Last in my series “Brushes With Blackness” on how Black lives and Black Culture colored my Whiteness.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to write or what I wanted to write until I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman.
What I mean by how and what is this: Sentences so carefully crafted they grab and bite. Images so sharp and powerful they cleave you to the bone. That lift you up and tear you apart with one clean stoke. Characters that are utterly human and yet larger than life. Story-telling that is a kind of myth-making. Themes that capture the heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching brutality of an oppressed people.
Song of Solomon is the coming of age tale of a Black man in the 1930’s, Macon Dead, III, otherwise know as Milkman, because his mother nursed him until his his legs were dangling toward the floor. It’s about his strange aloof family, a wealthy bitter father and a secretive, passive mother, a bootlegger Aunt born with no novel, a beautiful cousin he lusts after and abandons. It’s about his best friend Guitar who joins other angry young men bent on revenge killings, and his own quest to escape that violence and a dead-end life and learn to fly, as his own great-grandfather, Soloman, is reported to have done. All the way back to Africa.
It’s tale that reminds us about the possibility and need of transcendence, to find something within ourselves that lifts us beyond where we ever thought we could go.
Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, struck me in similar ways. So much so that I taught the book in my freshman literature and composition courses for many years. Reading that book was an experience that I believed my students must not miss out on. “A book like an axe,” as Kafka recommended, “to break the seas frozen inside our souls.”
Beloved tells the story of slavery, its escape, and its aftermath. It’s based on the true story a a woman who would rather kill her own than to see that child return to the horrors they’d just escaped. And it’s the tale of how the horrors of the past, in this case a dead child, can come back to haunt us.
In the end though, it’s about love. About loving others, being loved, and learning to love ourselves, despite all that would argue against it or try to stop us. This is the great theme that runs through all her books.
In one moving scene, Baby Suggs, Holy, a backwoods preacher in a sunlit meadow, offers up to those who come to hear, her great big heart:
Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!
Morrison’s writing is a kind of “diving into darkness on wings of light.” She does not flinch away from the darkness, but at the same time shows us how it’s pierced with light.
She has inspired me as a writer on not only how and what to write, but also why. To write large, and write deep, in language that sears and soars. To write stories that matter, that make a difference, that must be heard. To write in nuanced and meaningful ways about both the beauty and brutality of the human experience. Stories that inspire us to rise above our smaller selves.
You want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. –Toni Morrison