My Favorite Author Is Black

1 03 2010

      I always feel really weird saying that I love Toni Morrison. I do, oh my GOD I do, but there’s always that strange feeling when I say it out loud. Because I’m white. And Toni Morrison writes a lot about being black, which is something that I will obviously never grasp. Even though she writes beautifully about being black, I always feel… off telling people how much I identify with her books. I will NEVER know what it’s like to be anything other than a skinny white chick from Buffalo.

      I love her anyway, though.

      To say what I have to say properly, I have to step back a little bit, to my senior year of high school. I was blessed with one of the greatest teachers in the world for my AP English Lit class, and one of the books we read was Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Oh my God. It was a revelation. I read a lot as a child, both male and female authors, but something about Morrison’s voice and style just fit. It was like being spoken to in a language you forgot you knew, but that was more natural than what you’d been hearing. That book clicked for me.

      I wish I could have the gift of reading it again for the first time: the beautiful, secretive hush of the opening line, “Quiet as it’s kept…”; the eye-opening experience of reading about someone else’s first menstruation, because mine was the only one I ever knew about; the raw, shocking sex and violence and their intersections, among many other things. Morrison has what I can only describe as a female voice, the first one I’d ever encountered. I loved how natural it felt for me- the perfect antidote to years of learning about dead white guys turned out to be reading a live black woman.

      First came the love. Then came the weirdness. I remember closing the book and thinking, “Wow, what a stunning exploration of beauty.” Because for me, it was about beauty. Then I turned the book over and read the back cover. Whoever had written the blurb said it was about race and power. So, in my seventeen-year-old mind, I was wrong. I’d read it all wrong. (Now I know that race, beauty, and power are all interconnected. I hadn’t quite put everything together then.) I loved it anyway, but that blurb made me feel like I was usurping it, making it all about me. I felt like I’d been caught taking something I had no right to take.

      I read more anyway, though. Beloved and A Mercy and, only recently, Song of Solomon. It was strange losing the female voice a little bit in the last one, but it got me thinking about Morrison again.  And I realized that just because race is one of the many things in her books (and, it seems to me, one of the most widely acknowledged things) doesn’t mean I can’t love her. There are so many other things in her books, about love and family and independence and being female (though I will say that the heteronormativity and insistence on the gender binary squicks me out a little bit). Morrison excels at writing about women and women’s experiences, even through the eyes of a male protagonist. Not to mention the fact that she is a spectacular wordsmith. How can you not love someone who crafts lines like “To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” Seriously. How can anyone not love that?

      So I’m going to keep reading her as long as she’s writing. Because, regardless of skin color, I am Florens, and I am Denver and Corinthians and Magdalene called Lena and even Hagar and Sethe. But mostly because before any of them, I was Pecola Breedlove.

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