Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared on The NOLA Chic website. It has been reprinted here with permission.
My heart sank when I read the bold headlines about the death of our beloved Toni Morrison, but I was immediately comforted by the rich, extensive legacy she left for us. She was an extremely prolific writer, an incredible storyteller, creative genius, excellent wordsmith, and a phenomenal black woman who wrote for us.
Without the need to know her personally, Toni Morrison was my mentor, my inspiration, my role model and the voice who gave me the courage to pin my own words to paper regardless to what others thought of it.
Toni Morrison gave me the strength to live without worry about others opinions. Her boldness gave me the freedom to write on my own accord. I followed her voice of wisdom, and I refused to allow the world to drown out my voice.
Writing is a part of my very being; it gives me peace and purpose; without it, I am a loss. I still write with a pen or pencil, they are my closest friends along with a blank sheet of paper. Toni’s writing opened a whole new world for me, a fork in the road where fiction meets nonfiction leaving the reader wonderfully dumbfounded within the words. I find myself escaping in-between the lines of black and white; it’s the only place where I am free to be me and others are only penned in where I see fit. I’m not sure what the literary world will be for the Black Woman without her burning the midnight oils, but we have her written legacy to guide us to stay on the correct path.
Toni Morrison proved that all it takes is dedication, determination, and passion for your craft. I started writing at 12 years old, and at 40, I grew tired and disappointed with myself and people. I thought of all my words, my written prayers to God, all of my would-be novels that my ex-husband burned out of jealousy and it felt as if all of my creativity was burned along with the pages. I had years of gaps in my writing from life’s experiences, and I contemplated giving up on writing, even writing in My Journal. Around that same time, I heard her speaking of her not so early years, and she mentioned that she didn’t get published until Toni was 39 years old and how she wrote in the wee hours of the night; I felt as if she was speaking to me. It was as if the spirits set it up before I had an interest in writing or knew of Toni Morrison and the others whose words found their way into my soul. I needed to hear her speak of her humble beginnings, I needed to know that greatness was within my reach, I needed to see and hear for myself that a black Woman could pull the mask off the beautiful soul who his herself cruel world. Toni Morrison’s words ministered and baptized soul. Sitting in front of the TV listening to her left me feeling of attending an old school Southern Baptist Church Revival. Yes, not only did I feel revived, but the sweet hot breeze of New Orleans air dusted off my journals breathing life into the pages. She spoke with authority, wisdom, and that fierce sisterly love language that some of us could not handle, but her words were the fuel that relit my passion. From that moment, on I was inspired and determined to see where my words would take me. I started writing on Facebook and received a forceful but loving push off the procrastination ledge by the hands of my nieces. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was free-falling without a parachute and I had no choice, but to flap my arms and fly.
I’m thankful that Toni Morrison shared her world, her life, and her creativity with the world. I used to read her novels and essays as if I would be tested at the end of my reading. Countless nights I would get lost in her mysterious world of words, feeling as if I was one of the characters.
My first time reading her works was in the seventh grade; my teacher gifted me with the complex and powerful “The Bluest Eye.” I couldn’t get past the first chapter, and it wasn’t, because of Toni’s writing style, but within those few pages, I felt vulnerable and expose. It took me some years to finally read the book. If you were to turn the pages now, you would find dried up teardrops, and you may possibly feel all the painful emotions I left behind. I was Pecola Breedlove. I was that little black girl with kinky curly hair and beautiful brown eyes who could not see her beauty because I lived in a world where the light-skinned girls with long “good” hair were the beautiful ones…
I used to dream the same dream of Pecola, praying to wake up to a beautiful Dee that the world would love and accept as theirs. Like Pecola, I was voiceless, not for the same horrific reasons, but from being shy and not wanting to bring any attention to myself out of fear of being teased.
Growing up in New Orleans, back in the “Light Skin/Dark Skin” days was crippling and depressing. It was as if all of my worth was based on failing the “Brown Paper Bag Test.” I was judged and mistreated because I had more melanin than the other girls. I was miserable, especially being the darkest with the shortest hair in the family. The world made sure to make sure I had poor self-esteem, and I believed her even though my reflection told me differently. I was a cute girl with light brown eyes, but my peers would tell me my eyes were “jet black” one added that I should wear sunglasses because my black eyes would scare the boys off. And I believed them. It would get worse once we became teenagers.
I was literally afraid to hang out with “light-skinned girls” regardless of relationship because the I was told my stacks (a hairstyle) didn’t stack up to theirs, or my butt and lips were too big. I dreaded going on Canal Street at times, well depending on who I had to go with. The feelings of yesterday are still raw today. I can literally hear the boys on Bourbon Street shouting out catcalls after we walked passed if they didn’t grab our hand first. But it typically went down like this, “Say, girl, what’s your name? Can I walk with you? Bruh, I got the red one, the dark one cute and slim, but that red one, ooh wee?” The boys would typically ask the lighter-skinned girls for their numbers first, and then there was me. But, if by chance, the young man had a taste for chocolate, a certain someone would make sure to remind me of how ugly I was standing next to her. And she would show off like a vain peacock spreading her feathers to take the attention off me.
Let me add that I had cousins who were beautiful inside and out. They would go over and beyond to make me feel just as beautiful. I remember one day we all were getting our hair braided; their hair was long black thick wavy (good hair) and my hair was short, sandy brown and nappy. We were asked how we wanted our hair braided and my oldest cousin who had to be nine years old suggested we all get our hair braided in the same style. I had to be about five years old, but I remember sitting quietly while my hair was being braided and the two “Becky’s with the good hair” shouted, cried, and jerked away as if they were catching a whipping. As watched them act a plum fool, I wished I had hair like theirs, and I promised if I could get hair like that, I wouldn’t behave like them. I would say they were “tender-headed,” but it made no sense to act like that.
When our cornrows were done in the same style, each plait was donned with beads and shells. My now happy cousins shook and spun around till all the braids fell down the middle of their backs. But there was no spinning or seeing my braids twirl in the wind, and I recall feeling sad, but not for long. My older cousin who braided my hair and both of the “Becky’s with the good hair” told me how pretty I looked and made me shake my braids that hung just below my ear along with them. We all played in the mirror and saw three happy, beautiful princesses, no color, no beauty standards, or hair talk.
Later in life, I would tell them how hard it was for me being the darker-skinned one and that I appreciated them for seeing my beauty.
As I look back on those days, and I find myself laughing and crying at my life experiences. I can’t believe I endured so much headache as a child. I can’t imagine why another person would want to scar an innocent, impressive, and vulnerable child. No child should not be subjected to that evil. If I didn’t have the support and encouragement from others, I might have killed myself, because of their poisonous words.
I cry for the little girl and teenager I was for allowing others to blindfold me to my own reflection and silence my voice. They severely damaged my self-esteem and left me scarred for years to come. I didn’t wholeheartedly believe them, but I was forced to accept the hype. I would find out that this would be a generational issue, my mom, who was a poor, dark-skinned little girl, went through far worse. She would tell me stories of teachers and adults calling her ugly, nappy-headed, and worthless when she was very young, because of her skin color. It took her years to heal as well, but we both have wounds that haven’t fully recovered from the verbal and emotional blows of yesterday. Underneath the thick scar tissue lays layers of pain, and all it takes is for a mean spirited person to scrape away the scab…
There are so many of us who identify with several of Toni Morrison’s broken characters…
I can laugh because I can’t believe I cared that those Lil knuckled headed Bourbon Street stragglers picked someone else over me. I can laugh in the face of the light-skinned wanna be bougie bitches, because not only am I beautiful, dark and lovely, but I aged well, because of this dark skin of mines. I’m pretty sure they are eating their words wishing they had more melanin running through their genes.
Yes, The Bluest Eye was the story of the damage done by the unrealistic ideals of “beauty” imposed on a little black girl whose character reflected my life. The novel will make you deal with real life’s issues. It’s heartbreaking and actually hurts to read it. I learned a lot about who I was, who I would ultimately be today, as well as those in my life. I sadly realized that racism exists within our race. And the pain inflicted upon my heart and soul by those who were supposed to love me unconditionally felt worse than being called nigger by a white person.
I would eventually let go of all the shit that held me down and freed myself from their ideals of me by using the works of Toni Morrison as a personal guide.
Toni Morrison was my saving grace. She is now free of all the pains and burdens of this world, and she is flying high with the angels.
And today I may fly low, but hey I’m flying, and soon I’ll be soaring high and leave my written legacy just as she did.
You want to fly; you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. Toni Morrison
For more information on the life of Toni Morrison, please check out the links below.
One of the most prolific voices of a generation died on Monday night. She was 88 years old.