a few things I (have) learned from reading Toni Morrison this summer. (NOTE: This is NOT an exhaustive list)…
1. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with resisting conventional labels and expectations. Sula was a revolutionary, a rebel, a pariah. She didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about her. She lived life on her own terms and resisted conformity. She did what she wanted to do and what made her feel good unapologetically. Though she had a problematic view of love and relationships, brought on by how she witnessed it in her family, she was faithful and loyal in her own right. And that was more than enough.
2. Love that is desperate (even when deliberate) is dangerous. Dorcas died in Jazz because of the lust-inspired love of a man who could have been her father (and the disdain of her new, younger lover who was more concerned with the blood stains on his shirt than her bleeding and dying body). This love and need to be loved is sometimes too much. Manic love can never be sustained.
THE BLUEST EYE
3. Internalized self-hatred distorts our views of beauty. Pecola Breedlove saw herself as others did and took on all of the bullshit of the world and put it on herself. I don’t think it was Pecola that was ugly, but rather what she witnessed, experienced, and endured. Society has done such a number on little blackgirls that it feels like all we need to be happy and acceptable is to be entirely different. Not black, not a girl, not poor, not vulnerable. Pecola’s peers knew the truth—that blue eyes and black skin would not make her beautiful, but rather odd. Strange. Pitiful. And pitiful as she was, her fragility and naivete, her young body made mature too soon by a figure that should have protected it, led to a mental breakdown and deep emotional blues. Blackgirls are not unbreakable (or unbeautiful).
These stories offer commentaries about love, friendship, black culture, black girlhood and everyday experiences often hidden behind closed lips and closed doors. Morrison is brave enough to tell unspoken truths and to teach her readers remarkable lessons about living and loving. I cherish the stories she tells and will be re-reading Love this week, and ordering her new book Home when I am finished.
What is on your summer reading list? What is your favorite blackgirl story?