I always tell people that I shouldn’t have been an English major at Baylor. Every time I had to sign up for a class that focused on writers in the “Canon,” all I could do was complain and lament over my lack of interest in authors with whom I did not relate. I never connected with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or even William Shakespeare. So, you may ask, why on earth did I stick with the English track? I remained an English major because of the moment I was assigned Beloved by the iconic, trailblazing Toni Morrison and once I read that book, everything changed.
Toni Morrison is one of, if not the most important American author in history. She changed the entire scope of what literature is as the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize (1993 in Literature), Pulitzer Prize winner (Beloved), National Book Critics Circle Award (Song of Solomon), American Book Award winner (Beloved), and the recipient of countless other awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison wrote many novels in her courageous time: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, A Mercy, Home, and Gold Help the Child— each one filled with more wisdom, spectacular language, and narratives that never leave the reader. I fell in love with Beloved, how Sethe’s horrific experience as an enslaved woman would follow her forever and the lengths to which she would go in order to survive the worst events in American history.
Because of Beloved and Toni Morrison, I graduated as an English major whose future work aims to uplift voices of the ignored and oppressed, inspired by what Ms. Morrison did in her time on Earth. She never wrote for me, but rather Black women who were never given a place to share their lives and experiences. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, she said, “I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither…. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” As an editor at Random House, Toni Morrison opened the doors for even more Black women authors, publishing Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis among others– authors who have continued to shape what it means to be Black and woman in America. Toni Morrison forced America to change its perspective on Black authors and who is allowed to write for chosen audiences.
Later on in her life as an educator, Ms. Morrison said, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” Even though she passed away today, marking the end of a truly remarkable life, Toni Morrison will always be with us through her world-changing narratives and interviews. And aren’t we so lucky to have existed in the same time as the greatest author who ever lived?